A flawed inquiry

Print edition : December 19, 2003

The CBI probe into the Dilip Singh Judev scandal gives rise to allegations of lack of professionalism and partisan way of functioning.

in New Delhi

ON November 18, two days after Indian Express carried the expose showing on a video CD Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests Dilip Singh Judev accepting cash from an unknown person in a Delhi hotel, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) registered a Preliminary Enquiry (PE). The CBI took the step following a communication from the Cabinet Secretariat that it would look into all aspects of the allegations involving Judev. A CBI spokesman said the agency would probe whether the video CD was doctored or fabricated, how many persons were shown in it and if the Minister was involved in the `bribery' incident.

As the PE progressed, it became obvious that the premier investigating agency was least interested in finding out whether the Minister - who quit on November 17 following the expose - was guilty. The registration of the PE, rather than a First Information Report (FIR), was itself a disguised attempt to give Judev a respite from immediate arrest and interrogation, which would have followed if he were made an accused in the FIR.

The CBI pretended as though the PE would help to investigate the crime in all its dimensions. However, during the PE itself, the agency resorted to selective leaks to the media regarding the involvement of Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Ajit Jogi's son Amit Jogi. The CBI revealed to the media that it got copies of Amit Jogi's e-mail communications with Reginald Jeremiah, a director of the Raipur-based Akash television channel, in which he had discussed plans to trap Judev. Amit Jogi allegedly told Jeremiah that he was in the process of completing a "Tehelka-like mission", a reference to the sting operation in 2001 by the Internet portal Tehelka.com that captured on camera former Bharatiya Janata Party president Bangaru Laxman accepting cash and the then Samata Party president Jaya Jaitly being offered cash for some fictitious defence transactions. Amit Jogi later claimed that the reference to the Tehelka-like mission was in another context, unrelated to the Judev episode.

Whatever the truth behind these "discoveries" made by the CBI, the question is whether it would aid the investigation into the crime. Congress(I) spokesperson and a senior advocate of the Supreme Court Abhishek Singhvi remarked: "It is a classic case of the CBI trying to ignore the message and shoot at imaginary messengers." By investigating the Jogi angle, the CBI appears to be deliberately ignoring the clear, prima facie circumstantial evidence implicating Judev. Judev, along with his assistant Natwar Rateria, has been caught on tape, which is a legally admissible evidence. Judev has been shown singing praises about the virtues of money. He has not denied that the incident took place. Instead, he has justified the action - in an interview to a television journalist - saying that even Mahatma Gandhi had accepted money from Birla during the freedom struggle.

It is true that both the bribe-giver and the bribe-taker are equally guilty under the law. However, by focussing its investigation on the anonymous `bribe-giver' for carrying out the sting operation against Judev, the CBI seems to be losing direction in its efforts. It is not to suggest that determination of the authenticity of the VCD and the identity of its authors is not relevant to the investigation. But this ought not to have been the priority issues for the agency, given the fact that Judev and his assistant are available for interrogation. Yet, the CBI took no steps to interrogate them and seize whatever primary evidence that was available immediately after the expose.

Kapil Sibal, senior advocate and Congress(I) Member of Parliament, suggested: "Any police officer can presume from this expose (of handing and accepting of money between the unidentified person and Judev) that there is suspicion of the commission of an offence under the Prevention of Corruption Act. The first response of the police officer investigating the case, therefore, ought to have been to contact Judev, and record his statement. Any sensitive police officer would arrest Judev, and start questioning him under Section 7 of the PCA, which deals with public servants taking gratification other than legal remuneration in respect of an official act."

Instead of contacting Judev for interrogation, the CBI assumed from the beginning that someone else implicated him in the crime and that the tape was doctored and created with political motivation. Even though implicating someone - that is, trapping someone accepting a bribe is not an offence - the CBI seems to be more interested in revealing the identity of the persons who organised the sting operation, than in interrogating Judev and seizing the money collected by him as shown on the tape. Lodging an FIR and proceeding with custodial arrest and interrogation are the logical steps the police take when there is suspicion of the commission of a cognisable offence. But the Judev episode seems to be an exception to this basic professional requirement. If the CBI has been on the right track, its request to the newspaper group that first carried the expose to reveal the source of the tape and cooperate with its investigation in the criminal offence would have been legally convincing. "The media cannot claim absolute immunity in the investigation of criminal offences," said Singhvi.

The swiftness with which the Judev expose has been handed over to the CBI by the Central government has surprised observers. In the Tehelka expose, even though the identity of those who organised the sting operation was known, the CBI was not entrusted with the investigation. Instead, a Commission of Inquiry was appointed. The lack of consistency has led to misgivings whether the government intended to use the CBI in the ongoing election process. Rajeev Dhavan, columnist and legal expert, suggested that until the CBI has concrete proof of someone's involvement in a crime, it should desist from disclosing its preliminary inquiry findings. Otherwise, the agency would be entering the domain of politics by littering the public mind with its suspicions during election time, he warned.

Had the CBI pursued the normal process of inquiry on the basis of the prima facie case by lodging an FIR, arresting Judev, issuing search warrants against him and freezing his bank accounts, it would still have had some impact on the elections. But the premier agency could have at least avoided the taint of political bias in its operations.

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