Two sensitive appointments

Print edition : January 16, 1999

The Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate get new Directors.

The dismissal of the Chief of the Naval Staff, Admiral Vishnu Bhagwat, overshadowed the almost simultaneous transfers of the chiefs of the two Central investigative agencies. Trinath Mishra, the acting Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), was replaced by R.K. Raghavan, an officer of the Tamil Nadu cadre belonging to the 1963 batch of the Indian Police Service. While Mishra was on the list of three names recommended by the Chief Vigilance Commissioner (CVCr) for the post, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition Government appointed Raghavan, who is the seniormost of the three.

SOURCES in the Government told Frontline that Mishra's exit from the CBI was a foregone conclusion after the agency raided some premises of Reliance Industries Limited. Coming weeks after the agency's action against Romesh Sharma, alleged accomplice of underworld don Dawood Ibrahim (story on page 27), and top Reliance official V. Balasubramaniam, the raids yielded little. However, they caused embarrassment to the Government. Mishra, who is known for his integrity, proved to be much less tractable than the Government would have liked him to be. He was in office for only nine months, and that too as acting Director, but his tenure was notable for the remarkable speed with which two investigations were concluded - the Shivpuri idol theft case in which the stolen antique idols were recovered in just three months and the dropsy death case in which the accused have been charge-sheeted. Mishra has now been posted as Officer on Special Duty in the Cabinet Secretariat.

Raghavan, for whom this is a first-time posting in the CBI, is also known for his integrity and professionalism. He assumes office in an environment in which the agency's functioning will be monitored and superintended by the statutory Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) in investigations relating to cases under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988. With the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act having been amended to drop the controversial 'single directive', the CBI now has the freedom to investigate government officials accused of corruption without having to obtain clearance from their parent departments.

Raghavan, who was Director-General of Police (Vigilance), Tamil Nadu, believes that his ability to get along with people will enable him to fashion a smooth working relationship with the CVC. He has also assured greater transparency in the working of the agency and believes that economic offences should be dealt with firmly.

Outgoing CBI acting Director Trinath Mishra (left) with his successor R.K. Raghavan.-ANU PUSHKARNA

The new CBI leadership's ability to stand up to political pressure is likely to be tested soon. Raghavan will be on much firmer ground than his predecessors because the CVC Act provides security of tenure to the CBI chief. From now on, if the Government wants to remove the CBI Director from the post before the completion of two years, it will have to obtain the approval of the Chief Vigilance Commissioner besides providing sufficient grounds for wanting to do so.

Raghavan believes that there are far more serious problems than political pressures, the lack of trained manpower being one. He believes that officers should be motivated to opt for working in the agency through incentives such as quick promotions. "Political pressure often becomes an alibi for incompetent investigators," Raghavan told Frontline, raising expectations that investigations into many high-profile cases would be completed speedily and the culprits brought to book during his term.

N. Vittal, the CVCr, believes that the CVC Act gives the Commission responsibility without adequate authority. He told Frontline: "While the CVC Act enjoins upon us the obligation to supervise the working of the CBI, it does not give us the powers to issue directions if we find that a case is not being investigated in a manner it ought to be." Vittal also said that the Evidence Act needs to be amended in order to make it less stringent with respect to economic offences. "At present, it is extremely difficult to prove economic offences. The Evidence Act will have to be amended and the Benami Act will have to be activated."

ON December 30, the Government also transferred M.K. Bezboruah, the intrepid chief of the Enforcement Directorate (E.D.). It was during Bezboruah's three-year tenure that the agency came under the glare of public scrutiny. This period was marked by investigations under the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act (FERA) against many high-profile individuals and corporates. The Government's earlier move to transfer Bezboruah to Delhi's Transport Department had invited the wrath of the Supreme Court. When Anil Diwan, the Amicus Curiae (Friend of Court), pointed out that mala fide was manifest in the transfer, the apex court severely rebuked the Government and forced it to reinstate Bezboruah (Frontline, October 9, 1998).

However, if the apex court sought to send out the message that it would not brook meddling with competent and honest investigators, it does not appear to have succeeded. Even as Bezboruah was reinstated in the E.D., Brajesh Mishra, the Prime Minister's Principal Secretary, made a public statement that he would be transferred within three months, a promise that has now been fulfilled.

Although the Government would have the public believe that it only carried out the directions of the apex court in the Jain hawala case when it replaced Bezboruah with an officer of higher rank, the circumstances preceding Bezboruah's transfer have been somewhat dramatic. Bezboruah, who was hamstrung by internal sabotage of major investigations by the Delhi Zone, wrote repeatedly to the Revenue Department recommending the removal of Ashok Aggarwal, the Deputy Director in charge of the Delhi Zone. Over a period of eight months Bezboruah wrote as many as nine letters to the Revenue Secretary - five to N.K. Singh and four to his successor Javed Chowdhury - presenting the reasons for his demand. When there was no response, Bezboruah took up the issue with the Nodal Agency which was set up on the directions of the Supreme Court to pool intelligence and coordinate action against the criminal-bureaucrat-politician nexus. Interestingly, Nodal Agency meetings are not minuted as a matter of policy. Therefore, when no action was taken even after bringing the matter to the attention of the Nodal Agency, Bezboruah wrote three letters to the Home Secretary in his capacity as Chairperson of the Nodal Agency, only to be met with silence. Undaunted, he wrote three letters to the Union Personnel Secretary reiterating his demand for Aggarwal's transfer.

When his letters to all the departments concerned failed to elicit any response, Bezboruah wrote to the CBI in the first week of December 1998 complaining against Aggarwal. A copy of this letter was annexed to the CVC as well. When Vittal examined the evidence furnished by Bezboruah, he found that there was prima facie case for registering a case of extortion against Aggarwal. Accordingly, on December 28, 1998, the CVCr directed the CBI to investigate Aggarwal for his handling of four key cases relating to Chandraswami, Jain TV, Amit Burman and Subhash Barjatiya. The same day Vittal issued written directions to Bezboruah, asking him to divest Aggarwal of all sensitive cases. Accordingly, Bezboruah issued an order on December 29, divesting Aggarwal of sensitive cases, leaving him with the charge of Parliament questions and computerisation in the agency. Bezboruah also set up a Special Investigative Task Force to be headed by K.N. Sinha, Deputy Director, Headquarters, which would take over all sensitive and high-profile investigations in the Delhi Zone.

On December 30, Bezboruah himself was transferred out of the E.D. and put on "compulsory wait". Inderjit Khanna, Additional Secretary in the Department of Economic Affairs, Ministry of Finance, was posted as E.D. in the upgraded post. If this was only a routine transfer being carried out by the Government on the orders of the apex court, it is not clear why the Government could not find a slot for Bezboruah. Sources in the Government say that although Bezboruah's transfer was in the offing for quite some time - the CVCr having cleared the name of his successor for appointment - it was Bezboruah's action against Ashok Aggarwal which precipitated the transfer, leaving the Government no time to find him a suitable slot.

On the same day, Aggarwal, who was unaware that it was on the CVCr's directions that he was divested of key cases, issued an extraordinarily defiant order. He directed officers of the Delhi Zone not to comply with any directions contained in the Director's orders and alleged that the Director had usurped powers vested in the Government under FERA. He described Bezboruah's order as "defamatory, derogatory, arbitrary and illegal". Aggarwal also faxed copies of his letter to newspaper offices.

Meanwhile, Vittal, who had ordered a CBI inquiry against Aggarwal, had also issued directions to the Revenue Department to transfer Aggarwal out of the E.D. and post him in a "non-sensitive" assignment outside Delhi, pending the CBI investigation and the CVC's advice. By releasing his defiant order to the press, Aggarwal appears to have shot himself in the foot, leaving the Government no choice but to transfer him. The Government was also advised by the office of the Attorney-General and the office of the Additional Solicitor-General to remove Ashok Aggarwal from the E.D. Thereupon, Aggarwal was transferred out of the E.D. and put on compulsory wait. He handed over charge on January 7.

The CVC has also written to the Revenue Department asking for copies of Bezboruah's correspondence on Aggarwal since they are likely to throw light on his alleged links.

Curiously, Bezboruah, who went on a week's holiday from December 31, was neither informed of nor served with a transfer order until he left Delhi, although the press and television networks had been informed about the transfer. Inderjit Khanna took charge on January 1 in Bezboruah's absence.

In the four months since his reinstatement in September, Bezboruah completed investigations into two major cases. Media baron Ashok Jain was served a second show-cause notice on the Bank of Rajasthan share transaction on December 16. The E.D. also completed its investigation of the National Fertilizer Limited scam, in which P.V. Prabhakar Rao, son of former Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao, is alleged to be one of the beneficiaries of kickbacks recycled through the hawala route. The agency arrested Prabhakar Rao and remanded him to judicial custody and is now finalising show-cause notices against those accused in the case.

It is significant that Bezboruah, whose reputation for integrity, independence and competence won him the support of the highest court, should be put on compulsory wait. The BJP Government is perhaps trying to send a message to honest investigators discharging their duty fairly and fearlessly - a message that is totally at variance with the one the apex court sought to convey earlier.

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