Fence eating the crops

Print edition : December 26, 2014

Ranjit Sinha, whose tenure as CBI Director ended on December 2. On November 20, the Supreme Court ordered his removal from the investigation into the 2G spectrum allocations. Photo: RAJEEV BHATT

The CBI Director’s exit from the 2G spectrum allocation scam probe raises questions about the agency’s autonomy.

THE ignominious ouster of the Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) from the ongoing probe into the allocation of 2G telecom spectrum has raised serious questions once again about the autonomy and independence of the investigating agency and its ability to take on the high and the mighty.

In a move that has cast a shadow on the office of the Director of a premier investigating agency, the Supreme Court on November 20 ordered that the CBI chief Ranjit Sinha be removed from the investigations because it found credibility in the charges prima facie that he had tried to influence the accused.

A Bench comprising Chief Justice H.L. Dattu and Justices Madan B. Lokur and A.K. Sikri said: “We direct the CBI Director not to interfere in the 2G-scam investigation or prosecution. He will recuse himself from the case. The investigation team constituted in the CBI to probe this case will take over the handling of the case in place of Ranjit Sinha.” The Bench further observed: “To protect the fair name of the CBI and to protect the reputation of the CBI Director, we are not giving elaborate reasons. Suffice it for us to observe that information furnished by the applicant [Centre for Public Interest Litigation, an NGO] appears to be prima facie credible. So, it needs to be accepted. We reiterate that we are not giving elaborate reasons as the CBI has its own reputation and we don’t intend to tarnish it.”

The apex court has been monitoring the CBI’s investigation into the 2G case. Senior Advocate and Aam Aadmi Party leader Prashant Bhushan alleged that Ranjit Sinha had abused his position to influence the investigation into the roles of several of the accused. He also alleged that the CBI chief had attempted to oust Santosh Rastogi, Deputy Inspector General, CBI, when he opposed efforts to sabotage the investigation. Bhushan had produced the diary of Ranjit Sinha’s engagements at his residence, alleging that he met several of the accused in the 2G scam.

The SPP’s arguments

The clinching factor was a report produced by the Supreme Court-appointed Special Public Prosecutor and senior advocate Anand Grover, which came down heavily on the CBI Director’s conduct in the case and upheld the credibility of the petitioner’s allegations.

On November 20, Anand Grover told the court that Ranjit Sinha had tried to shield some of the accused. His revelations purportedly proved an attempt by the Director to undermine independent investigations and give in to corporate interests. Grover, however, has declined requests for an interview on the subject.

According to Grover’s arguments in court, the CBI chief tried to influence the investigations in three significant ways. He had tried to jeopardise the investigation into the role of Reliance Telecom officials who are currently undergoing an advanced stage of trial. In April 2011, the CBI filed a charge sheet against Reliance and its three top executives, who, it said, had created a company called Swan Telecom Ltd through a maze of shell companies and used it to apply for a telecom licence. Reliance, being already a licence holder, was not eligible to apply under the Unified Access Service Licence (UASL) guidelines. This company was then allegedly favoured by the then Telecom Minister, A. Raja, for telecom licence and 2G spectrum.

The accused had filed individual petitions seeking the quashing of the cases against them in the Supreme Court. A single consolidated counter-affidavit was then filed by the CBI in response to these petitions on March 4 this year, while the then Special Public Prosecutor U.U. Lalit was handling the case. Lalit, as the Special Public Prosecutor, was given the authority to conduct the prosecution in the special court and in all matters arising therefrom in the High Court and the Supreme Court.

Ranjit Sinha then took a decision to “reconsider” the consolidated counter-affidavit filed by the CBI. The draft application was communicated to the CBI through an application in April 2014. When this was brought to the notice of Lalit, he informed the Director that there was no need to file a separate affidavit. He added that if separate affidavits were filed, they must be consistent with the stand taken by the CBI earlier. The Director then drafted an affidavit in which he added paragraphs taking a stand completely contradictory to the CBI’s earlier stand. Also, he wanted to file the affidavit in the Supreme Court during the summer vacation when Lalit and his team were absent. The position he adopted would have helped the accused.

Grover told the court that Ranjit Sinha tried to insert paragraphs in the agency’s affidavits that would echo the position of the accused officials and completely demolish the CBI’s case. Clause 8 of the UASL guidelines, operative at the time when Reliance applied for a licence, clearly states that no single company shall have substantial equity holding in more than one licensed company in the same service for access service at the time of applying for a UASL licence, either directly or through its associate. The accused, however, argued in their affidavit that they did not have to comply with the conditions of eligibility at the time of application but could meet the same at the time of the issuance of the letter of intent. The affidavits filed by the CBI Director stated that since Swan Telecom was sold off by Reliance after the date of application and before the licence was granted, Swan was eligible for the licence.

Grover also informed the court about the CBI chief’s interference in the investigation through the transfer of officials engaged in it, in violation of an earlier Supreme Court order. DIG Santosh Rastogi had strongly objected to the Director’s moves. Rastogi also stated that he did not agree with the line of investigation and should be allowed to recuse himself. He was then transferred out of the 2G case. An apex court order in March 2011 had categorically stated that no one should interfere with the functioning of the CBI team and the Enforcement Directorate (E.D.) in investigations relating to the 2G scam.

Grover informed the court that Ranjit Sinha had referred to the Attorney General a fresh plea filed by Loop Telecom for settling a criminal case against it for cheating and criminal conspiracy through the Lok Adalat, though a similar plea was earlier rejected (on December 12 last year) by a trial court.

Senior advocate Vikas Singh, representing Ranjit Sinha, said: “In Reliance [connected to the 2G scam], Maran (Aircel-Maxis) and transfer of Rastogi, the view the Director had taken is a possible view. He is the head of the CBI and he has a right to take the final view. There is no indication in the file notings that the Director had tried anything unusual in the cases. The file notings are misconstrued and presented to the court [by the Special Public prosecutor] with a twist to put the director in the dock.”

FIR against CBI director

On November 25, Prashant Bhushan filed a complaint with the anti-corruption branch of the Delhi government, asking it to file an FIR against Ranjit Sinha for alleged criminal misconduct and abuse of office. The 14-page complaint outlines in detail the charges of abuse of authority by Ranjit Sinha in the 2G scam and the coal allocation scam.

Apart from reiterating the charges made against him in court, the complaint also alleges that the CBI chief repeatedly tried to delay the case against former Telecom Minister Dayanidhi Maran. The CBI had developed a case against Maran for favouring Aircel after it was bought over by Maxis by granting several licences that had been refused earlier. The investigating agency had found a money trail in which about Rs.650 crore was invested by Maxis to buy shares at a hugely inflated price in a new company called Sun Direct TV owned by Maran’s brother.

The FIR alleges that Ranjit Sinha, along with a few other senior officers at the level of joint directors, repeatedly overruled investigation officers and forced them not to register FIRs in cases where preliminary inquiries had been registered in the coal allocation scam. The complaint also alleges that the meat exporter Moin Qureshi, who is under income tax investigations for hawala dealings, met the CBI director at his residence about 90 times in the last 15 months, according to the register at the CBI chief’s residence.