South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Published in the Economic Times – India Times on Sep. 10 ::

CBI director Ranjit Sinha has been making the wrong kind of news since the Supreme Court called the agency a Caged Parrot. The latest bit is, of course, a long list being leaked to the media, of visitors to the CBI director’s home who also happen to be under investigation by the CBI. The Supreme Court is seized of the propriety of these meetings. No one seems to be asking how these names got leaked to the media and what it means for how our police agencies are run.

The Supreme Court has said it might reverse some of the decisions taken by Ranjit Sinha in his investigation of scams. It has also asked him to file two affidavits, one explaining why he should not be removed from the telecom case and the other explaining why action should not be taken against him for playing host to those under criminal investigation by his agency.

This reflects poorly on the personal integrity of the CBI director, as things stand. Of course, in the current political discourse where quaint Sanskrit aphorisms of all sorts have magical authority, all that Sinha might need to do to explain his conduct is to recite “Atithi devo bhava”.

In normal circumstances, the government of the day would have either sacked him or shifted him to less demanding jobs like inspecting the drains at police lines. But since the Supreme Court is monitoring the case he is investigating, he floats in a bubble of autonomy, insulated from the government. Well, almost. Can anyone rule out the possibility that it was another arm of the government, say, the Intelligence Bureau (IB), that procured the log of Sinha’s visitors and leaked its contents in instalments to mounting drama? The IB, too, is a part of the government.

Flying Too High

The IB has an axe to grind with the present CBI director. The CBI prosecuted one of its own, Rajendra Kumar, in the Ishrat Jahan fake encounter case, one of the several fake encounter cases in Gujarat under Narendra Modi and Amit Shah’s watch.

But of course, this is only speculation. But the speculation is relevant to a discussion on the quality of the supervision we have over the country’s police agencies.

The normal cry of the reformers is to make agencies like the CBI autonomous, insulated from the government. Ranjit Sinha’s extra-warm hospitality serves to bring out the danger of putting any policing arm outside the supervisory control of the government. Only the Supreme Court can take action against him. And the court would have had no reason to suspect anything is amiss but for the leak of the visitors’ log.

The leak of the visitors’ log at the CBI director’s residence shows cloak-and-dagger work of a professional variety. If another arm of the government is involved, it leaves the people, the supposed sovereign in India, completely at a loss to understand who precisely calls the shots and who holds whom to account.

The court is best placed to reach a conclusion on Ranjit Sinha’s integrity. But, clearly, there is need for serious debate on the institutional mechanism to supervise and hold to account the country’s policing and intelligence agencies.

The Supreme Court is ill-qualified to supervise executive arms of the government. It can, of course, put their conduct to the test on an episodic basis but not run them. That, only the elected government can.

If only the government were to supervise it, there is the danger of the government misusing its power. To check this, Parliament should have an institutional role in holding these agencies to account.

Neither Gilded Cage…

We need standing committees of Parliament that specialise in law and order maintenance, criminal investigation and intelligence gathering. The heads of police/intelligence agencies should regularly testify before such committees of Parliament that have members from both the ruling party and the Opposition.

But even this is not enough. Human rights are a major area of concern with police/intelligence agencies that were moulded under the colonial government to subjugate, control and manipulate a subject population and still carry much of that institutional DNA.

…Nor Bawdy Song

Custodial torture is routine. Some of those tortured end up dead. In tribal villages, Maoists and ordinary people look just the same through the sights of a police weapon. Then, of course, we have staged encounters.

True, committees of Parliament would deal with, among other things, how police/intelligence agencies deal with human rights. However, it is desirable that an agency with a special focus on human rights should also hold the state’s arms of coercion to account. The police/intelligence agencies should have a line of accountability to the National Human Rights Commission as well.

Such multiple lines of accountability would, instead of shackling these agencies, give them functional autonomy minus its abuse.

Of course, we also need to foster professionalism in policing, and reform and expand the judiciary to expedite prosecution and adjudication.