The Supreme Court says the government has “shaken the entire process” by asking the Central Bureau of Investigation to interfere in the coal scam. The court says “our first exercise will be to liberate the CBI from political interference”.
Many of us will cheer the prospect. But the CBI chief has said, correctly, that the CBI is part of the government, not independent of it. This enables the government to keep misusing the CBI to protect friends and persecute foes. More than court strictures, we need statutory change to overhaul the entire police structure.
Political interference is hardly limited to the coal scam. Governments routinely use the police and prosecutors as pawns in political games Consider the Taj Corridor case against Mayawati The government goes slow when it wants to appease Mayawati, and threatens toughness when she resists manipulation. Much the same can be said of the CBI probe into Mulayam Singh Yadav’s assets. It is no co-incidence that Mayawati and Mulayam, who usually disagree on everything, both agree on keeping alive the Manmohan Singh government (which lost its parliamentary majority when Mamata Bannerjee exited).
All political parties benefit from the misuse of police powers. So, none is keen on reform, though all pay lip service to it. The Supreme Court has tried repeatedly to end political interference in police investigations, but in vain.
In the Jain hawala case back in the 1990s, a CBI raid related to Kashmiri militancy unexpectedly disclosed a diary of the Jain brothers listing payments to politicians across the political spectrum. This was so embarrassing that neither the government nor opposition wanted any police follow-up.
Journalist Vineet Narain then petitioned the Supreme Court, which flayed the government for inactivity and ordered the CBI to investigate. Indeed, the court decreed that in future the CBI should be supervised by the Central Vigilance Commissioner, to help make it politically independent. It also laid down a whole raft of rules to ensure such independence.
If only things were so easy! Investigations and prosecutions in the Jain hawala case were deliberately so feeble that nobody was found guilty. Despite nominal supervision by the CVC, the CBI continued to be under political control.
Meanwhile in 2006 in the Prakash Singh case, the Supreme Court ordered all states to undertake detailed police reforms. These aimed, among other things, to ensure independence of criminal investigations . Here again, the states went through the motions of reform, without changing the reality. Politicians remained in the saddle.
Some will argue that the court has exceeded its jurisdiction in issuing such detailed rules on police structures to the executive. Be that as it may, the detailed rules have failed in practice to change political overlordship or misuse. It seems that as long as the police are part of a state government, it will be difficult to ensure police independence.
I have argued in these columns for two decades that the only truly effective solution will be to create a statutory, independent Police Commission, along the lines of the Election Commission, to supervise crime investigation and prosecution. The Election Commission has proved independent enough to ensure fair elections which were earlier distorted by large-scale booth-capturing and other abuses backed by chief ministers and other politicians. We need an analogous body to investigate crimes, by politicians or anyone else.
The police are responsible for public order as well as crime detection. Public order issues are often political, and must necessarily be under the Home Minister. But there should be nothing political in crime detection or prosecution, and so the agency in charge of this need not – must not – be under control of a Minister.
We need an Independent Central Police Commission in New Delhi, the equivalent of an independent CBI. Ideally we should also have independent State Police Commissions in every state. That will end political interference.The Election Commission’s members are appointed by the government, yet it is truly independent because it has statutory status. Without that protection, it could be subverted. However, politicians are simply not going to voluntarily legislate away their powers by creating independent Police Commissions.
So, we are left with the Supreme Court as the only remedy. Can truly independent institutions be created through Supreme Court directives? Actual experience so far has been discouraging in the Jain hawala and Prakash Singh cases. But maybe persistence will eventually do the trick.
The Supreme Court has recently issued notices to all state governments on non-implementation of police reforms. It is also considering a new plea from Vineet Narain on CBI autonomy. Ideally, it should direct the government to legislate a statutory Police Commission.