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Neither caged parrot, nor unruly horse

The new law must define CBI ‘autonomy’ and government ‘superintendence’

Exasperated with the “sordid saga” of the handling of the CBI’s coal scam status report by all concerned, the Supreme Court asked the Central government to frame a law that would ensure the CBI enjoyed functional independence. The government accepted the need and appointed a group of ministers to frame such a law.

Luckily for the government, the apex court prescribed two basic principles that should govern the formulation of such a law. The CBI should become neither a “caged parrot”, nor an “unruly horse”.

The “caged parrot” part of the apex court’s observations received much wider publicity than the “unruly horse” portion. This is unfortunate, as these ideas are closely linked. Indeed, they flow from each other. The CBI, like any other police agency, enjoys enormous power, which must be controlled to prevent misuse. But then, controlling the agency itself becomes a source of power that can be misused to serve partisan interests. The new law for the CBI must, therefore, respect and balance these two ideas.

The present law vests the superintendence of the CBI in the Central government, though a part of the control has also been transferred to the CVC. However, the word “superintendence” has not been defined in any law, making it easier for the government to misuse the organisation to serve partisan interests.

The court tried to interpret the word “superintendence” in the Hawala judgment. According to the judgment, superintendence over the functioning of the department “would not include within it the control of the initiation and actual process of investigation”. The judgment did not succeed in insulating the CBI from the illegitimate control of the Central government. The statutory laws governing the CBI remained silent on what the term meant, and no mechanism was put in place to ensure there was a shield between the CBI’s functioning and political expediency.

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