Hounding of the accused

New Delhi: Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) logo at CBI HQ, in New Delhi, Thursday, June 20, 2019. (PTI Photo/Ravi Choudhary)(PTI6_20_2019_000058B)

The most disturbing part of anti-corruption drives happening in India today is that investigating agencies such as Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and Enforcement Directorate (ED), dare going to the extent of wall-scaling and gate-crashing - a disgraceful act - so as to hound the accused as if he were a fugitive. 

Wall-scaling is not the job cut out for these agencies. Exceeding their brief connotes prompting, an old game that cannot have a place in Narendra Modi’s new India if the prime minister and his team are committed to a new vision.

The case in mind is that of P Chidambaram, former Union finance minister. The intent to spite and humiliate the accused with the willing media doing the hype, even when the accused has the right to ‘plead for innocence until proven guilty’, is primitive and disgraceful. The fear-psychosis mocked at the majesty of law and the dignity of the individual.

Did Chidambaram deserve such a treatment? Was he a run-away-risk that warranted CBI’s gate-crashing? Why were these investigating agencies in such a hurry to arrest him all of a sudden even though they were more or less sure two years ago about his alleged culpability and connivance in the INX Media case? 

Was his arrest aimed at diverting the attention of the people from other happenings such as restiveness in Jammu and Kashmir and economic slowdown, or was it to silence him from his critical dissents and articulations against certain moves of the government? 

Can the High Court judge, who took more than seven months to pronounce his order and was to retire in two or three days’ time, go to the extent of branding the accused as ‘the kingpin’ at this stage, a stage when the accused seeks pre-arrest bail? 

Is such a hypercritical frame of mind conducive to an impartial investigation of the case in question? Why was his plea to the judge to decide the merits of his petition by satisfying himself on three conditions, namely ‘absence of flight risk, no risk of evidence tampering, and accused being available for further investigation’, for granting him interim protection until the apex court heard him for regular bail, rejected? 

These happenings make many of us in the country feel terrible, scared and helpless. Our helplessness becomes all the more intense when we are aware of the futility of the voices of opposition parties at this juncture, of the attempts to crush dissent everywhere, of the vendetta politics practised aggressively, of the selective selection of targets -- leaving certain others known to have indulged in corrupt practices because they are with the ruling party or willing to support the ruling party -- for ‘persecution rather than prosecution’ in the name of anti-corruption drive,  and above all, of the judicial system feeling the pressure of the current ruling combine’s diktats. 

This is not to defend Chidambaram. If the windfall gains made by his son Karti vis-a-vis INX Media were ultimately proved to have been gained precisely because his father, as the then finance minister, facilitated these gains, then it would only be fair and just that the accused should pay for his connivance. 

Accountability is the ultimate altar towards which all of us will have to genuflect in a democratic system of governance. In fact, two years ago, when Chidambaram was the speaker at the valedictory of the Mysore Literary Festival, some of us among the invited audience felt that his valedictory address had a few ‘pontificating from the pulpit-ideas’ about India’s poverty and stunted growth at the grassroots. 

Implying how he could blame the present regime for rural distress and underdevelopment when he has been a prominent leader in the ruling dispensation for many years since the mid-1980s, I stood up emphasising how India continues to be buffeted by white-collar crimes and dared asking him why politicians, in general, are fond of ‘the eleventh commandment’, as numbered by Jeffrey Archer, namely ‘loot but thou shall not be caught’.

It was a question put forth to him both in the light of the then-recent launch of his book, Fearless in Opposition: Power and Accountability (2017) and against the backdrop of the allegations and FIRs filed against his son’s commission-gaining association with the INX Media case. 

Though a bit evasive in his response to the question posed, Chidambaram did insist on ‘accountability’ as the ultimate yardstick to measure the stature of politicians and bureaucrats as public servants. 

Today, it seems Chidambaram is ‘caught’ on the count of accountability. This is the impression the Delhi durbar is trying to project for public consumption to gain political mileage.

 
Hope in judiciary

It is time that the rulers of the day understand that Chidambaram’s current predicament can be theirs if closed cases pertaining to their perceived or alleged misdeeds were to be reopened by another government in the future.

Against this awareness, judiciary is our hope. Let us count on its impeccability and impartiality. Despite the tainted democracy we live with, we have a well-informed and efficient apex court that will have the ultimate say, legally speaking, in measuring the accountability of public servants standing accused.

To conclude, will new India, portrayed by Modi, commit itself to promote autonomy of CBI and ED as a prime value? Batting for administrative autonomy of CB, the Chief Justice of India averred recently, ‘CBI performs much better and faster when there is no interference of the government of the day’. 

Autonomy implies adhering to certain standards of judicial scrutiny, fairness, and objectivity, free from political interference. It is the most urgent need of the hour if truth has to triumph and if the majesty of law has to stand high and tall. Hounding will stop if autonomy prevails. 

(The writer is professor of English)

 

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