The CBI vs CBI mess is getting murkier by the day, and Tuesday saw a new stone being thrown into the already muddied pond. The Chief Justice of India asked the petitioners, including "deposed" CBI director Alok Verma, why information regarding the confidential CVC probe was “leaked”, and why serious allegations against senior government functionaries were “splashed all over the media.”
The court also noted that it wanted to maintain the confidentiality of the probe, “to preserve the dignity and respect of the institution” that is the CBI, but the petitioners were violating the court’s efforts.
Worryingly, the CJI has also commented that the SC is “not a platform for anyone to come and express whatever... this is a place for adjudication of legal issues,” and added that “we intend to set this right.”
Speculations abound on what form this “setting right” will take. Does this mean stricter controls on the media?
The hearing on Tuesday has allowed fingers to be pointed at the Supreme court. (Photo: PTI)
Senior lawyer and “respected jurist” Fali S Nariman squarely blamed the leak on “everyone wanting to know this and that,” and questioned the “irresponsible media”. A few minutes later, after actually reading the article in question, and possibly speaking to his clients, Nariman backed down and accepted that there was no “leak” of sealed information, and the report was based on information that was “not sealed”.
The court has also raised a red flag about MK Sinha’s application being “splashed all over the media” a day after the court declined to give an urgent hearing.
Legal reporting usually is based on documents, particularly petitions become “public documents” once they are filed and listed for hearing. Do we as reporters now need to fear that if we publish a petition that has been brought before the court, it may draw the ire of the judiciary? Thousands of petitions get reported in the media but get dismissed from the courts. The only thing that a publication does, is start a public debate by informing the people that such and such issue has been raised.
On one hand, it may be seen as a last-ditch effort by the Supreme Court to plug the leaks and have a hearing on the legal question raised by the various petitions that have been filed. Alok Verma’s plea has raised the spectre of undue interference by the government and violation of the clear laws put in place to preserve and isolate the position of the CBI Director from executive influence.
The legal issue before the court is of whether the CVC decision to send Verma on “extended leave” and appoint "an interim director" reached beyond its power as the Supervisory authority and conscience keeper.
However, as the various pleas and counter-allegations are coming out in the open, the deeper rot in the “system” is being rapidly exposed and is becoming the focal point of political mudslinging and media debate. The court has repeatedly said that it does not want the politics of it all to be bought into legal proceedings, but the hearing on Tuesday has allowed fingers to be pointed at the Supreme court itself.
Will the judiciary be enforcing stricter controls over the media? (Photo: AP)
Social media is rife with people asking why a CJI, who as the senior-most Judge of the Supreme Court, was part of the infamous “Judges Press Conference” earlier this year, would object to the dirty linen of the probe agency being washed in public. If the Judiciary could place its differences before the court of public opinion, then why quibble about the “dignity” of the CBI, which had famously been labelled as a “caged parrot” by a Supreme Court judge for botching important investigations.
On the other side is the issue that “hearsay” allegations are being spread by all sides, instead of concrete evidence that can be taken on record. As observed by Justice SK Kaul on Tuesday, “it is difficult to adjudicate such cases where everyone seems to be snooping on everyone else.”
This comment seems to indicate that the allegations raised in various complaints are based on phone taps and surveillance. According to reports, this surveillance, particularly of senior government officials, may have been illegal and unauthorised.
Where does this leave the much-vaunted right to privacy and our legal holy grail of due process? How much of the alleged “records” are even true? Particularly as there is no documentation being shown to the court, only allegations being raised.
What has come on record is the fact that there is a deep-rooted malaise in the CBI and the bureaucratic system of the country.
The response of Alok Verma to the CVC questionnaire, which was reported in The Wire and drew the anger of the SC, also indicates the kind of walls that are being put up in a system that allows personal opinions and favours to manipulate sensitive investigations.
Verma has claimed that his objections and complaints have been “ignored” by the CVC since officials including the DoPT and PMO have been “favouring” Asthana and brewing “indiscipline” in the investigative agency. Asthana in his plea before the Supreme Court and the High court has claimed that he is being “targeted” for opposing Verma and attempting to expose corruption in the agency.
Who is telling the truth and who is bending the truth is something that only a detailed investigation and trial will reveal. Unfortunately, with fingers being pointed at the top officers of virtually every branch of the government’s investigative and supervisory framework, WHO will conduct this investigation is yet unanswered.
The "caged parrot" is singing at the top of its voice. It's up to us all to make sense of what it is saying.