'Heart' of Coalgate report changed: SC
The CBI action had triggered a major political controversy with Opposition, demanding the sacking of Law Minister and resignation of PM.
New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Wednesday pulled up CBI, PMO and Coal Ministry officials for changing the "heart" of the coal scam probe report and directed the governments to come out with a law before July 10 to insulate the agency "external influence and intrusion".
Even as it came down heavily on these entities, the apex court also made a reference to the Union Law Minister Aswan Kumar's role in vetting the probe report and asked, "does it not subvert the integrity of the investigation if changes are brought in status report on the suggestion of Law Minister and government officers."
However, this apart, there were no strong observations against Kumar, who is battling to retain his position in the Cabinet, with the opposition demanding that he resign for vetting the draft report of the CBI to the Supreme Court.
The Bench wanted to know whether the Law Minister can ask CBI to show details of probe or status report in a case involving people of other ministries and the PMO.
During the three-hour long hearing, the bench was critical of the access given by the CBI to Shatrughna Singh and A K Bhalla, joint secretaries of PMO and the Coal Ministry respectively, to the draft probe reports.
"What business they (JS of PMO and Coal Ministry) have to go to CBI and look the draft status report. What business they have on earth to go to CBI to see draft status report?
"How can CBI permit them to peruse. Whether they took away draft report with them or not. Next day, these people came and suggested changes in para 1.21. PE 2 is the most crucial.
"These two gentlemen visit the CBI office and they were shown the draft reports on March 6. They go back and on March 7, come back and say changes have to be done in two paragraphs," the bench said adding "This is something which is very serious".
The bench, also comprising justices Madan B Lokur and Kurian Joseph, said the agency should stand up to all kinds of "pulls and pressures" and not share its probe report.
"You (CBI) are not applying your mind in such an important and sensitive case. There are pulls and pressures from all quarters. You should have the capability to stand the pulls and pressures.
"Supreme Court has given you strength 15 years ago (Vineet Narain case). You should make yourself solid as the rock but you are like the sand. We want a very professional, very qualitative, very thorough investigation," the court said.
The bench, which accused the political executives and the officials of changing the heart of the probe reports, also said that as a result the "whole direction" of the investigation got changed.
"You could have said it earlier which is said now only. A different impression has come out. This is the position of the premier investigating agency in which we all take pride.
"The CBI should have stood up and denied the invasion, intrusion and incursion. It is a total act of indiscretion. The CBI director said in an unequivocal term that changes were made in para 19 and they were of significant natures.
"The entire direction of investigation has changed. Now the investigation has gone in a particular direction," it said.
The court termed as "sordid saga" the sharing and alterations in draft probe reports and said the CBI has become a "caged parrot" which is speaking in the voice of its political masters.
"...CBI has become a caged parrot. We can't have CBI a caged parrot speaking in master's voice. It is a sordid saga where there are many masters and one parrot," the bench said.
It also took strong note of the transfer of Ravikant Mishra, the then CBI DIG who was in-charge of coalgate probe, to the Intelligence Bureau and asked the Government not only to repatriate him back but also not to disturb the 33-member probe team without its prior approval.
"Immediate steps should be taken by Centre and CBI to repatriate Ravikant Mishra, back with CBI for inquiry, investigation in coal block allocation case. Director CBI shall ensure that 33 officials, including Mishra, are not changed without the permission of this court," the bench said.
The court, at the end of the hearing, passed a slew of directions and asked the CBI and the Centre to file affidavits.
"Henceforth, Director CBI shall ensure that in the investigation of allocation of coal blocks, no access of any nature is provided to any person, authority including ministers, Law Minister or any other central minister, law officers, counsel of CBI, department of Prosecution,CBI or any person or any officer of central government or any person outside the investigating team," the order said.
It also made it clear that no court except the apex court will be given the status report filed so far.
The bench also sought to know from the Government and the CBI as to whether the Law Minister has the power to see the investigation report.
"Minister is answerable to Parliament but the minister cannot intervene in the investigation...After going through the affidavit filed by the director, there are certain questions which require some debate. The question is whether any person/ authority or Law Minister has any power under Rule of Business to share the report," it said.
The admission of CBI Director Ranjit Sinha that agency officials interact with government officials regularly drew the ire of the apex court which said that the job of the agency is to interrogate and not to interact with officials of suspect ministry.
"Does CBI interact or interrogate? Is it some collaborative effort? There is no question of interaction. The question is that you seek some information and the ministry and the department is bound to supply documents. There is no question of interaction but interrogation," the bench said.
Attorney General G E Vahanvati, who has been under fire recently after CBI Director and former ASG Haren Raval belied his assertion that he had not seen the CBI report, on Wednesday tried hard to justify his stand.
"I have been defamed, attacked and a lot of things have been said about me. I have to point out that till September 2012, I was not in the matter. I came only in November and asked for the time to file the affidavit. I had said that I had not seen the draft status report," he said.
Responding to his statement, Justice Lodha said, "You may not have been wrong but at the same time you should have explained everything".
At the very beginning of the hearing, advocate M L Sharma sought prosecution of AG and Raval for the offence of perjury, accusing them of making false statements in judicial proceedings that too before the apex court hearing the sensitive case.
The court, however, told Prashant Bhushan, who raised a similar plea, that this aspect would be taken up later as right now the bench was on the issue of probe in the sensitive case.
Referring to its landmark verdict passed 15 years ago in the Vineet Narain case, the bench said, "This court had laid down that though concerned ministers have been given a power to review the work of CBI and give policy directions and this power to call information about the cases handled by the agency is not to take away its independence.
"None of these powers to minister can be extended to permit the minister to interfere with the course of investigation and prosecution of the case".
Observing that corruption and conspiracy of unknown officials of ministry of coal are subject matter of probe, the bench said, "In this situation, there was no justification at all, firstly, for two officials to peruse draft status report and recommend changes therein. Nor was there any justification for CBI to allow these officers to peruse draft reports and carry out amendments in draft status reports as suggested by them."
The bench cautioned the Centre that it might consider setting up of SIT headed by a retired Supreme Court judge and also consist of a former Police Officer of impeccable integrity if it is not satisfied with the progress in the investigation.
In his affidavit, Sinha had told the court that Law Minister Ashwani Kumar had made certain "significant changes" in the agency's draft probe report on Coalgate, while top law officers and government officials, including those from the PMO, had suggested amendments.
Sinha had detailed at least four changes, two made by the Law Minister and two by joint secretaries of PMO and Coal ministry Shatrughna Singh and A K Bhalla respectively.
During on Wednesday's hearing, the bench said no substantial progress has been made in the coal scam probe after registration of the case.