This interview first appeared on Firstpost on 3rd Aug 2018. The book Corruption CBI and I, co-authored by Shantonu Sen and Sanjukta Basu published by Paranjoy Guha Thakurta was released in March 2020. I worked with Mr. Sen for over a year hearing about his life’s memoirs, his views on CBI, corruption and India’s politics, researched upon the history of CBI for the book. This interview was done on those early days of knowing him.

The Supreme Court on Monday, pulled up Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) Chief Alok Varma for failing to make arrests in the case of alleged extra judicial killings by security forces in Manipur. This is a shameful indictment against the CBI Chief. It gets worse when the media headlines run Supreme court pulled up CBI Chief “yet again.

The same CBI Chief also hit the headlines last week in a never before witnessed turf war between CBI no.1 and no.2. Indian Express reported that in a letter to the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), the CBI said that Special Director RK Asthana doesn’t have the mandate to represent Chief Alok Varma, and that Asthana himself is “under scanner” in several cases. As a lay person, this seems quite bizarre, if Asthana is “under scanner”, how can he still be holding office?

From being called a “caged parrot” by the Supreme Court to the frequent reprimands for procedural delays and incompetency the CBI has mostly been in news for all the wrong reasons. Public perception about one of India’s premier investigating agency is consistently falling. What really is wrong with the institution? I spoke to Ex-CBI Joint Director Sh Shantonu Sen to understand what ails the CBI. Shantonu Sen belongs to the first batch of directly recruited CBI officers. He joined the CBI in 1993 and retired in 1996 as Joint Director of CBI. He regularly writes opinion pieces for media on issues of corruption, crime and investigation. He has authored an autobiography, CBI Insider Speak: Birlas to Shiela Dixshit.

Excerpts from the interview:

SB: New charge sheet is filed against P Chidambaram and other officers in the Aircel Maxis case by CBI. You expressed grave concern about the impact this would have on the bureaucracy. Why do you feel so strongly against it?

SS: The charge sheet by CBI against Chidambaram is flawed on many aspects. It is bad in law as it has been filed without obtaining prior permission to investigate public officers. It is a source of creating disgust among the bureaucrats for CBI as an institution. It puts CBI in very bad light.

You see, the Aircel Maxis case started in 2006 when Mr. Subramaniam Swamy moved the Supreme Court demanding an investigation. In 2014 CBI filed a chargesheet against Maran brothers and some other officials but that case was dismissed by Special CBI Judge OP Saini who concluded that no criminal offense was made out. After the present government came to power, CBI reopened the case, and it is now under revision. Meanwhile, Mr Subramanian Swamy has been insisting that Chidambaram should also be criminally charged alleging that it was not in his powers to approve the deal between Aircel and Maxis.

The fact of the matter is, this was always the charge against Chidambaram, nothing new. So why did CBI fail to prosecute Chidambaram earlier? Was it because back then they were under the influence of UPA government? Or is it because they are influenced now by BJP government? Either way, it puts CBI in very bad light. They must explain this gap in their investigation.

SB: So do you think the time of the charge sheet is politically motivated?

SS: It certainly seems so. It seems with the change in government the course of the investigation also changed. Suddenly there is a supplementary chargesheet, which might not even stand in Court.

SB: In 1995, while still in service, in an opinion piece on Times Of India you exposed the entrenched political influence among the bureaucrats/CBI. You said, “The imperialist called the Civil Services “steel frame”, but in retrospect it seems they only meant “steel collar.” It was somewhat similar to the four Supreme Court judges coming out to hold a press conference. What made you speak out?

SS: I was the CBI Joint Director a year away from retirement. Even back then people’s perceptions about CBI was not good. There were lots of allegations that CBI was not investigating the politicians properly, there were the Bofors case, Securities Scandal etc. So I wanted to talk about how CBI functions, what were the issues that weakens CBI. I also wanted to highlight the fact that blaming politicians isn’t enough, scams happen with the involvement of the Bureaucrats. The idea was to initiate a public demand to bring in the much needed reforms in CBI. CBI is such a fine body, and it had its glory days when it was free from influence,  but today there is a need for a public demand to fix CBI. That was the purpose of speaking out.

SB: So that was 1995, how about today? How insulated is the CBI today from political influence? There are too many raids conducted against politicians that oppose the ruling dispensation for it to be coincidental. Would you like to talk about instances that point to such meddling?

SS: Well, there is a history of misuse of CBI by several governments, it is a sad reality. There are many skeletons in CBI’s cupboard. For example Mr Ramnath Goenka, Birla textiles, those who were considered politically anti-Mrs Gandhi, were investigated on various grounds.

During emergency CBI was grossly misused which is elaborately mentioned in Shah Commission. When Janta Party came to power, they again used CBI to investigate Mrs Gandhi, and when she came back to power, very same CBI was again misused to ensure all investigations were dropped. So this has been continuing process irrespective of parties, including the present regime, every government misuse the CBI.

But here is the thing, it has got worse.

SB: Perhaps you are right. This government came to power on the strength of an anti-corruption campaign. But we are yet to see any of the big fish reeled in. Why do you think that is? It can’t just be the lack of robust laws.

SS: There is a phrase in Bengali “ন্যাড়া বেল তলায়ে  ক বার যায়ে?” which roughly translates to “How many times does a vulnerable person fall into the trap?” Unfortunately people of India has fallen a bit too many times already. This anti-corruption narrative is a bait that has been used before. VP Singh used it, made Bofors scam a big issue, people trusted him, but what was the outcome? Nothing. BJP used the same narrative but the fact that Lokpal hasn’t come even today shows that once again, people of India has been taken for a ride.

The people and media should be damned for not taking corruption seriously. Scams come and go, but as a nation we are not even serious about following up and demanding action.

When CBI came into being in 1963 its scope was to investigate the “Babu” corruption. Political corruption wasn’t a thing then so CBI was sufficient in handling matters. But today to curb scams and corruptions by those yielding immense political power we need a Lokpal. Unfortunately there is no political will to actually fix the system and get rid of corruption. They don’t even want a strong CBI. Successive governments irrespective of parties have deliberately tried to keep a hold on CBI, not letting it be free from influence.  The CBI Act couldn’t come through till date, the direct recruitments have stopped.

SB: So those are some of the issues that weaken CBI? I mean, what are the major impediments to the CBI’s functioning?

Sen: CBI must have it’s own cadre of directly recruited officers at senior levels coming via UPSC, along with state police officers on deputation. It was a mixed cadre designed by Lal Bahadur Shastri himself along with DP Kohli. The cadre of directly recruited master detectives remains insulated from political influence as they are never required to work in any state, deal with state politicians. I belong to the first such batch. But I hear all direct recruitments at senior levels have stopped after 2001. Presumably because government realized these directly recruited officers cannot be “managed”. They say officers themselves don’t want postings as direct recruits, but that’s because the promotion chances have been minimized.

SB: Was that the case during your time?

SS: No. Earlier we could gain ranks. But over time they introduced several ranks, promotions became slow. See over the years, the vision that Lal Bahadur Shastri and DP Kohi had for CBI have been diluted. Going by the present standards, CBI’s autonomy is not possible.

SB: Talking about the recruitments, you might have heard about the recent turf war inside CBI, reported by Indian Express? It seemed quite bizarre to me as someone who doesn’t understand how CBI recruitments are done.

Sen: Yes, I heard. But has there been any response from the CBI on the report? I don’t think the “turf war” as reported is admitted by the CBI. I am also not sure about the letters, I would like to see them actually. That said, CBI has always been a place for healthy disagreements. Turf wars have happened before, but internally.

SB: But for a minute let’s assume the letters and their content are valid, what I don’t understand is how can somebody under scanner be considered for induction in CBI? Could you explain.

Sen: See “under scanner” can mean anything. Sometimes anonymous letter with allegations land up soon before new officers are about to be inducted. The department does a due diligence. But if somebody is under a formal departmental inquiry, they cannot be considered. I don’t think that is the case here, there is no formal enquiry against either Asthana or the other officers.

SB: You called the recent Alwar lynching of Rakbar Khan, as “the most searing  moment for all Police and ex policemen of India.” Those are strong words, can you justify?

Sen: The Rajasthan police is responsible for the death of Rakbar Khan and every police man in India must hang their heads in shame. The police have shown no compassion, no obedience to the law and no obedience to order, the three core values that every police officers must have.  There are huge questions on the police leadership. Policemen learn by emulation. Who have the Alwar police personnel emulated?

SB: Do you think a new law against lynching would help in such situation? Don’t existing laws suffice?

Sen: Supreme Court have said there should be a new law, and it’s a very sad commentary on our times. But a law merely defining a new crime is not enough, it has to be comprehensive. Define the crime, define the contours and procedure of investigation, arm it with evidentiary law. Only then it would be meaningful. But the fact that we need the law, speaks volumes about the political acumen and dispensation. It’s horrible.

SB: In your Facebook you wrote, “The PM is an unhappy man.” Could you elaborate?

Sen: A true leader wins hearts of opposition and enjoys confidence of all the people. Mr Modi has not been able to do that. His opposition are still bitterly opposed, virtually unrelenting, now his friends are leaving him. He will be unhappy.

SB: There is a feeling that an entrenched bureaucracy is undermining the PM’s policy initiatives. Is this true?

Sen: I don’t think so. In fact there are a slew of hard working loyal bureaucrats working dedicatedly for the PM. The NITI Ayog chief, Aadhar Chief, Finance Secretary and many more. So no, nobody undermining the PM.