The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) had been struggling to penetrate West Bengal since the time the Mamata Banerjee government — along with some other state governments opposed to the BJP — revoked the general consent for investigation by the agency in 2018. But now a Calcutta High Court order is making the CBI see some light at the end of the tunnel.
Before the order, the anti-corruption branch of the CBI in Kolkata had not filed even one case in about two years. The few FIRs lodged followed Calcutta High Court or Supreme Court orders to do so. The federal structure of the country demands that a case that unfolded in a given state goes to the CBI only when the government of the province requests the Centre to hand it over to the agency or a court orders it. However, to probe the conduct of central government employees, the CBI enjoyed general consent from all states — until 2018.
On 21 September, the Calcutta High Court gave the CBI a glimmer of hope. Asking the anti-corruption branch in Kolkata to file two cases, the high court showed the agency the way forward. A case is that against Prof Sushanta Duttagupta accused of financial irregularities during his tenure as the vice-chancellor of Visva Bharati University from 2011 to 2016. The other case involves Border Security Force Commandant Satish Kumar and others. They face the charge of aiding cattle smuggling across the India-Bangladesh border.
The CBI had even yesterday conducted search operations in different parts of West Bengal where it dug out a racket of cattle smugglers operating along the India-Bangladesh border. At multiple locations in Kolkata and Murshidabad district since morning, the agency found associates of the gang.
When the raids were on in the state — as they were in some other parts of the country — the agency unearthed the nexus of illegal cattle trade along the Indo-Bangla border. “We cannot divulge any more details as of now,” said a sleuth, adding that the CBI had been probing cattle smuggling along the border in the state for a year.
Cattle smuggling along this border is a menace for the BSF and other security agencies. A source in the BSF said the smugglers would tie socket bombs around the necks of the cattle while smuggling them to deter police and border guards.
The CBI could convert these two cases from preliminary inquiries into first information reports.
The CBI had initiated the preliminary probe against Sushanta Duttagupta in July 2018. The probe into l’affaire de Satish Kumar started in April that year. These cases had started before the West Bengal government withdrew the general consent for CBI investigations in its territory.
A CBI source said that while the preliminary inquiries in these cases had been registered in 2018 showing offences prima facie, the agency could not convert the complaints into FIRs. That was because the West Bengal government did not permit it to.
The agency has now moved ahead emboldened by the recent Calcutta High Court order. It registered FIRs in these cases without the consent, said the officer under the condition of anonymity.
This Calcutta High Court order in a corruption case involving a central government employee surfaced as an opening for the CBI. Its team in Kolkata subsequently registered cases in West Bengal against central government employees.
Having noted that the state government had revoked the general consent, the high court had said, “This Court is… of the view that the central government/CBI’s power to investigate and prosecute its own officials cannot be in any way impeded or interfered by the state even if the offenses were committed within the territory of the state.”.
This has practically let the CBI file cases against central government employees even without the permission of the state government.
As of now, Rajasthan and Mizoram, other than West Bengal, do not consent to CBI probes in such cases. Now the state’s consent is but redundant. The CBI, citing this verdict, can file cases even without the permission of the state governments.
“This judgment of the Calcutta High Court has made Section 6 of DSPE Act, which mandates consent from the state government for registering cases as null and void. Though it’s a shot in the arm for CBI as opposition-ruled states are revoking general consent granted to them and making the agency write to them seeking permission each time for registering a case, this judgement is against the concept of federalism. Relying on this judgement, the CBI will start registering cases in the territorial jurisdiction of a state even without the consent of the state government despite law and order being a state subject,” a senior police officer told NDTV, asking not to be named. It’s surprising the state government hasn’t appealed against this judgement, the officer said.