The truth is that the CBI has always bended with alacrity to accommodate the biases of its political masters. But these days some rather strange things are happening inside the cage.

On May 10, 2013, Justice Rajendra Mal Lodha of the Supreme Court said that the Central Bureau of Investigation is a “caged parrot”. To reinforce his point, the learned judge added that the CBI was also “its master’s voice”. When in Opposition, the Bharatiya Janata Party hailed this damning critique. It used to call the CBI the “Congress Bureau of Investigation”. Today, the Congress calls it the “Gujarat Bureau of Investigation”. The truth is that the CBI has always bended with alacrity to accommodate the biases of its political masters. But these days some rather strange things are happening inside the cage.

There are two appointments, in particular, which appear to be a cause of concern. Y.C. Modi, a police officer of the Assam-Meghalaya cadre, has been appointed as additional director of the CBI. And, Arun Kumar Sharma, a police officer of the Gujarat cadre, has been appointed as the joint director. Mr Y.C. Modi was part of the CBI team that investigated the Haren Pandya murder case. Since public memory is short, it will be useful to recall that Pandya was a minister in the Narendra Modi government in Gujarat. He was, reports say, about to give testimony to the courts about the involvement of the then chief minister and his senior Cabinet colleagues in the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, when he was shot dead by so-called “extremists”.

Mr Y.C. Modi was one of the officers detailed to discover the truth, but the Gujarat high court was constrained to say that the entire investigation was “botched up”. The investigating officers, the court said, “Ought to be held accountable for their ineptitude resulting in injustice…” Mr Y.C. Modi was also part of the Special Investigating Team under former CBI director R.K. Raghavan to investigate the Gujarat riots. The SIT gave a clean chit to Mr Narendra Modi, although Raju Ramachandran, the amicus curiae appointed by the Supreme Court, put down his strong reservations on this acquittal.

Readers may also recall the infamous “Snoopgate” saga. Cobrapost and gulail.com released audiotapes of 239 conversations purportedly between then Gujarat home minister Amit Shah and his state’s police officers in which Mr Shah is allegedly complicit in monitoring the surveillance of a young woman on behalf of his “Saheb”. Mr Sharma was inspector general of police (Intelligence) in Gujarat at that time, and the 39 supplementary tapes released by Cobrapost subsequently indicate that Mr Sharma “could be heard telling his own people to conduct a parallel surveillance of the lady not just in Gujarat but in Karnataka”.

Mr Y.C. Modi and Mr Sharma have now been appointed as senior and key functionaries of the CBI. In fact, as additional director, Mr Y.C. Modi may well succeed current director Anil Sinha. Javeed Ahmed, the officer reportedly next in line, was transferred out of the CBI soon after the BJP came to power in May 2014. It is this kind of “caged parrot” which will now investigate the Vyapam scam. Does one still have reason to hope that this investigation will not also be, in the words of the Gujarat high court in the Haren Pandya murder case, “botched up”?

There are other signs of strange behaviour. In December 2014, a CBI trial court in Mumbai surprisingly decided to acquit key accused, Mr Shah, in the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case without even a trial. The CBI, which had earlier produced hundreds of pages of evidence against him in this case, and had charged him also with being the “kingpin and prime accused” in the Tulsiram Prajapati case, surprisingly refused to appeal the decision. Can an investigating agency change its stance on a matter of such importance so dramatically, and merely, as it seems, because its “masters” have changed? Even more worrisome is what is happening to police officers earlier arrested in the Ishrat Jahan, Tulsiram Prajapati and Sohrabuddin fake encounter cases.

P.P. Pandey was arrested in August 2013, for allegedly conspiring to carry out the encounter of Ishrat Jahan in 2004. But in February 2015, a special court of the CBI granted him bail. Shockingly, within days of the bail, the Gujarat government revoked his suspension and reinstated him as additional director-general of police in charge of law and order! There is also the case of Indian Police Service officer Vipul Agarwal. Mr Agarwal was arrested in May 2010, for complicity in the alleged fake encounter of Tulsiram Prajapati, who was the prime witness in the fake encounter case of Sohrabuddin and his wife. In November 2015, a month after Mr Agarwal was granted bail by the Mumbai high court, the Gujarat government reinstated him in the office of director-general of police. Bail is not an exoneration of guilt. How can officers not yet acquitted in such serious crimes be reinstated when still on bail? On the other hand, the “caged parrot” bears its claws and uses its curved beak ferociously against those who have the temerity to question the actions of the Gujarat government. The case of Teesta Setalvad, the well-known civil activist who helped in ensuring life imprisonment to 20 of the accused in the Gujarat riots, is illustrative. She, and her husband Javed Anand, are literally being hounded as though they are heinous criminals, even though she has submitted over 5,000 pages of documents rebutting each charge. Fortunately, the Mumbai high court has upheld the validity of dissent in a democratic country.

Three questions arise: firstly, while the CBI director is appointed by a troika consisting of Prime Minister, the Chief Justice of India (or a Supreme Court judge nominated by him) and the Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha, what checks are there to ensure that key officers under him are untainted and objective? Secondly, can the CBI suddenly take a U-turn on the issue of prosecution of somebody it has for long considered guilty, and not even appeal an acquittal by a trial court? Thirdly, can police officers out on bail for serious offences be reinstated without final exoneration?

Setting the “caged parrot” free is one of the key unfinished businesses of India’s experience as a democracy, and the only court of hope in achieving this is the Supreme Court. The nation, and the people of India, will be eternally grateful if it takes suo motu initiative in this regard.

Author-diplomat Pavan K. Varma is a Rajya Sabha member