When B.K. Bansal, the former director general of corporate affairs, wrote his suicide note, it made the news and rightly so. In his note, Bansal did not make any admission of guilt or regret, but blamed the CBI, its officers and its investigative methods for forcing him and his son to commit suicide. In the note, he also said that pressure from the CBI team when he was first arrested had led his wife and daughter to commit suicide. The note confirms a long-standing truth about the country’s policing agencies – that they are often more concerned about humiliating the accused during interrogations rather than actually conducting an investigation.
This episode brings to mind the case of Raj Kumar Khurana, a hotelier from Mumbai who was questioned during the 1993 blast cases. During his questioning, Khurana was told about the humiliations that would be inflicted on his wife and children. Fearing the worst, he killed his family and committed suicide. This episode finds prominent mention in Hussain Zaidi’s Black Friday and was also received some attention at the time. The then commissioner of police is even reported to have said that Khurana must have had a guilty conscience, which drove him to take his life and that of his family.
The charitable view here would be that the investigators genuinely believes that a ‘broken’ person can only tell the truth. The uncharitable view is that abuse and humiliation is utilised to break a person down so that they become more amenable to confirming the police’s version of events. Either way, abuse as an investigative tactic is barbaric and it is no coincidence that the most developed countries in the world frown on police barbarity. India lags behind in its understanding of the investigative process and in its tolerance of practices that brutalise its own police force as much as its victims. What is new is that the CBI, considered the premier and the most sophisticated investigative agency in the country, has now been accused of using tactics that it previously proudly disowned.
I remember being asked by a CBI officer why I was with a client, a witness in the Jagan Mohan Reddy’s disproportionate assets probe, whom I had accompanied to the CBI camp office in Hyderabad. My reply, in a jocular tone and with a smile, was so I could ensure that he was not beaten during questioning, which drew a horrified gasp from the officer. “No, no, CBI does not do such things”, he assured me. I wonder if he would be as proud of his agency today.
Unfortunately, there are many instances in recent times where the CBI has been accused of inflicting violence during interrogations. Recently, Sanjeev Shukla, an AIIMS student, was summoned by the CBI on allegations made by an anonymous complainant that he had cheated on the AIIMS entrance exam since the person seated next to him at the test centre in Kota had come second while Shukla had secured the 14th position. It is important to note that in modern computerised tests, such as the AIIMS entrance test, the sequence of questions is randomised in different computers, such that what may have been the first question for Shukla was question 150 for his neighbour, which makes cheating on the exam difficult, if not impossible.
AIIMS, which received the anonymous complaint, carried out a cursory inquiry and theorised, based on the answering pattern by Shukla, that he had copied answers from his neighbour. The institute then filed a complaint with the CBI, which included the strange allegation that “The candidate was apparently in the company of some political leaders prior to the examination”. Shukla, it is pertinent to note, had worked with the legal team regarding the All India Pre-Medical Test leak last year, which had prompted the Supreme Court to cancel the test. While doing so, he had come in contact with some of the Vyapam whistleblowers as well as opposition politicians. During his questioning, the CBI repeatedly sought information on the political figures that he had come in contact with during the campaign. They also asked him which political figures he had talked to in between the interrogation sessions.
Suffice to say, the fact that the CBI registered a case against a single student regarding an allegation of cheating is strange for an organisation that claims to be overburdened. The CBI usually registers cases only when referred to them by the appropriate government and also when it relates to larger public interest. Clearly, the anonymous complaint was forwarded in a hurry to the CBI, which in a rather rushed manner, registered a case. The only proof they had against Shukla is that he did not use enough rough paper for calculations. Shukla was called in for questioning for two days. When it became apparent that the CBI had nothing to go on, he was beaten by CBI officers inside their office on the third day. Shukla has filed a complaint on this incident with the National Human Rights Commission and the Delhi police.
The CBI seems to be constrained by the unholy nexus of politicisation and unprofessional excesses. This is nothing new for Indian police agencies and the CBI, after all, is staffed by members of various Indian police forces. Bansal wrote that a CBI official boasted about his proximity to BJP chief Amit Shah. The CBI team investigating Shukla seems to have been more interested in his political circles than in the content of his answer sheets. The premier investigative agency is in grave danger of becoming a loyal servant to those in power. The CBI would go a long way in restoring its credibility if it would register a preliminary inquiry against its erring officers to ensure that such tragedies do not happen again.
Sarim Naved is a Delhi-based advocate.