CBI must be free of political influence to restore credibility in Jammu and Kashmir - The Probe

CBI must be free of political influence to restore credibility in Jammu and Kashmir

Of the 50-odd cases related to Jammu and Kashmir or the residents of this Union Territory, which the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has taken up or investigated in the last 32 years, the Kashmiris remember only one conviction. In 1993-96, ex-Minister Mohammad Dilawar Mir’s firm M/S Good Friends Agencies was wrongly awarded a contract for the sale of urea by the National Fertilisers Ltd (NFL). In November 2014, a CBI court in New Delhi awarded three years imprisonment and imposed on him a fine of Rs 3.21 crore.

Mir, then PDP’s General Secretary and candidate from Rafiabad, was barred from contesting the assembly elections, but his sentence was suspended till 2 January 2015. Consequently, Mir’s son Yawar contested, and he became the assembly’s youngest member. In March 2015, PDP formed the government in a coalition with the BJP. Mir didn’t spend a day in jail. Having served as MLA and Minister in different governments from Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah’s to Ghulam Nabi Azad’s, he is now a founder leader of the Apni Party.

So, when the CBI launched a chain of raids on properties of some powerful persons, including the former Finance Minister Haseeb Drabu, in Srinagar, Jammu and Mumbai on 10 April 2022, there was considerable cynicism and scepticism. Few believed that the investigation would be taken to its logical conclusion.

While the erstwhile State’s own Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) completed investigations or filed charge sheets in several matters lingering for long in the last three years, the Central investigation agencies have been remarkably proactive in Jammu and Kashmir after its reorganisation in August 2019. But that’s not enough to restore the credibility they have lost due to political and bureaucratic interference from New Delhi.

Unlike the Central agencies, most of the ACB’s cases pertain to the alleged corrupt practices of the junior public servants. Very few of the senior J&K Administrative Service (JKAS) and IAS or IPS officers have been proceeded against, primarily because they happen to be either batch mates or seniors of the top functionaries of the organisation. In recent times, this is believed to be the main reason for transferring some high profile investigations, under judicial or administrative orders, from the ACB to the CBI.

The ACB’s investigations into the encroachments and illegal constructions in the area of Patnitop Development Authority and the so-called Roshni Scam involved influential persons who, the judiciary endorsed, would fail the process. Previously, in a high profile case related to alleged embezzlement of the J&K Cricket Association (JKCA), funds were transferred under court orders from J&K Police to the CBI. Political and bureaucratic interference has been evident in most of such cases.

Three more high profile investigations – alleged irregularities in the allotment of civil works of the Kiru Hydroelectric power project, a healthcare insurance scheme for the government employees and the purchase of a multi-floor property in Mumbai by the Jammu and Kashmir Bank Ltd (JKB), allegedly in violation of the codal formalities and for the exorbitant price – were transferred to the CBI directly under the Lieutenant Governor’s orders.

While the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) have remained particularly focussed on the matters related to the armed insurgency, terror funding and money laundering, the CBI is dealing with all – Rubaiya Sayeed kidnapping, killing of Indian Air Force (IAF) personnel, JKCA fund scam and other corruption-related matters involving former Chief Ministers, Cabinet Ministers and chairpersons of the JKB.

The chain of search operations by the CBI in Srinagar, Jammu and Mumbai on Tuesday, 10 April 2022, has apparently added a new dimension to the agency’s seriousness of investigation in the politically sensitive Union Territory. Previously, the central agencies had called for questioning the former Chief Ministers Farooq Abdullah, Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti’s mother in different cases, but there were no searches at their residences.

However, on 10 April, it was for the first time that the CBI raided the residences of someone who was not only the architect of the BJP’s coalition with the PDP in March 2015 but also the high profile Minister of Finance in Mufti Sayeed and Mehbooba Mufti’s government for three years. These raids came close on the heels of the CBI’s searches at the residences of some powerful persons, including a senior IAS officer Navin Choudhary allegedly involved in two cases.

Haseeb Drabu, who has not been in active politics after his dismissal from Mehbooba’s government, coupled with his exit from the PDP in March 2018, is in the CBI dragnet for his supervision of the Bandra Kurla Complex acquisition in 2010 when he was the JKB’s Chairman. He was also an accused in the medical insurance scheme in 2017-18 when he was the Minister of Finance. He and his family members also figure in a list of high profile politicians who have allegedly been beneficiaries of the controversial Roshni Scheme. The CBI has taken over the Roshni investigation and interrogated some persons, but a number of powerful bureaucrats and politicians, including Drabu, have not been touched to date.

In Mufti’s government, Drabu was in importance next only to the Chief Minister. Believed to be intimate with the BJP and the RSS leadership, he had direct access to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah. The CBI raid on his house, which would typically never happen without a green signal from the highest echelons of power in New Delhi, has made it clear to all powerful politicians and bureaucrats that the agency was not going to spare anybody.

Officials claim that the central agency’s recent operation would neutralise the much sustained impression of ‘political vendetta’ against the PDP and the National Conference (NC) as Drabu doesn’t belong to either. For a long time, he was in fact, seen as Delhi’s man in Srinagar. The days that follow may clearly indicate whether the raid would lead CBI’s investigation to a logical conclusion or the same was only tactics to terrorise Kashmir’s intractable politicians. For varied reasons, cynics dismiss every single operation by the central agencies as ‘drama’ and ‘fixed match’.

As of now, most of the people in Kashmir view the CBI raids as part of New Delhi’s arm twisting of the politicians who had any potential of mobilising the public opinion against the reorganisation and withdrawal of the semi-autonomous status. For his articles in The New York Times and The Indian Express, Drabu is seen as one among them.

For various reasons, almost all the central agencies, including the CBI, have been facing an acute trust deficit and loss of institutional credibility in Kashmir. There has been no explanation for the 30-year-long delay in the prosecution in the Rubaiya Sayeed kidnapping and the IAF killings cases. The CBI, which submitted the charge sheet in both cases in a designated TADA court in 1990, did not do anything to vacate the stay on the trial for 10 years from 2009 to 2019.

It was only after the killing of 40 Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel in a suicide terror attack in February 2019 that the CBI swung into action and filed fresh petitions in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court (JKHC) seeking the transfer of the two cases from Srinagar to Jammu and vacation of the 10-year-old stay orders. The JKHC lost no time to issue the orders. Subsequently, the trial commenced in both cases.

Some of the key accused, including JKLF’s Yasin Malik and Farooq Ahmad Dar alias Bitta Karate, were separately booked and arrested in other criminal matters and detained in Delhi’s Tihar Jail. Only last week, Malik pleaded guilty in a case filed in 2017.

People associated with politics and legal practice in Srinagar and Jammu insist that the suspension of the proceedings for ten long years could have been possible only after political intervention at the highest level. They believe that the government’s extraordinary decisions – Malik’s arrest, ban on JKLF and Jamaat-e-Islami, withdrawal of security from the Hurriyat leaders and CBI’s fresh mobilisation in the Rubaiya Sayeed kidnapping and the IAF killings – would not have happened if the Awantipora blast had not occurred around the Lok Sabha elections.

“The Congress government didn’t act for five years from 2009 to 2014, and the BJP government was silent for five years from 2014 to 2019. They had no will or intention to restore the CBI’s credibility and let it take the Kashmir-related cases to a logical conclusion,” said a senior advocate.

Most of the accused in the infamous Srinagar Sex Scandal got off the hook as CBI’s key witnesses turned conveniently hostile in the trial court at Chandigarh. There has been no conviction in the last 16 years. In 2006, it was CBI’s first case in Jammu and Kashmir in which influential politicians and bureaucrats, including the former Ministers Ghulam Ahmad Mir and Raman Mattoo, senior IAS officer Iqbal Khanday, who later became Chief Secretary and a DIG of the Border Security Force (BSF) were arrested and put to trial.

For 12 years, there has been no substantial progress in prosecution in the alleged rape cum murder of two young women in Shopian, which the CBI established as a ‘conspiracy to defame the security forces’ and filed charges against 13 persons, including ten doctors and lawyers in 2009. All the accused have been enlarged on bail.

The CBI’s investigation in the Pathribal fake encounter of March 2000 was historic and arguably the first in Jammu and Kashmir that established the central agency’s credibility. It was for the first time since the outbreak of insurgency that a premiere investigation agency of the Government of India held five Army officers responsible for killing an equal number of innocent civilians in a fake encounter. The civilians, lifted from different places in the Anantnag district, had been labelled as “foreign terrorists involved in the massacre of 36 Sikhs at Chittisinghpora”.

However, the Army provided institutional support to the accused officers and contested the case strongly in the Supreme Court. Finally, the in-house investigation and the trial were assigned to an Army court. No one has been penalised for murder in the last 22 years.

An alleged embezzlement of Rs 113 crore, the funds provided by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) to the Jammu and Kashmir Cricket Association (JKCA) headed by the former Chief Minister Farooq Abdullah, surfaced in 2012. Initially, a case was registered on the application of an insider of JKCA at a Police Station in Srinagar. As the Police failed to call and question powerful politicians like Farooq Abdullah, two cricketers sought its transfer from J&K Police to the CBI.

Finally, under the JKHC order, the investigation was taken over by the CBI in 2015. The agency filed a charge sheet against the four accused, including Farooq Abdullah, in July 2018.

In October 2020, the ED began separately questioning Farooq Abdullah about the JKCA funds allegedly swindled when he was the association’s President. In December 2020, the ED attached Abdullah’s properties, including the house where he is living, and he pleads to have acquired it 50 years back.

In recent times, two more of the CBI’s J&K-related cases have been in the news for the wrong reasons. A case of alleged laundering of the JKB loans was filed against the former Finance Minister Abdul Rahim Rather’s businessman son Hilal Ahmad. The ACB got him arrested in January 2020 and subsequently filed a charge sheet. Simultaneously, the CBI filed a fresh FIR in the same case for its ‘international ramifications’. He was instead released on bail after a year of detention. In the last two years, the agencies have not been able to identify the properties he had allegedly acquired in the United States of America or in Dubai.

The Jammu and Kashmir Police filed a similar case of misappropriation of funds against the Kehwa Group promoter and the former deputy mayor of Srinagar Municipal Corporation Sheikh Imran, at Anantnag Police Station in 2019. It was also subsequently taken over by the CBI. The Income Tax department conducted raids on Sheikh’s offices and properties in Srinagar, Delhi and Bengaluru in June 2019. Currently, the investigation lies without any progress with the CBI.

Both Hilal Rather and Sheikh Imran have meanwhile joined the Jammu and Kashmir Peoples Conference.

Even as the prosecution sanction against the JKAS officers has been issued quickly in some high profile cases, the same has been pending in the case of a number of IAS officers at the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) since long. A Supreme Court of India judgement has made sanction to prosecution mandatory within 60 days. If it doesn’t come within that time frame, it has to be treated as a ‘deemed sanction’. In the CBI’s much-hyped ‘Arms Licence Scam’, prosecution sanctions have been obtained against a few IAS and JKAS officers in April 2021, but there has been no significant progress in the case since then.

Insiders say that at least 30 IAS and senior JKAS officers have been involved in the matter of issuing arms licences in violation of rules and out of favouritism from 2008 to 2018. However, the prosecution sanction is still awaited for at least 20 officers. “Just 4 to 6 junior IAS officers have been booked, and quite a number of the IAS and JKAS officers have not been touched,” said a well-placed source.

Arguably the most surprising delay has been witnessed in the so-called Roshni Scam investigation, which has been transferred from the ACB to the CBI by a Division Bench of the JKHC headed by the former Chief Justice Gita Mittal.

“Very few people are convinced about the CBI’s seriousness and fair play in this case. It involves extremely influential politicians, including former Ministers and bureaucrats. Some of the IAS officers and former DCs are now Commissioner-Secretaries and Principal Secretaries. Some are now holding ranks equal to Chief Secretary or Secretary to the Government of India. But unfortunately, the CBI has spared many and touched just a few of them,” advocate Sheikh Shakeel Ahmad asserted. Ahmad has been pursuing most of the corruption-related cases involving top-ranking politicians and bureaucrats pro bono in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court.

Nevertheless, there have been remarkable developments in the last couple of years. It is for the first time that questioning of highly influential government functionaries or raids on their residences has taken place. They include six IAS officers – one Principal Secretary to Government, one Commissioner-Secretary, one Secretary to Government and two officers of the rank of Additional Secretary. They also include three chairpersons and four directors of the JKB. One former Mumbai-based director has been arrested and detained. Previously the CBI’s big catches were only in the Srinagar Sex Scandal in 2006.

Admitting the cliched caveat that every accused is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law, there is still room for some optimism as in the last few days there are some indications of seriousness with the way the CBI and other central agencies are pursuing J&K related cases but will these investigations lead to a logical end? Only time will tell.

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Ahmed Ali Fayyaz is an independent journalist based out of Jammu & Kashmir. With 27 years of experience, Fayyaz is a policy analyst and a political commentator. He has extensively reported on conflict – after the 1990 Kashmir conflict – for the national and international media.

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