IT is considered the graveyard of many an importance case which has rocked the nation. The Central Bureau of Investigation (cbi) may soon add another to its chequered list. The government has denied permission to the investigating agency to prosecute V. Balasubramaniam, a top Reliance Industries executive, after sensitive and apparently classified documents were seized during a Delhi Police raid at his office last October.
The red signal to the cbi has come in the form of a letter written by a senior official in the Cabinet Secretariat. While agency sleuths were busy preparing a case against one of India's largest, and arguably most controversial, corporate houses, the letter has stunned even the most cynical officers into disbelief. It informed the cbi last month that the documents seized from Balu's premises were not classified documents. Which, in effect, means that the case under the Official Secrets Act is a non-starter since, according to the letter, there was nothing secret or classified hence actionable that the Reliance Industries executive had laid his hands on.
The pace at which the entire activity has taken place has surprised everyone. For, it has taken only a month for the letter from the Cabinet Secretariat to arrive. In keeping with the procedures while pursuing a case under the Official Secrets Act, the cbi had written to the government seeking permission to prosecute Balasubramaniam, or Balu as he was known to all, for possessing the documents. It did not take long to receive a reply in the negative.
The cbi, perhaps, is not taking things lying down. The letter has now been referred to the law ministry for its opinion. Till last week, the opinion of the ministry had not been received.
What are these documents that were found in a drawer in Balu's office? They are the photocopy of a note sent by petroleum secretary T.S. Vijayraghavan to revenue secretary Javed Choudhary regarding proposals for customs and excise duties on oil and oil products imports till 2002. Then, there were copies of the minutes of a meeting held on September 21 where the Core Group of Secretaries on Disinvestment discussed a variety of issues. A 17-page photocopy of a Cabinet Secretariat document relating to a meeting of the Core Group on Economic Matters on The Challenge of Economic Sanctions to India was also found. At least the first document is directly relevant to Reliance's businesses.
So can they be termed as documents classified under the Official Secrets Act? The problem is that this Act, instituted by the British in 1923, leaves enough grey areas for interpretation in almost any way possible. While it is draconian enough to put a person behind bars for years without trial, it is also vague enough to let anyone off the hook. Says former senior additional solicitor general Abhishek Manu Singhvi, There are different facets to the matter. A document or its use may well not be actionable under the Official Secrets Act... However, governmental documents dealing with sensitive and commercial information may well be confidential. Their possession is certainly improper even if legally not punishable.
Cynics insist signals that Balu and Reliance would be let off the hook had been coming even in the immediate aftermath of the raids. First, the government waited as long as 20 days after the raid on Balu's office to conduct raids on other Reliance offices and homes of top executives across the country on November 19. When the raids were finally conducted, in a few cases, cbi sleuths apparently found lawyers sitting in a few top executives homes.If this is true, then one could be forgiven for suspecting that Reliance Industries had at least a prior inkling of the raids. A day after the raids, home minister L.K. Advani issued a statement saying that the Official Secrets Act should be repealed. Though Advani had even earlier spoken about this, some observers saw too much of a coincidence here.
The raids at Balu's residence and office had come after gangster and alleged Dawood Ibrahim frontman Romesh Sharma told Delhi Police that the papers relating to a helicopter that he had stolen lay with Balu. As soon as the police approached Balu, far from denying, they were invited to collect the papers. Unknowingly, the police were on the trail of Balu who, it was later found, had been partnering the gangster in two companies Reliance Developers and Investment Private Ltd and Reliance Estate Private Ltd.
Reliance Industries has washed its hands of Balu's activities, terming his association with Sharma of whatever nature it was as nothing to do with his professional duties. Sharma is facing a barrage of charges as he cools his heels in prison. Balu, meanwhile, carries on with work, low profile as usual.