RARELY has an entire establishment gunned for one officer and come a cropper as they did in the case of CBI joint director (east) U.N. Biswas. In a packed courtroom of the Patna High Court on August 29, a crowd of lawyers, journalists and political leaders waited with bated breath for a CBI affidavit sponsored by its director R.C. Sharma, asking for the removal of Biswas from the investigations into the Rs 750-crore fodder scam.
What followed was interesting. The agency had abruptly decided to drop the charge that Biswas was guilty of asking for military assistance in arresting former chief minister Laloo Yadav. And there was an ominous silence on the part of the CBI counsel on what the investigating agency's next step would be. An irate Justice Jha, one of the two-member bench monitoring the progress of the case, directed Sharma to file an affidavit stating his reasons for wanting Biswas out of the ambit of investigations and the slow progress of the case.
There was little doubt that Biswas, the feisty Calcutta-based joint director, was in trouble, from the moment that the CBI officially moved the high court on July 29 to ask for the local Danapore cantonment's help in 'sanitising' Laloo's residence and facilitating his arrest. Home minister Indrajit Gupta did not mince any words when he told Parliament that "exemplary punishment" should be meted out to Biswas as well as to V.S.A. Kaumadi, superintendent of police, for seeking army assistance.
Gupta's stand, say well-placed sources, provided an opportunity for the political establishment to get back at Biswas, who is seen as the man who pursued the investigations into the fodder scam with dour determination. It had become fairly obvious that pulling Biswas out of the case was on the agenda of top politicians in New Delhi. Notes Sushil Modi, the leader of the Opposition in the state assembly: "It is a clear case of victimisation or attempted victimisation. If Biswas were to be removed, it would be a blow to the very basis of the investigations." A fact that a lot of people seemed to have realised. In mid-August, Sharma sounded out law minister Ramakant Khalap on taking action against Biswas, but Khalap declined to get involved on the grounds that the matter was subjudice. Subsequent to that came the political chorus headed by RJD MP Ramkripal Yadav, asking for the joint director's head for "being a tool in the hands of the BJP". In between were thrown in several effigy-burning exercises by Laloo's supporters. But Biswas remained unnerved.
However, a spanner was thrown in the works with the high court's decision to issue a show cause notice to the CBI chief. This is likely to make it particularly difficult for Sharma to file an affidavit, because the order to call in the army came from the high court itself. The home minister had made it abundantly clear that his statement on the issue, made on the floor of the House, had been guided by the assessment of the CBI boss.
WhileSharma is waiting for an official intimation before he proceeds with the affidavit, it appears highly unlikely, given the mood of the courts, that he will desist from doing so. For someone who, as is widely alleged, made it to the top slot largely because of his stand on the Laloo scam, Sharma is seriously caught in a bind. If he does not comply with the court orders by September 12, he runs the risk of inviting a contempt notice. And keeping in view the contempt orders that the Patna High court issued to the state administration recently, this is one risk he will not take. But if he does file an affidavit, he will have no choice but to admit that Biswas did indeed consult him before proceeding with the court's verbal orders on calling the army. Panic-stricken at these developments, Sharma has activated the CBI's legal cell to take an urgent decision on the issue.
BISWAS remains noncommittal about the entire drama. "The matter is lying in the court. I would not like to comment," he told Outlook. A prolific writer on the criminal mind and criminology, Biswas sums up his attitude saying: "I am fighting the dynamics of dishonesty." What was his equation with the new CBI chief? "I have a good professional relationship with him. It goes back to 1975 when I joined the CBI for the first time," says Biswas. Did he feel that the CBI headquarters was trying to victimise him? Biswas again declined to comment, but said he was determined to take the case to its logical conclusion, something his agency has not been able to achieve in political cases registered by it so far.
Harassment, after all, is something the joint director has been subjected to ever since he nailed Laloo. First, K. Mukerjee, joint director south, was directed to proceed to Patna to investigate the 'leaks' to the media, allegedly by Biswas. Says Uttam Sengupta, resident editor, The Times of India, Patna, who has been following the fodder scam case closely:"There is no question of leaks. In fact, it was the other way round. We have helped the agency by giving them documents, printouts by the dozens. There are significant leads that we have given to the CBI."
Close on the heels of Mukerjee's visit, joint director L. Revannasiddhiah, the architect of the Bofors chargesheet, was sent to Patna to look into complaints against Biswas lodged by the Ranchi CBI SP, Dhondiyal. Again a blob. Following which, additional director T. Kartikeyan was told to proceed to Patna to look at the evidence collected by Biswas and to 'assess' it, even though the legal department had already processed it.
The last in the sequence was the attempt by Sharma to hand out 'exemplary' punishment to officers calling for army help to arrest Laloo. A panel headed by A.P. Dorai, railway police chief, has made the assessment that Biswas has indeed overstepped his brief by asking for army assistance. Sharma, CBI officials in Patna allege, is guilty of taking unofficial orders from their political masters in an attempt to derail Biswas. But Biswas is laconic about his possible removal. "I have put together an excellent team which is investigating the fodder scam. Even without me, they will do a good job."
However, with the latest twist in the case, the issue has now assumed a different footing. At the next hearing on September 12, Sharma will have to explain why the progress in the fodder scam has been slow ever since he took over as CBI chief. In addition to this is a show cause notice issued to the Bihar chief secretary B.V. Verma and director general of police S.K. Saxena for non-compliance with court orders to execute the arrest warrants issued against Laloo Yadav on July 29-30.
Clearly, the last word on the issue has not yet been said—for it is a case that's had more than its share of twists and turns. But, for the moment, it's obviously advantage Biswas.