Calling it a “rarest of rare case” where “very powerful politicians are allegedly involved”, the Supreme Court Tuesday approved a CBI probe into the Narada News sting operation, purportedly showing several senior Trinamool Congress leaders taking bribes. The court gave the agency one month to complete its preliminary enquiry. A bench led by Chief Justice of India J S Khehar shot down a plea by senior TMC leaders Suvendu Adhikari and Saugata Roy, who wanted a stay on the Calcutta High Court order of March 17 that had given the CBI 72 hours to conclude the preliminary enquiry into what it called a case of “serious and cognisable offence”.
The TMC leaders had contended that a probe by the CBI, which was “under the Central government”, was as good as “throwing them before a lion”, and that the apex court should rather set up a special investigation team and monitor the matter. Senior lawyers Kapil Sibal, A M Singhvi and Sidharth Luthra, appearing for the politicians, also questioned why the CBI had been engaged to probe when the local police could also do it and that the agency must come in the picture only in the rarest of the rare case.
“This is rarest of the rare case… undisputed political people are involved,” retorted the bench, also comprising Justices D Y Chandrachud and Sanjay K Kaul. Rejecting the contentions, it added: “There are very good reasons why the CBI… the High Court has said you are very powerful person. There is another reason. When a complaint against you was filed with the police in March 2016, nothing happened for more than a year. But when the wife of one of the respondents (TMC leaders) filed a complaint against one of the petitioners, everything was expedited by the police.”
Lawyers for the TMC leaders argued that the high court had erred in relying upon a pen drive in ordering the probe as the primary source from where the pen drive had recorded the sting operation was not available.
The Narada sting tapes, which were released in March last year before the West Bengal Assembly elections, claimed to show top TMC leaders and an IPS officer accepting bribes. Mathew Samuel, editor of Narada News, had told the court that the tapes were made in 2014 and the recordings were done using an iPhone, transferred to a laptop and then stored in a pen drive.
The Supreme Court bench, however, held that the pen drive was an admissible electronic evidence and its veracity or otherwise would be a matter of proof at a later stage. “Today, we are not at the stage of proof. We are at the stage of a preliminary enquiry. Based on the material available, the CBI could conduct an investigation and arrive at a conclusion that everything is fudged. You should not have any problem then,” it added.
The court further said that neither Adhikari nor Roy had denied their presence in the tape, and had made “qualified statements” that they had not demanded any money in respect of exercising any authority that they had. “You have nowhere denied that you are not in the sting video nor have you denied the video at all. You don’t say it is a fudged video but you only say you have not taken the money… it is a situation where these people already had the authority,” said the bench.
When Sibal contended that the high court had not even seen the video, the top court replied that it was for the trial court to do so since the superior courts would not make up their minds at this stage when only a preliminary enquiry was underway.
The Supreme Court also underlined that there was a “big reason” why the West Bengal Police could not be entrusted with the probe. “If the Advocate General for the state government appears in the high court and says that no cognisable offence has been made out, how can we then ask the police of that state to do it?” said the bench.
Turning down the other plea by the TMC leaders, to take away investigation from the CBI, the bench said it would be “demeaning the agency” if the probe is now handed over to some other authority. “It is the premier agency we have. We cannot call the best agency a bad agency,” said the court, which also junked their plea to shift the matter to a different bench in the high court.
In its final order, the apex court held that there was “no infirmity in the determination rendered” by the high court but asked for expunction of all other inferences and conclusions recorded by the latter in the March 17 order that could influence the investigation. The West Bengal government, which had also moved an appeal, was allowed by the bench to withdraw its petition in view of the court order, but only after its counsel tendered an “unconditional apology” for calling the high court “biased” in the plea.