Sharma Committee: Former CBI Director Ranjit Sinha’s meetings with Congress politicians influenced coal-scam investigations; CBI goes slow on corruption case

The ML Sharma Committee directly indicted Sinha, and concluded that his interactions with Congress politicians had impacted the course of the investigations into the coal scam. SAJJAD HUSSAIN/AFP/Getty Images

For over a year now, the Central Bureau of Investigation has sat tightly on a First Information Report registered against its former director Ranjit Sinha. The FIR charges Sinha under the Prevention of Corruption Act (PCA), accusing him of influencing inquiries and closing investigations in cases related to the coal scam—the scandal concerning illegal allocations of hundreds of coal blocks in India. These charges were based on the findings of a committee set up by the Supreme Court, headed by ML Sharma, a former special director of the CBI. Constituted in mid 2015, the Sharma committee was charged with looking into Sinha’s meetings with some of the accused in the scam—including the Congress Rajya Sabha member of parliament Vijay Darda, who runs the Marathi newspaper Lokmat; his son Devendra Darda, the paper’s managing director; and Santosh Bagrodia, a Congress politician who served as the minister of state for coal under the United Progressive Alliance government, from April 2008 to May 2009. The committee concluded that Sinha’s meetings with these persons had impacted the closure reports filed by the CBI in the registered cases related to the coal scam, in which these individuals were named.

The FIR against Sinha, registered on 25 April 2017, alleges that Sinha abused his official position to indulge in corruption. On orders from the Supreme Court, the CBI set up a special investigation team to look into the allegations against Sinha. In January 2018, the court observed that “progress in the investigations by the CBI and ED in the coal scam cases has been slow.” Given the politicised nature of the CBI over the last decade, and the alacrity with which the agency has been used to target opposition politicians from the AAP to the Congress, the delay in the case against Ranjit Sinha—which involves several Congress leaders—is surprising. While serving as the CBI director, Sinha chose an opportune moment to change the political character of his public statements. After staying silent on the cases involving the BJP president Amit Shah through much of his tenure, in February 2014, with the political landscape clearly indicating a change of government, Sinha appeared to have adopted a definitive stance. “There were political expectations,” he said. “The UPA government would have been very happy if we had charged Amit Shah … But we went strictly by evidence and found there was no prosecutable evidence against Shah.”

The slow progress of the CBI’s investigation is made especially surprising by the grave nature of the Sharma committee’s findings. The committee based its conclusions—which directly indict Sinha—on the visitor registers from 2 May 2013 to 17 August 2014, being maintained at 2, Janpath, Sinha’s official residence in Delhi, and subsequent inquiries into the names mentioned on this list. These registers cover a period of 15 months during Sinha’s tenure as CBI chief, from 3 December 2012 to 2 December 2014. The Delhi Police personnel deployed at Sinha’s house verified the authenticity of the registers to the Sharma Committee.

The registers listed the names of the persons visiting—though often the full name of a visitor was not listed—the vehicle number and the time of entry and exit. The committee identified the visitors via the recorded number plates, with the assistance of the transport department of a number of states. It then recorded the signed statements of 31 of the most frequent visitors, apart from accessing the call records of some of Sinha’s most important visitors. According to the logs, Vijay Darda met Sinha 3 times during this period, while his son Devendra met him 12 times. Most damningly, Santosh Bagrodia, the former minister of state for coal, met Sinha 46 times during the 15 months for which the logs were available.

The registers also detail the visits of some people such as Sreyas Sripal, who visited the former director 144 times, and Ketan Desai, who visited him 10 times—both of whom had CBI cases pending against them in matters unrelated to the coal scam, and both of whom Sinha was not authorised to meet in the absence of a member of the investigating team. In relation to the coal sector, one visitor stands out: Mithilesh Kumar Singh, who retired as General Manager (Civil) of the Central Mines Planning Design Institute in Ranchi. Singh was virtually at home at the Sinha residence, which he visited 298 times over the 15 months recorded in the logs. It is learnt that the committee noted that Sinha retired from a senior position in the coal sector, and while it found no link to any specific case, it raised questions about the nature of his interactions with Sinha.

The Sharma Committee noted that the visits of Vijay Darda, Devendra Darda and Santosh Bagrodia and their telephonic contact with Sinha impacted the investigation and the former director’s decision-making in three registered cases relating to the coal-block allotment—the Jas Infrastructure Capital Private Limited (JICPL), AMR Iron and Steel Private Limited and JLD Yavatmal Energy Private Limited cases. The Dardas and Bargodia were accused in these cases. The committee has also noted that the Dardas are business associates of Manoj Jayaswal, a high-flying Nagpur businessman, and that their visits appear to have been aimed at seeking favours for the Jayaswals.

The CBI’s inquiry into the coal scam was instituted in 2012, and was monitored by the Supreme Court. At the time that the Sharma Committee began its investigation, the agency had registered 50 Regular Cases (RCs) and three Preliminary Enquiries (PEs)—these clubbed together the allocation of 300 coal mines or blocks. Of the 50 RCs, only 14 had been disposed of at the time that the committee was set up in 2015. Thirteen of these were finalised on Sinha’s orders. Of these, Sinha had ordered closure in eight cases. Despite the CBI’s reports, the special judge hearing the cases took cognisance of 12 of the 13 RCs.

The outcomes of the three cases related to the Dardas and Bagrodia make for interesting reading. While in both the JICPL and JLD Yavatmal cases, there was a difference of opinion among the officers—the investigating officer, the superintendent of police, and the deputy inspector general of the CBI recommended prosecution, while the joint director and the additional director opposed it—they were unanimous in recommending the prosecution of Vijay Darda and Santosh Bagrodia in the AMR Iron and Steel case. On 13 February 2014, Sinha ordered the closure of the two cases where opinions were divided. On 26 March, he ordered further investigations in the cases, but confined these to the role of public servants.

The committee concluded that Sinha’s decision to order further investigations was an infructuous exercise since, even if the criminal liability of the public servants was established under PCA, they could not have been prosecuted when the cases against the concerned companies and their directors had been closed. On 8 April 2014, Sinha once again ordered that the JICPL and the JLD Yavatmal cases be closed. The committee noted that between 2 February 2014 and 29 May 2014, Devendra Darda made 12 visits to Sinha, along with several phone calls. It concluded that the visits of Vijay Darda and his son Devender Darda had impacted Sinha’s decision, and resulted in the closure of these cases.

In the AMR Iron and Steel case, the committee took note of the fact that that apart from the Dardas, Bagrodia visited Sinha’s residence 46 times between 9 May 2013 and and 8 June 2014. In a note in the AMR file, dated 13 February, Sinha highlighted the supposed “weaknesses” of the case. Sinha then repeatedly sought further legal opinion. He finally ordered that Darda be prosecuted, but under diluted sections of the PCA. He deferred any decision on Bagrodia and ordered further investigations into the role of public servants. The committee felt that the additional director—the joint director had by then recused himself—may have come under pressure from Sinha, and changed his opinion on the case. Sinha then ordered the closure of the case against Bagrodia. The committee concluded Bagrodia’s visits and his telephonic communications with Sinha had impacted the former director’s decision in the case.

It is learnt that Vijay Darda told the Sharma Committee that while he disputed the number of visits he made to Sharma’s residence, he admitted that he had met the former director at the latter’s home in relation to the cases against his son. He told the committee that he discussed these cases with Sinha, and then sent his son Devendra to explain the problems in detail. Devendra confirmed this sequence of events to the committee, though he, too, disputed the numbers of times he met Sinha. Both these admissions are damning for the former director, who was not supposed to be in touch with people the CBI was investigating in the absence of any person from the investigating team. Bagrodia, on the other hand, claimed to the committee that had known Sinha since 2001, and that his visits to Sinha’s residence were purely personal in nature.