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.
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.

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.

Hartosh Singh Bal is the political editor at The Caravan.

Sandeep Bhushan was a television journalist for twenty years. He is currently an independent media researcher.

Keywords: CBI Supreme Court Coalgate Central Bureau of Investigation Coalscam Ranjit Sinha ML Sharma Sharma Committee