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Supreme Court

Supreme Court rules that the CBI requires state consent for investigations, upholding federalism in West Bengal’s challenge to the Sandeshkhali probe.

The latest verdict of the Supreme Court on the West Bengal government’s challenge of powers exercised by the Central Bureau of Investigation to take up cases without obtaining prior consent from the state is the latest development in the wrenching battle for federalism and powers of central investigating agencies. The judgment came after the apex court first ordered an investigation by the CBI into several charges of sexual assault and land grabbing in Sandeshkhali, vehemently opposed by the Bengal government.

Background

In 2018, the Mamata Banerjee-led West Bengal government withdrew its general consent to the CBI, citing apprehensions over federal overreach and flaming concerns about the political misuse of this investigating agency. A host of other states, like Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra, have followed suit in the past few years. At the heart of the matter is the interpretation of the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act, 1946, which governs the CBI.

Requirement of State Consent under the DSPE Act

Under Section 6 of the act, the CBI is required to obtain the prior consent of the respective state government for the investigation-related activities within its territory. It not only relates to preserving the doctrine of federalism and not offending the states’ sovereignty but also includes any other kind of activity. However, the Union contended that withdrawal of consent does not disable the agency from doing anything, particularly when issues of great public concern are involved.

Supreme Court’s Ruling

The bench of Justices BR Gavai and KV Vishwanathan made a refined, nuanced judgment while addressing these contentions. It has not accepted the central government’s contention that the petition by the Bengal government was not maintainable; it recognized the broader implications for federalism. “It cannot be said that West Bengal has not made out any case against Centre,” the bench observed, thereby giving validity to the state’s concerns.

Implications for Federalism

This order has far-reaching implications for the delicate balance of power existing between the Center and the state governments in India. Through this ruling, which overstresses that without the consent of the concerned state, an inquiry by the CBI is null and void, the court gave a fillip to the federal structure enshrined in the Indian Constitution. This ruling emphasizes the point that a central agency cannot use its might to sideline the authority of a state government, thus providing insulation to state authorities.

The Sandeshkhali Case

At the root of this legal battle is a probe by CBI into very grave allegations against erstwhile Trinamool Congress leader Shahjahan Sheikh and his goons in Sandeshkhali for crimes of sexual assault, land grabbing, and a ration scam. The probe was ordered by the Calcutta High Court and opposed by the state government on grounds that the state police were competent to hold the probe.

By allowing the CBI to continue with its investigation, perhaps the very fundamental question asked by the Supreme Court was this: what could be the vested interest in protecting a person against whom even serious crimes are alleged? This questionPRI projects what the court is seeking to emphasize: the concern of political interference and wanting the probe not to be partial. His judgment strikes a balance between allowing the probe by the central agency and not weakening state authority by continuing the probe by the CBI.

Future Proceedings

The matter was listed for further consideration on August 13, when the legal issues as to whether or not it is valid for CBI to file and investigate cases in those states with which consent under Sec. 6 of the DSPE Act was withdrawn will be taken up for hearing at length. The decision of such an upcoming hearing, at that stage, would certainly create a very vital precedent for settling similar disputes under many adversarial instances.

Conclusion

The order on the Bengal versus CBI case is a landmark in the tussle between the central investigating agencies and the autonomy of states. While giving its verdict that investigations can be done only with the previous consent from the state concerned, it has struck the right balance between federalism and the need to probe allegations of a serious nature. It impinges not merely on the parties arrayed before the court but is a ruling with far-reaching precedential value for state governments and multiple central agencies in India. This ruling strikes a delicate nuance between respect for state sovereignty and an investigation that is untainted by bias, if at all it could be negotiated with judicial prudence.

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