Another caged parrot? | The Financial Express

Another caged parrot?

The latest criticism of the ED shows how agencies have been used as instruments of intimidation

Another caged parrot?
The order, thus, is the latest in a series of diagnoses of the same chronic illness—partisan abuse of institutions such as the ED, the Central Bureau of Investigation, and even the police.

A Mumbai special court’s scathing observations last week on the Enforcement Directorate’s callous way of functioning is the latest example of how investigative agencies are misused by the political class. The court was hearing a bail plea by Maharashtra politician Sanjay Raut in a Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) case. To be sure, this is not the first such instance, nor is the current regime the only one accused of this. Indeed, when the present Opposition was in power, today’s ruling party had made similar charges against it. The order, thus, is the latest in a series of diagnoses of the same chronic illness—partisan abuse of institutions such as the ED, the Central Bureau of Investigation, and even the police.

In the present instance, the special PMLA court held that Raut and his aide were “arrested illegally” and that both of them are “entitled to parity in view of the disparity made by the ED in not arresting the main accused persons” and other government officials who are implicated in the matter. The court also said that the arrests were made on the basis of civil litigation, which was not a “predicate offence” (offences listed in the Schedule to the PMLA). “Simply labelling pure civil disputes with money laundering or economic offence cannot automatically acquire such status and ultimately drag an innocent person in a miserable situation in the guise of arrest,” the court said. Ineptness on the part of the agency is one matter, but if this is indeed an indication of pliable agencies going beyond the letter and the spirit of the law to execute diktats of a ruling dispensation, it is a cause for alarm over rapid erosion of the political neutrality of institutions.

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There have been allegations of disproportionate targeting of the opposition and dissenting voices under the present regime. From slapping of draconian charges against lawyers, activists, scholars, and journalists, to the use of the National Investigation Agency to hound dissenting academics, PMLA and ED are not the only tools deployed to crush opposition. The use of the process as the punishment—when there is little chance of securing conviction of the accused—is done to have a chilling effect on anyone who disagrees with the ruling dispensation. A reply of the home ministry in Parliament provides evidence of this: in a total of 5,027 cases registered under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act over 2016-2020, in which there are 24,134 accused, there have been just 212 convictions till July this year.

The judge in the present instance outlined a “pick and choose” policy followed by the agency in the arrests made, and said that if the court were to side with the call for denying the bail application, it would cause the common man to lose faith in the judicial system. While the judiciary does indeed have a seminal role in preserving faith in the due process of law, the larger onus of preserving faith in institutions is on the political class. The use of state instruments as instruments of intimidation and blackmail is dangerous for democracy in the long run. in the long run. All parties, irrespective of whether they are in power or not, need to keep this in mind. Nine years ago, the country’s apex court had called the Central Bureau of Investigation a caged parrot. India can hardly afford another one in the form of the ED.

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First published on: 14-11-2022 at 04:45 IST