In a move that observers have expected for several months now, the Modi government has initiated procedures to set up a Department of Clean Chits, which will function under the authority of the Ministry of Home Affairs. The new department’s mandate will be to alleviate the many criminal cases in which those in government, or loyal to it, have been previously embroiled, are currently embroiled, or may go on to be embroiled. This may extend to enabling individuals accused of economic offences—such as misappropriating funds intended for a cricket tournament—to bypass travel restrictions, thus ensuring that the foreign minister’s personal intervention is not deemed necessary.
Prominent recent clean chits to be approved by the government include those handed out on 8 June 2015 to the former Intelligence Bureau officer Rajinder Kumar and three other bureau officials. The home ministry denied the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) sanction to prosecute the officers in the alleged fake encounter of Ishrat Jahan. The procedures to issue these and earlier clean chits were determined to be a significant drain on the ministry’s resources, and added further impetus to the plan to formally set up a new department that could focus on this work. “It was beginning to be felt that the sheer load of clean chit managing was drawing home ministry resources away from important internal security issues, such as NGOs,” said one high-level home ministry official. “So the prime minister felt it would be better to delegate the clean-chit work to a separate department.”
The new department is expected to oversee all denials to law enforcement agencies that want to prosecute government officials; it will also oversee all judicial and quasi-judicial bodies that may be constituted from time to time to investigate crimes involving those in or loyal to the current dispensation, to ensure that such bodies expedite the processing of clean-chit outcomes.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is said to be the main proponent of this new department. His enthusiasm is believed to be a result of past experience, given that he has himself been the beneficiary of clean-chit procedures, such as in 2012, when the Supreme-Court-appointed Special Investigation Team (SIT) issued him a clean chit with regard to the Gulbarg massacre case in the 2002 Gujarat riots.
The prime minister’s proposal also received strong backing from Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah. His recent and unfettered rise to national prominence was assisted by clean chits that were issued to him in May 2014 in relation to the Ishrat Jahan case, and in December 2014 in relation to the Sohrabuddin killing. “It is only thanks to these clean chits that these important people were able to rise to such great heights,” the ministry official said. “But it was felt that these procedures were not as efficient as they should have been. So there was a need to institutionalise the procedures to ensure that other talented individuals don’t face similar hurdles.”
The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) isn’t unique in its utilisation of clean chits to ease the functioning of the government. The previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, too, found it an effective method to enable leaders in their work—among these leaders was Jagdish Tytler who was issued clean chits by the CBI in 2007 and 2009 for his alleged role in the riots of 1984. The decision by the NDA to formalise the work through a separate Department of Clean Chits is being seen as a key part of Prime Minister Modi’s push for “maximum governance,” a move which will not only increase resources to a high-profile ministry, but also improve the efficiencies of prominent individuals in the government. “Inconvenient and ill-timed accusations, though they may be grounded in truth, can severely restrict the ability of government officials to function,” the ministry official said. “This slows down delivery of governance. The Department of Clean Chits will tackle this problem head-on and ensure that good governance is not sacrificed because of minor issues such as criminal allegations.”
Ajay Krishnan is an associate editor at The Caravan.