Angry over alleged political interference in the coal blocks allocation scam, the Supreme Court on Tuesday slammed the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for keeping it in the dark about having shared a draft copy of its probe report with the government.
Dismayed at the CBI breaking its trust, the court directed the agency's director Ranjit Sinha to file a "truthful affidavit" by May 6 disclosing why the law officer representing it had made a misleading statement in the court on March 12 that the status report on the coalgate probe was not shared with anyone.
The top court said sharing of information with the government about the investigation had "shaken the entire process", and the CBI need not take any instructions from "political masters".
"Our first exercise will be to liberate CBI from political interference," said a three-judge bench headed by justice RM Lodha.
The proceedings in the Supreme Court kept the government firmly on the back foot and its discomfiture will continue at least until the next hearing on May 8 at which the CBI has to answer the key question of who asked it to make changes, if any, in the draft status report submitted in the court.
Law minister Ashwani Kumar, said to have seen the draft report, is under increasing pressure to quit, though Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has stood by him so far.
In a brief response to the court's comments on Tuesday, the PM said any action required on the court's observations would be taken after he has studied them.
The Opposition mounted a fresh offensive, demanding Singh's resignation, with its leader in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, saying the government was defenceless.
Other parties sought a discussion in Parliament, which was, predictably, disrupted over the issue.
The raging controversy claimed its first scalp with additional solicitor general Harin Raval, who has been representing the CBI, resigning within hours of the court wanting to know why he had misled it.
Raval has charged his boss, attorney general GE Vahanvati, with trying to influence the probe report and attempting to make him a scapegoat.
The CBI will now be represented by senior counsel UU Lalit in the high-profile case.
The court also rapped the coal ministry for not providing relevant documents sought by the CBI despite repeated reminders.
At the end of a two-hour hearing, the bench ordered the CBI director to also explain why the sealed report was silent about the meeting between him, Ashwani Kumar and joint secretary-level officials from the coal ministry and the prime minister's office (PMO).
It wanted to know the names of the two joint secretaries. Vahanvati said he was not aware of the contents of the draft report, shared with the law minister, PMO and coal ministry.
"I never had a copy of the status report. I do not have the copy even today," he said.
"Oh, really?" said Prashant Bhushan, the lawyer for the NGO that has filed a petition alleging government interference.
This provoked laughter in court, breaking the tense atmosphere.