Having okayed an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into the affairs of the Indian Council of Cultural Relations (ICCR), the foreign ministry finds it has opened a can of worms. The CBI, whose original brief was to probe the empanelment of a bhangra troupe charged with human trafficking, is finding more and more senior officers being drawn into its investigation net, compounding the ministry’s embarrassment.
Foreign secretary Shyam Saran gave the CBI permission last year to probe former Director General of ICCR Rakesh Kumar’s role in the case. Kumar, then special secretary in the ministry, is the highest ranking serving official ever to be probed. He has claimed his failure was a supervisory one, and named more officials, in various departments of the MEA, for their culpability.
Among them is MS Grover, deputy chief of mission in Geneva, who authorised the empanelment of the bhangra troupe “Mehak Punjab di”, that went missing. Also within the probe's ambit now are senior officials from the Europe (West) division, who sought permission for the troupe's visas, and the CPV division, for issuing their passports in record time. This kind of probe is, sources said, “unprecedented”.
The ICCR is being investigated at three different levels by the CBI.
The first, and most damaging, is the case of human trafficking.
The second is older, involving former ICCR president Najma Heptulla, also a former Deputy Chairperson and currently a member of the Rajya Sabha, in a case involving the “morphing” of a photograph in an official publication.
The third is part of a wider probe of allegations of corruption against several officials at ICCR by a dismissed employee, SM Matloob. The first and third investigations were merged after current ICCR president, Rajya Sabha MP Karan Singh, in an effort at damage control, sought a thorough cleansing of the Augean stables by an impartial organisation.
Allegations of irregularities at the ICCR began to surface during Heptulla’s tenure when she allegedly morphed pictures of herself with the founder of ICCR, Maulana Azad. After former MoS in the MEA, Rao Inderjit Singh, informed Parliament that the matter would be probed, charges against Heptulla under Sections 405, 406 and 407 of the IPC (involving 'criminal breach of trust') were firmed up. Investigating agencies found corroborative evidence of charges of morphing with the printer of the book, Lalit Syal, of Sita Fine Arts, and Heptulla's secretary, Badruddin.
The discovery of irregularities in procedural matters opened up many aspects of the ICCR's functioning to the CBI's scrutiny. Sleuths probed details of how cultural troupes are empanelled and scrutinised files, discovering a trail of complaints against many ICCR officials by Matloob, who was "compulsorily retired" during Kumar's tenure.
Matloob, a former Haj Assistant at the Haj office at Mecca and repatriated from there in 1999, who worked as a UDC and librarian at ICCR, petitioned the High Court with his allegations of misuse of funds at ICCR, but the case was dismissed. There have been a series of adverse comments against him from former Directors General and senior officials, from Shiv Shankar Mukherjee to PA Nazareth to Meera Shankar and Himachal Som. Former External Affairs Minister Natwar Singh had sought an "immediate inquiry" against Matloob's activities in July 2004.