THE Central Bureau of Investigation’s defence of its decision to downgrade the Lookout Circular (LoC) for Vijay Mallya as “error of judgment” is poor, as it facilitated easy travel for former chairman of Kingfisher Airlines. In the first LoC issued on October 16, 2015, the CBI filled out the form checking the box ‘prevent subject from leaving India.’ However, the second LoC issued on November 24, 2015, on the very night Mallya was to land in Delhi, the agency through a covering letter sent to the special branch of the Mumbai Police changed the request. The CBI ticked the box in this second LoC form: ‘Inform originator of arrival/departure of subject,’ indicating to the officials that the detention of Mallya on his arrival in the country was not required. The CBI letter to the officials came in the wake of an alert sounded by immigration authorities activated through the Advanced Passenger Information System (APIS) to the CBI on the morning of November 23, 2015, that Mallya was landing at New Delhi international airport on the night of November 24. Acting swiftly on the information it received, the CBI on November 24 wrote a lengthy letter to Mumbai Police (for onward instructions to the immigration authorities) along with a fresh LoC categorically stating that, “detention of the subject at this stage is not required by us.”
Despite having registered a cheating and criminal case against Mallya following countrywide uproar on July 29, 2015, the agency failed to take immediate steps collect evidence against him. The CBI said that it filed an FIR based on “source information” as no bank had approached the agency at the time with a complaint. It is surprising to note that United Bank of India, one of the lenders to Kingfisher Airlines, despite declaring Kingfisher Airlines, Mallya and three directors of the firm as ‘wilful defaulter’ on September 1, 2014 failed to approach the CBI, nor did other banks. Mallya owes Rs 9,000 crore to the banks in the country. Its ground was that if Mallya was detained on his arrival, he had to be arrested and it did not have enough evidence to do so. The CBI failed to collect evidence against the fugitive even after four months of registering the case. The agency felt that Mallya would cooperate better with the probe if he was not arrested. Since the amended LoC, Mallya visited the UK and returned multiple times and made good his escape on March 2 this year.
According to the confidential correspondence accessed by a Delhi newspaper, the CBI argued with the Mumbai Police that its first LoC was an error and that detention of Mallya was “not required.” It is surprising to note that the CBI claimed in its letter of November 24, 2015 that it was unaware of the system of alerts via the APIS and that since it had been made aware of it, there was no need for Mallya’s detention. The letter further states: “While establishing the LoC, our request as to be informed about the arrival/departure of the subject from India and in the annexure, the reference to detention was made under the impression that APIS about his arrival may not be available and therefore, in case the accused checks in at the immigration post for arrival/departure, the information would be furnished to us only at that point. Therefore, we had mentioned that the subject (Mallya) may be detained.” The CBI told the Mumbai police that it could have phrased the annexure differently had it known that advance information was available in their data-base/records.
As the change in LoC is hotly debated in the country, Mallya made a statement outside a London court that he met Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley before leaving India and offered to settle the matter, which has added to suspicions that his case was being soft pedalled. What is more appalling is the fact that though the State Bank of India, which led the consortium of banks that lent money to Kingfisher Airlines, got legal advice to move the apex court to stop Mallya’s escaping on February 28, its management somehow failed to act on it and within days Mallya fled the country. Was the delay on the part of SBI management a deliberate attempt to help Mallya flee the country? To dispel doubts that the government did not have any role in the Mallya escape, the Centre should order probe leading to series of events including change in LoCs and Mallya’s flight from the country. The case has to be taken to logical end to restore faith in the banking system and the criminal law enforcement agencies.