The CBI Firestorm: Supreme Court Reinstates Alok Verma As CBI Director
On 8 January 2019, the Supreme Court reinstated Alok Verma as the CBI director on the condition that he cannot take any major policy decision until the Central Vigilance Commission ends its investigation
New Delhi, 8 January 2019.
The Supreme Court (SC) on Tuesday reinstated Alok Verma as the CBI director. However, Verma, whose term was supposed to end in January 2019, cannot make any major policy decisions until the Central Vigilance Commission concludes its investigation. The court also said that only a high-powered select committee (comprising of the prime minister, the chief justice of India and the leader of the Opposition) can decide to take further action against Verma.
For the time being, this ends a long wait for a substantial resolution to the CBI vs CBI storm. On 29 November 2018, the SC had preceded over a marathon hearing over the issue of the government’s action against Verma and whether it had been a legal one. Arguing on behalf of Verma, senior advocate Fali S. Nariman said that only the Selection Committee (comprised of the Prime Minister, the Chief Justice and the Leader of the Opposition) could act against the CBI director. Other petitioners opposing the government’s decision also made similar arguments during the post-lunch session. Lawyer Kapil Sibal, representing Mallikarjun Kharge (the nominated Leader of the Opposition), insisted that the “whole purpose of making these appointments [such as that of the CBI director] independent will be lost” if the government order is not revoked. The government, however, stuck to its guns saying that Verma had not been ‘removed’ from his post. "He [Verma] continues to hold the post, including the residence and other perquisites," the Attorney General K. K. Venugopal pointed out. The SC had then adjourned the matter for further hearing.
Previously, the SC on 20 November had expressed extreme displeasure at the details of Alok Verma’s reply and the CBI DIG Manish Kumar Sinha’s petition being made public. Considering it to be a breach of confidentiality, the bench had issued a stern warning to all the parties in the case, saying that “This court is not a platform for people to come and express what they want. This is a place for adjudication of legal rights. This is not right. We intend to set it right.” Furthermore, it remarked that “Our effort to maintain the respect of this institution is not being shared by everyone.” Handing over a news report to Nariman (who is representing Verma), the bench sought his opinion about the leak, to which Nariman replied that he was also deeply disturbed by the report, before asking the court to summon the person who had edited it. Nariman further said that he was disturbed by the fact that he had not been informed that Verma had to file his reply to the CVC report on Monday itself and said that it was ‘completely unauthorized’. Later, Justice S. K. Kaul mentioned why the court was trying to keep the reports confidential: “The main objective was to protect the CBI, it was not to embarrass anyone.” The court refused to listen to anyone else other than Nariman.
Fresh allegations had also been levelled against a Union minister of state and National Security Adviser Ajit Doval by CBI officer Manish Kumar Sinha, who petitioned the Supreme Court on Monday (19 November) against his sudden transfer to Nagpur. The officer, who was investigating the bribery charges against former CBI Special Director Rakesh Asthana, alleged that the NSA had informed Asthana about an FIR being registered against him on 17 October 2018. This reportedly came against the backdrop of Asthana’s request to the NSA that he shouldn’t be arrested. In his petition, Sinha further claimed that on 20 October Doval had asked the CBI Director to stop raids on Devender Sharma, who had worked with Asthana, citing some important messages on Sharma’s phone not relevant to the case. Sinha also said that Manoj Prasad, one of the arrested middlemen in the fiasco, had boasted that his father, a former Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) officer, was a ‘close acquaintance’ of Doval. While accusing a Union minister of state of taking ‘a few crores’ to help a businessman under investigation, Sinha also pointed fingers at the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) claiming that he had heard an officer say that “things have been managed with PMO and everything is fine” on the same day Asthana and Verma were transferred. However, Sinha’s request for an urgent hearing in the matter was declined by the SC.
Both Rakesh Asthana and Alok Verma had moved the Supreme Court, challenging their removal. Meanwhile, the SC which heard the petitions on 26 October, had given the Central Vigilance Commission two weeks to complete its investigation into the allegations against Verma. It had also barred CBI’s interim chief V. Nageshwar Rao from taking policy decisions. Furthermore, the court had instructed the agency to submit a list of all the decisions Rao has taken since October 23, on November 12 in a sealed cover.
India’s premier investigating agency has been at the centre of controversies in the past, but the unfolding events and the face off between the CBI director Alok Verma and his deputy Rakesh Asthana has taken it to a whole new level. Both Verma and Asthana were sent on leave and had their offices sealed. Moreover, CBI’s interim chief V. Nageshwar Rao transferred around a dozen of CBI’s top officials.
The events so far in a nutshell
- The conflict between Verma and Asthana dates back to October 2017, when Verma objected to Asthana’s appointment as a special director during a meeting of the Central Vigilance Commission (the body that oversees the CBI’s activities). Asthana, a Gujarat-cadre officer, is believed to have been handpicked by PM Narendra Modi.
- Verma believed that Asthana had interfered unfavourably in the induction of officers selected by him. He also alleged that the CBI had stumbled upon Asthana’s role in the Sterling Biotech case. However, the five-member CVC panel wasn’t convinced. Neither was the Supreme Court, which awarded a clean chit to Asthana.
- On 12 July 2018, Asthana was invited as the number two in the agency. This meeting (to discuss promotions) was convened at a time when Verma was abroad. Verma informed the CVC that he had not authorized Asthana to attend meetings on his behalf.
- Then, after months of heated animosity, Asthana made the first move. On 24 August, he wrote to the CVC and the cabinet secretary, providing details of alleged corruption by Verma and his “right-hand man” and additional director A.K. Sharma. Asthana claimed that Verma had accepted a 2-crore bribeto shield Satish Babu Sana, a Hyderabadi businessman, from investigations into his alleged connections with Moin Qureshi. Qureshi became India’s biggest meat exporter in the 1990s but has been linked to a Rs. 200-crore money laundering case, which the Enforcement Directorate is still pursuing.
- However, on 15 October, the CBI registered an FIR naming Asthana, Devender Kumar (the CBI Deputy Superintendent of Police, who was later arrested), Manoj and Somesh Prasad (two alleged middlemen, who also happen to be the sons of an R&AW official). The FIR was lodged on the basis of a complaint by Satish Sana, who claimed that he had been receiving notices to appear before the CBI, despite (allegedly) having done so. In the complaint, he also alleged that Somesh had informed him that the CBI officer who would get him out of this mess for a hefty bribe (of Rs. 5 crore) was Asthana himself.
- In the meantime, Verma had also removed Asthana from all the major cases he was involved in and handed them over to Sharma. Asthana’s staff officer was also transferred.
- Last week, Asthana again wrote to the CVC and the cabinet secretary informing them that he had wanted to arrest Sana in September, but Verma opposed it. He also alleged that Verma had done the same thing when he had tried to question Sana in February.
- On 22 October, the CBI raided its own headquartersand arrested Devender Kumar.
- On 23 October at 4 AM, the CBI reached Asthana’s house to conduct a search. Though the team stayed at the site for over 12 hours, the search was called off when the Delhi High Court instructed the CBI to put a hold on its activities until it had next heard the case.
- The same evening, the CVC decided to advise the government to send Asthana and Verma on leave. The decision was ratified and the orders issued.
- Nageshwar Rao, who was appointed interim chief of CBI, arrived at the headquarters at around 1:15 AM. The Delhi police had already cordoned the building. With the help of a few officers, he sealed Asthana and Verma’s office, and then proceeded to overhaul the senior CBI leadership.
- With the coming to light of IB personnel found ‘sleuthing’ outside his house, speculation on whether Verma had been put under surveillance was rife in the capital and elsewhere in the country.
- The SC instructed the Central Vigilance Commission to complete its investigation into the allegations against Alok Verma within two weeks. It has also barred Nageshwar Rao from taking any policy decisions. Meanwhile, the Congress has staged protests against Alok Verma’s removal outside CBI offices in different parts of the country.
- On 19 November, CBI officer Manish Kumar Sinha accused NSA Ajit Doval of interfering in and influencing the proceedings of the investigation against Asthana. He has also accused the PMO of settling the matter with the CBI under wraps. Furthermore, he’s alleged that a Union minister of state took bribes from a businessman under investigation. Opposing his sudden transfer to Nagpur, he requested the Supreme Court for an urgent hearing saying that he was in the possession of documents that would shock the court. The court declined the request, with Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi stating that “nothing shocks us.”
- The same day, CBI Director Alok Verma filed his response to the CVC’s report dealing with the corruption charges against him. The SC had granted him time till 4 p.m. to file his response. The previous week, the SC mentioned the CVC’s report to be “very complimentary” on some charges, “not so complimentary” on some charges, “very uncomplimentary” on some charges and added that “some charges require further probe”.
- On 20 November, the Supreme Court lashed out against all parties concerned for making the details of Alok Verma’s reply and the CBI DIG Manish Kumar Sinha’s petition public. Considering it to be a breach of confidentiality, the court warned all the parties concerned. The court refused to entertain anybody other than senior advocate Fali S. Nariman, and adjourned the matter for further hearing on 29 November.
- On 29 November (Thursday), the Supreme Court heard arguments on whether the government’s action to send Verma on a forced leave was legal or not. While Nariman and other petitioners arguing against the government order insisted that only the Selection Committee had the power to act against the CBI director, the government defended its stance saying that Verma had not been ‘removed’ from his post and that he continues hold other benefits pertaining to his post. The court adjourned the matter until 5 December.
- After a long wait, the SC finally reinstated Alok Verma as the CBI director on the condition that he cannot take any major policy decisions until the Central Vigilance Commission ends its investigation into the matter. The court also specified that only the high-powered committee (consisting of the PM, the CJI and the leader of the Opposition) can take an action against Verma.
Lookout for this space as the events unfold.
Image used for representative purposes only.