In night operation, CBI loses chief Alok Verma, deputy Rakesh Asthana
In an unexpectedly swift predawn move to end a potentially destructive internecine war in the country’s premier investigating agency, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government removed the two principals of CBI, director Alok Kumar Verma and special director Rakesh Asthana, an order immediately challenged by Verma in the apex court, which will hear the appeal on Friday.
The government asked M Nageswar Rao, a 1986-batch Orissa cadre officer and the senior-most joint director of the Central Bureau of Investigation, to look after the duties and functions of the CBI director. Rao, officials familiar with the development said, reached the CBI headquarters at around 11pm on Tuesday and left at 2am on Wednesday after receiving the order in a shakeup of the investigative agency’s ranks.
As Wednesday drew to a close, uncertainty remained over the legitimacy of Verrma’s removal given that the CBI chief has a fixed two-year tenure and Verma’s term runs till January-end. Congress party president Rahul Gandhi slammed the government, claiming that the Prime Minister “broke the law” and “bypassed” the Chief Justice of India and the Leader of the Opposition, who were part of the panel that selected the CBI chief.
The order divesting Verma and Asthana of their roles was served to them at their homes at around 2.30am. The government acted within hours of their bitter feud, which became public in October 2017, reaching the courts, with Asthana, who had been stripped by Verma of all his functions, seeking protection from arrest.
CBI also secured the remand of a deputy superintendent of police on his team.
Verma and Asthana have traded allegations of bribery.
The government said the allegations of corruption by senior CBI officer against each other “vitiated the official eco-system of the organisation.”
“The environment of faction feud has reached its peak in CBI leading to a potential loss of credibility and reputation of the premier investigating agency of the government. It also vitiated the working environment of the organization which has deep and visible impact on the overall governance,” it said in a statement.
Union finance minister Arun Jaitley defended the government’s move in a press conference, saying Verma and Asthana were removed from their posts on a recommendation by the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) to maintain the agency’s institutional integrity and fairness.
“Officers under a cloud must stand out as interim measure. This is in accordance with the highest standards of fairness,” Jaitley said, pointing to the allegations and counter allegations that Verma and Asthana levelled at each other.
Asthana sent a representation to the cabinet secretary listing 10 cases of corruption and misconduct against Verma and joint director Arun Kumar Sharma. CBI has registered a first information report (FIR) alleging that Asthana had taken a bribe from a Hyderabad-based businessman
On Tuesday evening, ministry of personnel officials (CBI is under the jurisdiction of the ministry) were asked to stay back in their offices . The secretary, personnel, establishment officer, who deals with senior appointments in the government, and additional secretary were summoned to the Prime Minister’s Office at about midnight. The meeting at PMO started at about 1am and ended an hour later with the orders being issued for the removal of Verma and Asthana and Rao’s interim appointment.
Immediately after taking charge as acting chief, Rao divested Sharma of his charges of the police division, which handles technical surveillance of suspects, and the anticorruption headquarters zone, under which investigations against Asthana following the bribery charge were being carried out.
The acting chief also ordered transfers of 12 other officers in the agency including the investigation officer (IO) of the case, his supervisory additional superintendent of police, and deputy inspector general.
Asthana, in a representation to the CVC, had asked for removal of the IO, Sharma, and director Verma from investigation and supervision of the case lodged against him.
As it came under attack from opposition parties over the removal of Verma, the government said it acted only on the recommendation of CVC, which has superintendence over CBI. The CVC on Tuesday issued an order that Verma be divested of his charge.
The commission said it had received a complaint by Asthana (of August 24) from the cabinet secretary levelling charges of corruption and misconduct against Verma and other CBI officers on August 30. The allegations were divided into three categories – one pertaining to seeking a bribe of ?2 crore from a Hyderabad-based businessman, Sana Satish Babu, to scuttle a probe against him; second of trying to hamper a probe against Bihar politician Lalu Prasad; and a third concerned with various other acts of misconduct.
The commission said CBI was served three separate notices (under section 11 of CVC Act, 2003) on September 11 asking its chief to produce files and documents before the Commission on September 14, but the documents were not produced.
Finally, on September 24, CBI assured the CVC that it would furnish the documents within three weeks. Despite repeated assurances and reminders, Verma failed to furnish the records or files. In the meanwhile, Asthana complained to CVC again that the agency was trying to implicate him in false cases.
CVC said it had advised CBI not to initiate any probe against Asthana, keeping in mind the fact that prior sanction under section 17 A of the amended Prevention of Corruption Act is required for such a probe. But CBI went ahead and registered a case against Asthana.
CVC also observed that Verma was non-cooperative with the Commission and created “willful obstructions” in its functioning. Considering the “extra-ordinary and unprecedented circumstances,” CVC passed orders divesting Verma and Asthana of their functions, power, duty and supervisory role, it said.
The government said it carefully examined and evaluated the material made available to it and in the interest of “equality, fair play and principles of natural justice, decided to divest Verma and Asthana of their responsibilities.”