File Photo : Spy vs. Spy: Institutional Collapse of CBI
On January 10, less than 48 hours after Alok Verma took charge again as CBI chief after an SC order – which was a blow to the Modi government as it indicated the government’s decision to remove Verma in a ‘midnight coup’ was a blatant procedural violation – a hastily called meeting of the high-powered selection committee headed by the Prime Minister Narendr Modi, Justice A K Sikri on behalf of the Chief Justice of India, and Congress leader in Lok Sabha, Mallikarjun Kharge, ‘transferred’ Verma as the Director General of Fire Service, Civil defence and Home Guards. And, in less than 24 hours, Verma resigned citing that he can’t be transferred because “he was already superannuated as on July 17, 2017 and was only serving the government as Director, CBI till 31 January, 2019 as the same was a fixed tenure role.”
Two members of the committee were reportedly of the view that allegations raised against Mr Verma were serious and he should not continue as CBI director. Kharge dissented, saying that most of the allegations against Verma in the CVC (Chief Vigilance Commissioner’s) report were not substantiated, hence there was no reason for Verma’s ouster.
The Supreme Court had appointed retired Supreme Court judge, Justice A K Patnaik, to oversee the CVC enquiry. A day after Verma’s transfer by the committee, Justice Patnaik told The Indian Express that there was no evidence against Verma regarding corruption. He also said that the decision to transfer Verma was taken in “haste” and the committee should have taken this decision more carefully as it was related to an institution and a Supreme Court Judge was part of the committee. Patnaik also clarified that none of the findings in the CVC report were filed by him, and pointed out that the entire enquiry was conducted based on a complaint filed by CBI special director, Rakesh Asthana.
Now, Asthana is perceived to be a personal favourite of PM Modi and it is said that it was Modi who brought Asthana over to the Central Bureau of Investigation. There is already an existing CBI FIR against Asthana and two other CBI officers. Asthana’s plea to quash the FIR was dismissed by Delhi High Court on Friday. The court, in its order ,asked CBI to complete the enquiry against Asthana and others within 70 days.
This entire episode raises very serious questions. The Indian Express report confirms that the decision taken by the selection committee was not a correct one – especially when Patnaik says “The entire enquiry was held on (CBI Special Director Rakesh) Asthana’s complaint.” He continues: “The CVC forwarded to me a statement dated 9.11.2018 purportedly signed by Shri Rakesh Asthana. I may clarify that this statement purportedly signed by Shri Rakesh Asthana was not made in my presence”. His emphasis on the word ‘purportedly’ twice must be noted.
Justice Patnaik says the total report includes a 1,000-page annexure.
In a telephone conversation this afternoon with this writer, Kharge said from Gulbarga that he did not get any of the documents on the first day when the PM called the meeting and later, when the CVC report was given to him, it was without Alok Verma’s reply to the CVC on the allegations raised by Asthana and the observation report of Justice Patnaik.
Kharge said his repeated requests that the committee should give a chance to Verma to present his version to the committee were not accepted by PM Modi. “How is it possible to order hanging of a person without hearing his side? It was very strange,” the Congress leader added.
A report published by The Wire this morning shows a murkier side of the entire episode. It says, the CVC K V Chowdary visited Alok Verma’s residence to request him to “withdraw the adverse comment” he had written in Asthana’s Annual Confidential Report, that Asthana is an officer with “doubtful integrity”.
The report reveals that these details were mentioned in a letter Verma submitted to Justice Patnaik. And this was around the time CBI was planning to file an FIR against PM Modi’s Secretary, IAS officer Bhaskar Khulbe, in connection with irregularities related to coal block allocations.
When Verma did not agree to the request of the CVC, Asthana filed complaints against him with the CVC, which led to the ‘midnight coup’ of October 23, last year and eventually his ouster from CBI, which was later overturned by the SC citing procedural violation, the report says.
The Wire says: “His visit to Verma’s (residence) was not the first time Chowdary had batted for Asthana. When a controversy had broken out on the controversial officer’s appointment as special director in the CBI and it had become clear that Alok Verma was going to object to his selection in writing, Chowdary pushed through Asthana’s appointment. Officials say that (a) top PMO bureaucrat P.K. Mishra had summoned the Central Vigilance (Commissioner) Chowdary and directed him to ensure Asthana was appointed.” And when CBI filed an FIR against Asthana for corruption, the CVC raised procedural objections to it.
Retired Justice Markandeya Katju, in a Facebook post, claimed he spoke to Justice A K Sikri who was the third member of the high-power committee, and put out the reason why Justice Sikri felt it was appropriate to transfer Verma. He put out six points as the opinion of Justice Sikri.
1. The post explains CVC had recorded prima facie finding of guilt on some serious charges against Verma on the material before it.
2. CVC had given a hearing to Verma before recording its prima facie findings.
3. In view of these serious prima facie findings of guilt, and after pursuing the material on which they were based, Justice Sikri was of the opinion that until the matter was fully investigated and a final decision given about the guilt or innocence of Verma he should not remain on the post of Director, CBI but should be shifted to another post equivalent in rank.
4. Verma’s services had not been terminated, as some people believe. He has not been suspended, but only transferred retaining his salary and perks.
5. As regards the question of not giving a hearing to Verma, it is settled in principle that even suspension can be done without giving the accused a hearing and suspension pending enquiry are very common. It is only dismissal which cannot be done without a hearing.
Verma has not been suspended, far less dismissed. He has only been transferred to an equivalent post.”
There are problems with this statement. The basic premise of the case in Supreme Court was the removal of Verma as CBI director by the DoPT (Department of Personnel and Training), which is under the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), based on the CVC report which was again, based on the allegations made by Asthana, against whom the CBI had filed an FIR for accepting bribe and for whom, The Wire report says, CVC batted for on order from the PMO.
That action of DoPT was reversed by the SC saying such an action is legally not tenable. And the SC appointed observer Justice Patnaik said “There was no evidence against Verma regarding corruption. The entire enquiry was held on (CBI Special Director Rakesh) Asthana’s complaint.” Justice Sikri himself says (as per Justice Katju’s FB post) these are “prima facie findings”. Hence, it would have been appropriate for the committee to listen to what Verma had to say before transferring him.
The SC bench, while hearing the case, said the CVC report was exhaustive and the Indian Express article said it runs into more than 1,000 pages, including the annexure. One wonders how all these documents could be read in less than 24 hours to take a call to transfer Verma? When Kharge said he did not receive the copy of the observer’s report, did Justice Sikri read the entire report? And, if he did, did he not he notice Verma’s written submission on the visit of CVC to his residence requesting to help the complainant, as reported by The Wire?
Another point to remember is that the government-appointed new interim CBI director, Nageswara Rao, has enough allegations against him. If the Modi government’s intention was to clean up CBI, as claimed, they wouldn’t have appointed Rao at its helm.
As per another report published by Indian Express, immediately after taking charge, Rao reversed the decisions taken by Verma and “consequently, all actions in pursuance thereof by all concerned are also declared hereby as null and void”. The new interim CBI chief, by reversing Verma’s orders, nullified a file signed by Verma which could have led to an enquiry against Khulbe in the earlier mentioned alleged irregularities in coal block allocations.
The CVC himself has been accused of corruption. The Wire report mentions: “His name had surfaced in the former CBI chief Ranjit Sinha’s visitor’s diary scandal. Chowdary, after being appointed CVC, was also spotted in the office of Nikhil Merchant, a businessman believed to be close to the Prime Minister.
A PIL against Chowdary’s appointment was filed in the Supreme Court by the NGO Common Cause, which questioned his fitness for the anti-corruption job given his earlier reluctance, as a top income-tax official, to investigate the contents of incriminating documents recovered by his department from the corporate offices of the Birla and Sahara group. Those documents spoke of payments to various individuals or entities, including ‘Gujarat CM.” The current PM Modi was then Gujarat CM.
All these instances suggest the Modi government’s interference in institutions, raising suspicions about whether these are a bid to protect some corrupt officers closely associated with the PM. In this process, the autonomy, integrity and goodwill of the institutions are being destroyed.
So, should we still believe that PM Modi is the ‘messiah’ who is fighting corruption, as his government and his party (Bharatiya Janata Party) workers claim!
(Ravi Nair broke the story of the Rafale scam and is writing a book on the subject. The views expressed are personal.)