The Indian government in a highly criticized and controversial move, removed the two top officials leading the country’s main investigative agency Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), a supposed autonomous institution, Wednesday midnight.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi approved the move to send the CBI director Alok Verma and the agency’s special director Rakesh Asthana on a forced leave and divest them of all responsibilities. Verma was replaced with M. Nageswara Rao as the interim director.
The genesis of this controversy can be traced back to 2016 when the Modi government took the controversial decision to name Asthana, a police officer with a questionable track record and with close ties to the right-wing PM Modi and Amit Shah, the president of the ruling right-wing party BJP, the interim CBI chief.
A CBI chief has to be selected by a collegium of the PM, the chief justice of India and the leader of the opposition.
In January 2017, the collegium appointed Verma for the role of CBI chief going against the wishes of Modi who wanted Asthana at the helm of the investigative agency. But finally, Verma was selected for a fixed term of two years. On October 2017, Asthana was appointed as the special director which was opposed by Verma. Asthana, an ally of Modi, had in many instances tried to undermine the director’s authority by trying to appoint and promote people in the CBI in the absence of Verma which goes against the agency’s rules.
The director then filed corruption charges against the special director with Central Vigilance Committee, a body which oversees the CBI. Asthana was allegedly taking bribes from a company that was being investigated by the agency.
In retaliation, Asthana also filed at least 10 complaints against Verma, citing corruption also claiming that Verma had falsely implicated him.
The feud between the top two men in the CBI led the government to send them and several other officers on “indefinite leave”, and sealing their offices.
The decision to move the two men from their offices had been criticized by opposition party Congress which said this has been an attempt to undermine the autonomy of CBI.
Prashant Bhushan, an activist, and lawyer wrote on Twitter that this is an attempt to control the agency.
Verma was investigating the prime minister on the corruption charges in a multi-billion dollar fighter jet deal, namely, Rafale Deal. The deal saw various controversy but the main one was the accusation against the PM for forcing his French counterpart to select a company of Modi’s choice for the deal which violates clauses of defense procurement procedures.
BJP leaders Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie and advocate Prashant Bhushan moved the CBI with a complaint against Modi over the Rafale Deal and Verma was investigating the same. Opposition Congress party chief Rahul Gandhi alleged that the government removed Verma due to his investigations into Modi.
The controversy intensifies when one looks into Asthana. The special director was an IPS (Indian Police Service) officer in Gujarat when 2002 Godhra riot took place which witnessed a massacre of Muslims in the Western state of Gujarat by Hindu majority. Narendra Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat at that time and had been accused of orchestrating the genocide. Asthana was the one who gave a clean chit to Modi and his administration for the riot.
He was also the main person behind the arrest of Lalu Prasad Yadav, the leader of Rashtriya Janata Dal, a party in the Eastern State of Bihar. It was believed that this was a move by the BJP to take care of its opposition in Bihar. Verma was not sure of charges against Lalu when Asthana went ahead and arrested him.
Despite being the ‘blue-eyed boy’ of PM Modi, Asthana was also forced to go for a leave in the wake of CBI crisis which is raising various questions in the Indian political circle, like, is Modi losing control of his puppets?
Since both directors have been removed from office, Verma challenged his removal before the Supreme Court alleging the move by the government as “illegal” and the “last nail” into the coffin of the independence of CBI.
Moreover, in his petition before the Supreme Court, Alok Verma referred to Section 4B of the Delhi Special Police Establishment (DSPE) Act, saying it statutorily secures the two-year period of the director’s tenure notwithstanding anything to the contrary. This had been done to secure the autonomy of CBI but the same has been violated.
Verma’s leave and CVC’s approval of Rao as interim chief within short hours points towards the violation of all codes and the established due process.
Chief Justice Gogoi had given only two weeks for the Court-monitored probe against Verma to be completed by the CVC. It also restrained Rao from taking any decisions until then. This clearly shows the Supreme Court’s lack of faith in CVC.
Rao’s actions also raise questions as immediately after his selection, all officers investigating Asthana in at least six corruption cases, have been transferred out of Delhi by Rao.
The court is supposed to hear the case again on Nov. 12. The apex court will now be supervising administrative operations of the CBI at least until the next hearing date.