The Supreme Court on Tuesday reinstated Alok Verma as director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), observing that it was necessary the agency’s chief “should be the role model of independence and integrity, which can only be ensured by freedom from all kinds of control and interference”. The apex court set aside the government’s order sending Verma on leave and divesting him of powers, handing a partial moral victory to him.
The court, however, said Verma would not take any major policy decisions until the high-powered committee responsible for selection and appointment of CBI director met and looked into the allegations of corruption against him. The panel, which comprises the prime minister, leader of Opposition and chief justice of India, would meet within a week to decide on the issue based on the findings of the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) inquiry, the court said.
The CVC is probing Verma and his deputy, Rakesh Asthana, on charges of corruption. On October 23 last year, the government had, on the recommendations of the CVC, sent Verma and Asthana on leave until further notice after the two accused each other of being corrupt. Subsequently, Verma had moved the Supreme Court, challenging the CVC’s decision to send him on leave, calling it “patently illegal” as it flouted the norms of a fixed two-year term for CBI chief.
The fixed term was to ensure the independence of the agency’s chief, Verma’s lawyer Senior Advocate Fali S Nariman had said.
In its pleadings before the court, the government had said it had to send Verma and Asthana on leave as they were fighting like “Kilkenny cats”. The allegations, which had spilled outside the CBI, had exposed the agency to “public ridicule” and created an unprecedented situation, which prompted the government to intervene “in public interest,” Attorney General K K Venugopal had told a three-judge bench of Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi, Justice S K Kaul and Justice K M Joseph during the hearing in the case.
The infighting snowballed after the CBI booked Asthana on the charge of receiving bribe from an accused probed by him in a case linked to meat exporter Moin Qureshi. Asthana later wrote to the CVC, stating that he was being framed and that the bribe was actually meant for Verma and not him. The CBI had alleged that Asthana had accepted a bribe of Rs 2 crore from Satish Babu Sana, a businessman who was also under probe in the Qureshi case.
Apart from Asthana, the CBI had also arrested some of its other officers, including Deputy Superintendent Devendra Kumar. Kumar was the investigation officer in the case involving Qureshi and was arrested on charges of “falsification of records” at the behest of Asthana. Following the arrest of Kumar, the Prime Minister’s Office had summoned Verma and Asthana in a bid to douse the fire and salvage the credibility of the agency, but without much success.
The government had faced a lot of flak for removing Verma as CBI chief. Opposition parties, including the Congress had alleged that Verma was sent on leave as the government feared he would initiate a probe into the Rafale aircraft deal. Congress President Rahul Gandhi had also accused the government of destroying the reputation of probe agencies like the CBI, alleging that the agency was being used as a “weapon of political vendetta” under the current dispensation and was in “terminal decline”.
Reacting to the judgment, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said that while the court’s order would “obviously be complied with”, the initial decision to send Verma on leave and divest him of his powers was done to protect the integrity of the investigating agency and was a “perfectly bonafide” move. “The government took this decision to protect the integrity of the CBI... The government took the action of sending two senior officers of the CBI on leave on the CVC’s recommendation,” he said.
On the other hand, the Congress President reiterated his stand that nothing was going to save the PM as the CBI chief who was probing Rafale was back at helm of affairs of the agency. “The CBI chief was ousted at 1 am in the night because he was about to begin a probe into the Rafale deal. The CBI chief has been reinstated and we have got some relief. Now let’s see what happens,” Gandhi said.
Communist Party of India (Marxist) general secretary Sitaram Yechury welcomed the top court’s judgment and said that order reinstating Verma was a “direct indictment of Modi and his office”.