CBI vs CBI: All About the Govt’s Midnight Order & What Followed
The unprecedented battle in the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) took a dramatic turn on midnight of Wednesday, 24 October, when an appointments committee led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi released an order sending CBI Director Alok Verma and his deputy Rakesh Asthana on leave.
The CBI had filed an FIR against Asthana on 15 October, on allegations of bribery in a case relating to leading meat exporter Moin Qureshi. Asthana then moved the Delhi High Court to quash the FIR. After the court ordered that the investigation into Asthana may continue, the Centre sent both Verma and Asthana on leave on 24 October.
This midnight move, and the events that followed on 24 October, has turned India’s premier investigation agency into a battleground, with the Opposition parties lashing out at the Modi-led BJP government for interfering in the agency’s internal affairs. The government, on the other hand, has argued that it had “no choice” but to step in.
Here’s a primer on all the events that unfolded surrounding the CBI controversy, from the midnight order to the government statement later in the day.
Click here for all the latest news updates on the CBI row.
What Did the Midnight Order Say?
The Department of Personnel and Training, considered the human resources wing of the Central government, released an order dated 23 October, sending the CBI’s number one and two, Alok Verma and Rakesh Asthana, on leave.
Senior IPS Officer and CBI Joint Director M Nageswar Rao was made the interim in-charge of the director’s post, the order said. It was reportedly passed between 11:30 pm to 2:00 am, and Rao also took charge on the wee hours of 24 October.
Sources told The Quint that Asthana and Verma’s rooms were sealed, their drivers withdrawn, and that they would not be allowed to enter the premises of the CBI.
The order implies that the government has sidelined all the three additional directors, all number three in the agency's hierarchy, including AK Sharma, whose name had figured in the complaint from Asthana.
How Did the CBI Get In This Mess?
On 24 August, Rakesh Asthana wrote to the Cabinet Secretary alleging that the businessman Moin Qureshi had paid CBI Director Alok Verma Rs 2 crore to get relief in the case. At this time, Asthana was already under internal investigation for bribery in the same case.
Two months later, on Sunday, 15 October, in an unprecedented move, the CBI booked Asthana for allegedly receiving bribes in the case.
A week after that, on 23 October, Asthana moved the Delhi High Court to quash the FIR against him. The HC on Tuesday, 23 October, directed the CBI to maintain status quo on the criminal proceedings, meaning that no action was to be taken against Asthana.
The high court clarified, however, that there was no stay on the ongoing investigation, only on any action against the special director.
What Is the Govt’s Defence?
Is there anything wrong with the government’s action of sending the CBI Director on leave while he was investigating his second-in-command? Did the Centre overstep its bounds? And are there any grounds to initiate disciplinary action against Verma?
On one hand, there are the objections to the decision of the government, which are centred on how only the special committee which appointed Verma as CBI Director has the authority to suspend him and take away his powers. On the other hand, there is the view expressed by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, that the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) and the Central Government do have the power to superintend the CBI, and so the decision was fair.
“The CVC in its meeting, recommended that the allegations cannot be investigated by the two officials themselves, and neither can it be done by an agency under their supervision. Hence, to maintain the institutional integrity of the CBI, purely as an interim measure, they will sit it out by going on leave for a while, and an SIT not functioning under either of these two officers will investigate. This is in accordance of highest standards of fairness.”Arun Jaitley, Finance Minister
The government, later in the day, claimed that ousted CBI Director Verma was not cooperating with the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) and defended its decision to send him on leave, saying that an "extraordinary and unprecedented" situation had arisen due to "grave allegations of corruption" against senior functionaries of the agency.
“The environment of faction feud in the CBI has reached its peak, leading to a potential loss of its credibility and reputation of the premier investigating agency besides vitiating the work environment of the organization which has deep and visible impact on the overall governance,” the statement said.
What About the Transfer Order to AK Bassi?
Around 11:00 am on Wednesday, 24 October, CBI Joint Director NM Singh released a transfer order shunting AK Bassi, the investigative officer in the Rakesh Asthana bribery case, to Andaman’s Port Blair.
The order said that he was transferred in “public interest” and with “immediate effect.”
According to the CBI spokesperson, a new team has been constituted to probe the Asthana case “fairly, expeditiously and impartially.”
The Political Backlash
The government's decision to send the CBI’s number one and two on leave amid an escalating feud within the premier investigative agency has triggered political backlash from the Opposition parties, with Rahul Gandhi linking the Rafale deal to the crisis in the CBI.
“CBI chief Alok Verma was collecting documents related to the Rafale scam. He has been sent on leave forcefully. The prime minister’s message is absolutely clear – that whoever comes close to the Rafale deal, that person would be removed. The country and the Constitution are in danger.”Rahul Gandhi, Congress President on Twitter
While AAP Convenor Arvind Kejriwal questioned the legitimacy of the government’s order, CPI(M) leader Sitaram Yechury called it a “political coup.”
Interestingly, BJP MP Subramanian Swamy called the appointment of Asthana – believed to be close to the Modi government – “very dubious". Speaking to the media on the CBI crisis, he said:
“...I know that Mr Verma was a very honest officer. It was Mr Asthana who went first to the CVC and gave a complaint against the director. And Mr Asthana’s appointment was itself very dubious, it didn’t meet the requirements of the appointments committee, but it was rushed through... I want to know whether our commitment to corruption will continue.”Subramaniam Swamy, BJP MP
What Happens Now?
The Supreme Court on Wednesday agreed to hear on 26 October the plea of CBI Director Alok Kumar Verma challenging the Centre's decision to send him on leave.
A bench comprising Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justices SK Kaul and KM Joseph considered Verma’s plea one that required urgent hearing. The CBI chief has also challenged the decision to appoint Joint Director M Nageshwar Rao as head of the probe agency.
In his submission to the apex court, Verma alleged that the CVC and the Centre took an "overnight decision" to divest him completely of the CBI Director's role. He added that he can furnish the details of “many cases which have led to the present circumstances.”
He stressed the need for an “independent” CBI, adding that the present situation occurred when "certain investigations into high functionaries [did] not take the direction that may be desirable to the government."
(With inputs from PTI)