The Supreme Court is likely to take on Friday a decision on whether the move to strip Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) director Alok Verma of his responsibilities was legal, even as Opposition parties threatened to launch an agitation against the government which, they say, is undermining the country’s institutions.
Friday’s hearing, in addition to a petition by Verma, will also include a petition filed by non-profit organisation Common Cause, which approached the Supreme Court on Thursday with a request to assign a special investigation team (SIT) to probe corruption charges against CBI special director Rakesh Asthana.
Verma and Asthana have been locked in a feud with both accusing the other of corruption, a situation that the government has cited as the basis for a dramatic temporary order issued overnight on Tuesday to send them both off duty.
The order was backed by a Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) recommendation to divest Verma of his powers since allegations were made against him by Asthana.
Both petitions – Verma’s as well as the one filed by Common Cause – seek the removal of Asthana from CBI and the quashing of the order issued to appoint M Nageswar Rao as interim chief. (Follow live updates here)
The petition by Common Cause, filed by advocate Prasanth Bhushan, said the CVC’s October 23 recommendation by which Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT) divested Verma of his powers were for “malafide reasons” and should be quashed. The “chain of events shows that Verma is being victimised for taking action against Asthana, a Gujarat cadre officer, and also for entertaining complaint against the top functionaries of the present government,” stated the petition.
In light of the serious cases pending against Asthana, the petition said, the officer should be removed.
Verma, in his petition filed on Wednesday, has challenged the grounds on which he was sidelined and said the move was “patently illegal” and an attempt to undermine the federal agency’s independence.
Congress leader in Lok Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge echoed some of the allegations made by Verma. Kharge is part of the selection committee that appoints the CBI director. The other members include the Prime Minister and the Chief Justice of India.
“There are no visible grounds to transfer the director. The only plausible explanation for this desperate and hasty move is an attempt to scuttle the ongoing investigations into special director Rakesh Asthana’s case and other cases that might cause significant embarrassment to your government,” Kharge said in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He said the CBI director cannot be “removed” as he has a fixed tenure, and doing so without the approval of the selection committee was illegal.
Kharge had opposed Verma’s appointment back in 2017 with a dissent note. On Thursday, he explained that his dissent was because the government overlooked the senior-most officer RK Dutta at the time. “Sir, Prime Ministerial legacies are built by strengthening institutions. Your term, it seems more and more likely, will be remembered for the opposite,” he said in his letter.
A CBI spokesperson clarified on Thursday that Verma and Asthana had not been removed from their posts but only been divested of their powers. “M Nageswar Rao is only an interim arrangement until the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) decides on its probe involving both [Verma and Asthana],” CBI spokesperson Abhishek Dayal said.
The BJP on Thursday said the government does not interfere in the working of any agency, whether it be the Enforcement Directorate, CBI or IB. The party said the decision taken regarding the director and others was an “extraordinary solution to an extraordinary situation.”
The Congress also accused the government of trying to snoop on Verma after four Intelligence Bureau staffers were detained by the CBI director’s security officers from outside his house. The IB rejected the allegation. “The IB is entrusted with the responsibility of collecting intelligence on situations that may affect, inter alia, public order and internal security. Its units are routinely deployed on a regular basis in sensitive areas,” it said in a statement. In shake-up unprecedented in CBI’s 55-year-history, in addition to Verma and Asthana being sent on leave, the Union government transferred 12 other officers, including the one investigating the allegation against Asthana. The move was seen as an intervention after a feud that escalated when the CBI filed an FIR against Asthana on October 15 and detained a deputy superintendent in his team on Monday.