The Supreme Court on Tuesday reinstated Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) director Alok Verma, cancelling the government’s October order to divest him as the chief of the probe agency. But the top court ruled that Alok Verma cannot take any major policy decisions till the selection committee headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi reviews the probe report against him and decides on his continuation.
The top court has given this selection committee, which also comprises the Chief Justice of India and leader of the largest opposition party in the Lok Sabha, one week to meet and discuss whether Verma needs to be removed or not.
In its order pronounced by Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul, the Supreme Court said that it intends to maintain the independence of the Central Bureau of Investigation.
A bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi had on December 6 reserved its judgment after hearing arguments on behalf of Verma, the Centre and the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC). The same bench delivered the judgment on Tuesday.
It said that a legislation exists and it intends to protect and insulate the office of the CBI director.
“The transfer of the director without the consent of the selection committee negates the legislative intent that is to ensure independence of CBI,” the court said.
“Within a week, the selection committee, led by the PM, will meet and look into the aspect of whether Verma needs to be removed or not,” the court.
At the same time, the court also placed a restriction on Alok Verma saying that till the time the selection committee does not reach its decision, he will “cease and desist” from taking any major policy decisions.
“Only administrative decisions can be taken as in day-to-day working,” the court said.
In a midnight order issued on October 23, Verma was asked to go on leave, prompting him to rush to the top court challenging the administrative orders. Verma’s two-year tenure as CBI director ends on January 31.
The Centre told the apex court that it was forced to intervene because of the rift between Verma and his number two, Rakesh Asthana — a development that is believed to have dented CBI’s image.
Both Verma and Asthana have accused each other of corruption. A CBI team had begun a criminal investigation against Asthana. As the feud between the two senior officers became public, the government also asked Asthana to go on leave and as an interim measure it appointed CBI’s joint director M Nageswara Rao, a 1986 batch Odisha-cadre IPS officer, as the agency’s temporary chief.
With Rao’s approval, orders were issued to transfer and reassign 13 officials, including those who were probing the case against Asthana.
Verma has sought quashing of three orders of October 23, 2018 — one by the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) and two by the department of personnel and training (DoPT), as being without jurisdiction. The move to send him on leave amounted to removing him, he said, which cannot be done without the concurrence of a high-powered committee that approves CBI director’s appointment.
The court had also heard the plea moved by NGO Common Cause, which had sought a court-monitored SIT probe into the allegations of corruption against various CBI officers, including Asthana.
Asthana had moved the Delhi High Court requesting it to quash the FIR registered against him by the agency for allegedly accepting gratification in the Moin Quresh case. The court has reserved its order.
Challenging the government’s decision, Verma’s counsel and senior advocate Fali S Nariman had argued that the CBI director was appointed on February 1, 2017 and “the position of law is that there will be a fixed tenure of two years and this gentleman cannot be even transferred”. He argued there was no basis for the CVC to pass an order recommending that Verma be sent on leave.
Attorney general KK Venugopal justified the Centre’s intervention and said it was well within “its right” to send both officers on leave. “Only the God knows where and how this fight between the two top officers would have ended” if the government would not have taken the action which was aimed at restoring the public faith in the CBI, the law officer had argued.