A case which started as a conflict between two officers of the CBI has now transformed into a battle between the government and the opposition.
The Supreme Court’s (SC’s) decision to direct the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) to complete its probe against Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) director Alok Kumar Verma within the next ten days has given both the government and the opposition, on the opposite sides of the unfolding drama, an opportunity to rejoice.
Calling it a matter of national importance, a three-judge bench led by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi said that the investigation against Verma will be conducted under the supervision of a retired judge of the Supreme Court. It also prohibited interim director of the agency, M Nageswar Rao, from taking any major decisions and said that a list of all decisions taken by him will have to be produced before the court in a sealed cover on 12 November, the next date of hearing.
Verma had moved the top court on 24 October, challenging the Centre's decision to divest him of powers and send him on leave. He has also challenged the decision to appoint Rao as head of the probe agency and claimed that several officers investigating sensitive cases have been changed.
The CVC, however, had come out with a spoiler. It has said that the CBI director was willfully blocking investigations. It has accused him of being non-cooperative with the Commission, non-compliant with the requirements and directions of the Commission and has created willful obstructions in the functioning of the Commission which is a Constitutional body. The body said it had written to Verma on 15 October, asking him to take prior approval before proceeding with FIR against Asthana.
The Supreme Court today also heard a petition filed by “non-profit organisation” named Common Cause, which is being represented by Swaraj India leader Prashant Bhushan. In its plea, the outfit had demanded that the court assign a special team to probe corruption charges against Asthana.
Bhushan, who had once opposed the appointment of Verma as the director of the CBI, had earlier said that he will challenge the government’s decision to send the officer on leave. Along with former union ministers Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie, he has accused the government of "criminal misconduct". The three have moved the Supreme Court on the issue. The apex court has said that it would consider according urgent hearing to a PIL seeking court-monitored probe into allegations of corruption against various CBI officials, including Rakesh Asthana.
On 4 October, Bhushan and Shourie had met Verma and submitted a complaint against the Rafale deal. The duo has been criticised for demanding a probe by “handpicked officers”. The complaint against the deal, Bhushan has said, makes “a strong case for not just investigation, but prosecution”.
“The director’s minimum tenure is two years and he can’t be removed prematurely by the government. If this practice starts, then the government can transfer or send any officer who doesn’t toe its line,” he has argued.
Congress President Rahul Gandhi led an opposition protest outside the CBI headquarters in Delhi today in support of Verma and demanding his reinstatement. Gandhi, along with leaders of other parties participating in the protests, were taken to
the Lodhi Colony police station by the Delhi Police.
The Congress has accused the government of sacking Verma for initiating a probe in what the party said was a “scam” in the Rafale deal. Congress spokesperson and close aid of its president Rahul Gandhi, Randeep Surjewala, said the move was the “last nail” into the independence of CBI and accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of “systematic dismantling and denigrating of CBI”.
The case which started as a conflict between two officers of the CBI has now transformed into a battle between the government and the opposition. The Narendra Modi government’s decision to intervene in the infighting in the CBI seems to have triggered a wider dispute instead of ending the conflict. In fact, it has made the issue more interesting for the Opposition, which is now using it as a stick to hit the government with. The fact that it has already linked the issue to its charges of corruption against the government on the Rafale deal is telling. (Also Read: How Modi’s Personalised Anti-Corruption Campaign Is Backfiring)
The Infighting In The CBI
The fight between Verma and Asthana took an ugly turn with the agency filing an FIR against the latter, naming him as an accused in a bribery case.
In its FIR, the CBI has alleged that Asthana took a bribe of Rs 3 crore to settle a case against a Hyderabad-based businessman, Sathish Sana, whose name had come up during an investigation in the Moin Qureshi case. Moin Qureshi, an Uttar Pradesh-based meat exporter allegedly close to the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) chairperson Sonia Gandhi, has been under the lens of various Indian agencies since 2014. He has been accused by the Enforcement Directorate of remitting funds through hawala channels to Dubai, London, and a few other destinations in Europe. Qureshi is believed to have had links with UPA-era CBI director A P Singh. Sana, reports say, is a key witness for the CBI and the ED in various cases against Qureshi.
The case against Asthana is based on a complaint filed by Sana. Other people named by Sana in the complaint include a deputy superintendent of police-rank CBI official, Devendra Kumar, middleman Manoj Prasad and his brother Somesh Prasad. Asthana was leading the investigation against Sana.
The CBI has claimed in its FIR that Manoj Prasad and Somesh Prasad had met Sana in Dubai and claimed that they would settle the case with him with the help of a CBI officer. After this, one of the two called an officer in the CBI, who claimed over the phone that he would settle the case for a bribe of Rs 5 crore and demanded Rs 3 crore from Sana in advance for the task. Sana was told by the duo that the officer he had spoken to was Asthana. To make him believe in the proposal, they showed him the WhatsApp display picture on the account belonging to the number they had called on.
Sana claims that he paid Rs 1 crore to Manoj Prasad at his office in Dubai and arrange payment of an amount of Rs 1.95 crore in Delhi in December 2017. Despite this, he says, he got a notice from the agency in the case in February. On raising the issue with the middlemen, he was asked to pay the remaining part of the bribe.
According to various reports, the investigating officer in the Qureshi money laundering case moved a proposal on 12 September for custodial interrogation of Sana. Asthana is said to have approved the proposal on 20 September.
“I told Manoj about this, to which he replied that this all is happening due to non-payment of balance of amount Rs 2 crore, to which I replied that the same will be made soon,” reads the statement given by Sathish Sana.
He claims that the remaining amount was paid to the middlemen in October.
In his defence, Asthana has accused CBI director Verma of instructing him not to examine Sana when he was summoned for questioning. In a letter to the cabinet secretariat, he as cited 10 instances of interference from Verma in the case.
However, according to the Economic Times, the Special Investigation Team under Asthana had managed to question Sana on 3 October. During the questioning, the daily says, Sana claims to have links with Verma through a senior Member of Parliament (MP) of Telugu Desam Party.
Manoj Prasad, one of the two middlemen, was arrested on 16 October. He has claimed that the bribes were being paid to Asthana on behalf of Qureshi. He has brought the number two of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), Samant Kumar Goel, into the scene, alleging that he met Qureshi often and helped him get in touch with Asthana. The R&AW officer, however, has not been named by the CBI in the FIR.
On 19 October, three days after the CBI filed an FIR against him for allegedly taking a bribe from Sana, the case was taken away from Asthana.
To sum up, the CBI under Verma has accused Asthana of taking a bribe from Sana. Asthana, in response, has charged Verma with trying to scuttle the probe.
The tussle between Asthana and Verma is not news. The two have been at loggerheads for some time now. In July, Verma, who was in Uruguay to attend an Interpol meeting, had instructed a junior officer to inform the Chief Vigilance Commissioner that Asthana was not authorised to attend a CBI selection committee meeting, necessary to induct new officers into the CBI, in his absence. Verma had also objected to Asthana’s appointment as special director in the CBI.
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