SC reinstates Alok Verma as CBI chief, with clipped wings

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In a setback to the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA), the Supreme Court on Tuesday reinstated Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) director Alok Verma, overturning the government’s October 23 order divesting him of his powers and sending him on leave.

The top court said it intends to maintain the independence of CBI, and protect and insulate the office of the CBI director.

The court, however, barred Verma from taking any significant decision until a panel that selects the agency’s chief decides whether he should stay on.

Union finance minister Arun Jaitley, a lawyer by profession, while defending the government’s move called the court’s ruling “a balanced decision” that upheld the independence and dignity of CBI. The Congress said in a Twitter post that it welcomed the verdict “lambasting the government against their illegal removal of Alok Verma as CBI director,” linking his ouster to a probe he planned into the deal to purchase Rafale warplanes from Dassault Aviation of France.

A bench of Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi and justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and KM Joseph gave the selection committee headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which also comprises the CJI and the Leader of the largest opposition party in the Lok Sabha, a week’s time to study the report of a probe against Verma and decide on his continuation.

“The transfer of the director without the consent of the selection committee negates the legislative intent that is to ensure independence of CBI,” said the judgment, which was read out by justice Kaul as CJI Gogoi, who authored the order, was on leave.

“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,” said the bench, which had on December 6 reserved its judgment after hearing arguments on behalf of Verma, the Centre and the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), which has administrative superintendance over CBI and conducted the probe against Verma. The other two members of the panel are the CJI and the leader of the largest opposition party in the Lok Sabha.

The Centre acted in October after a feud played out in public between Verma, whose two-year tenure ends on January 31, and his deputy, special director Rakesh Asthana, who accused each other of corruption. On the midnight of October 23, it divested both officers of their powers and sent them on leave.

Verma, who approached the apex court against the government’s move, was on Tuesday asked by the bench led by Gogoi to “cease and desist” from taking any major policy decision unless the selection panel decides on his continuation or otherwise.

“Only administrative decisions can be taken as in day-to-day working,” the court said.

The Centre told the apex court that it had been forced to intervene because of the rift between Verma and Asthana, against whom a CBI team had launched a criminal investigation. After sending both on leave, the government, in an interim measure, appointed CBI’s joint director M Nageswara Rao, a 1986 batch Odisha-cadre Indian Police Service 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 had contended that the move to send him on leave amounted to removing, which he argued cannot be done without the concurrence of the high-powered committee that approves the CBI director’s appointment.

The court also heard a plea moved by NGO Common Cause, which sought a court-monitored special investigation team (SIT) probe into the allegations of corruption against various CBI officers, including Asthana. Asthana has moved the Delhi high court requesting it to quash the first information report (FIR) registered against him by the agency for allegedly accepting gratification. The high court has reserved its order.

Challenging the government’s decision, Verma’s counsel and senior advocate Fali S Nariman 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 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 public faith in CBI, the law officer had argued.

Finance minister Jaitley said: “The government’s action was perfectly bonafide as there were cross allegations made by both the officers and in accordance with the recommendations of the CVC. The government had felt that in the larger interest of fair and impartial investigation and credibility of CBI, the two officers must recuse themselves.”

“The Supreme Court has upheld CBI’s dignity, honour and independence. The CBI legislation says that in matters related to corruption, the CVC has jurisdiction,” he said. “The CVC had exercised its power under the power of superintendence… If superintendence results in the chief relinquishing his powers temporarily then the jurisdiction of the committee comes into play. Therefore, the court has referred the matter to that committee to decide on that issue within one week. And in accordance with the directions of the court, it will be complied with and the government will act in the same manner. The government is not biased,” Jaitley said.

“CBI chief was removed at 1am in the night because he was about to begin an investigation in the Rafale scam. Now that he has been reinstated, some justice has been done. Now let’s see what happens,” Congress president Rahul Gandhi alleged. He was referring to the government’s R59,000-crore purchase of French-made Rafale jet fighters in which the Congress has alleged corruption.

Party leader in the Lok Sabha Kharge also welcomed the Supreme Court order saying it was a “lesson for the government”. Kharge has separately petitioned the Supreme Court against the midnight order removing Asthana, saying that he, being a member of the selection panel that appoints a CBI chief, be heard before any order is passed.

Delhi chief minister and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) chief Arvind Kejriwal tweeted, “SC reinstating CBI director Alok Verma is a direct indictment of the PM. Modi govt has ruined all institutions and democracy in our country. Wasn’t CBI director illegally removed at midnight to stall the probe in Rafale scam which directly leads to PM himself?”

The government has repeatedly denied Congress’s allegations of wrongdoing and corruption in the Rafale deal.

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