The petition filed by CBI officer Manish Kumar Sinha in the Supreme Court Monday marked a significant escalation in the ongoing war in the investigating agency. The petition was moved a day ahead of the scheduled hearing, and dragged the top echelons of the government — the National Security Adviser, a Minister of State, and the Law Secretary — apart from the CVC into what had so far been seen as a fight between the CBI’s two top officers.
Sinha is the most senior among five CBI officers — he is of DIG rank — to have joined the legal battle at the top of the organisation. Significantly, four of the petitions, including Sinha’s, align with the camp led by CBI Director Alok Verma whom the government has sent on leave. Also, all four officers belong to Anti-Corruption (AC) III branch, which used to be headed by A K Sharma who, as the agency’s Joint Director (Policy), worked closely with Director Verma.
The Joint Director (Policy) is an important post — at least two of Sharma’s predecessors went on to become Director. Verma had taken away several key cases from the team headed by Special Director Rakesh Asthana, the CBI number 2 with whom he was at loggerheads, and given them to Sharma.
AC III came under the scanner following a raid by the CBI at Palika Services Officers’ Institute at Chanakyapuri in New Delhi in August. Investigators found several expensive Rolex watches and documents belonging to senior IAS officers in the office of the club caterer, Rakesh Tiwari, and it was alleged that Tiwari parked money for the officers and helped them “settle” their cases with the CBI. Five AC III officers were questioned in the case.
Sinha, Asthana’s investigator
An IPS officer of the 2000 batch, M K Sinha was closely associated with anti-Naxal operations in his home cadre Andhra Pradesh, and received a Police Medal for Gallantry in 2005. He supervised the probe in the August 2007 Gokul Chat and Lumbini Park bombings, which ended in conviction in September this year. Sinha joined the CBI in 2013 and worked in Bhubaneswar and Bengaluru before coming to New Delhi to head AC III.
As DIG of AC III, Sinha was the main supervisory officer of the case against Asthana. His petition has alleged that NSA Ajit Doval interfered in the probe against Asthana, and that Law Secretary Suresh Chandra tried to influence Sana Sathish Babu — the Hyderabad-based businessman who brought accusations against Asthana — even as the CVC conducted its probe into the allegations against Verma and Asthana. Sinha has also accused the veteran BJP politician from Gujarat and Minister of State for Coal, Haribhai Parthibhai Chaudhary, of having accepted a bribe.
Bassi, the first petitioner
Ajay Kumar Bassi was the investigating officer of the October 15 FIR against Asthana, and the first CBI officer to petition the Supreme Court against his transfer to Port Blair. Bassi, who spent the earlier part of his career in the IB, joined the CBI as an inspector in 1999, and was later permanently absorbed. Bassi, now a deputy SP in the agency, has probed the Telgi Fake Stamp Paper case, besides others. As part of A K Sharma’s AC III, Bassi also investigated the 2016 wedding of Asthana’s daughter in Vadodara.
In one of several notes sent to CVC, Asthana had alleged Bassi had “doubtful integrity”, and had been sent on a “roving enquiry” against his family to Gujarat. According to Sinha’s petition, Bassi had sought permission to search Asthana’s home, and wanted to seize his (Asthana’s) mobile phones.
Bassi was among the 14 officers who were transferred on August 23, hours after the government divested both Verma and Asthana of their powers in the middle of the night. On October 30, Bassi, who was sent to Port Blair, approached the SC with a petition that referred to alleged phone intercepts in which an accused purportedly says, “Asthana toh apna aadmi hai (Asthana is our man)”.
This was the first time that transcripts of conversations recorded during the surveillance of middlemen Manoj Prasad and Somesh Prasad, were revealed to the public. Bassi said “these transcripts are available with the CBI but there is a strong chance that they may not place the same on record. The Applicant’s life liberty and dignity is under threat. All the evidences mentioned above are in the custody of the Central Bureau of Investigation and there is a suspicion that the same may be tampered with or destroyed”.
Gupta, who probed wedding
IB officer Ashwini Gupta joined CBI on deputation in July 2014. He served in the Economic Offences Wing and Bank Security and Fraud Cell before being posted as Dy SP, AC I. Gupta was the staff officer of A K Sharma, and an important man on Verma’s side in the battle. On Sharma’s directions, Gupta probed the wedding of Asthana’s daughter. After Verma was sent on leave, Sharma was transferred to CBI’s moribund Multi-Disciplinary Monitoring Agency (MDMA), and Gupta was repatriated to the IB.
In his August 24 note to the Cabinet Secretary, which was forwarded to the CVC for further investigations, Asthana alleged Gupta’s wife was a director in certain shell companies.
On November 18, Gupta challenged his repatriation in the SC, saying he had been removed because he was investigating corruption charges against Asthana. He said he had been punished for unearthing crucial information, which implicated Asthana in the Sterling Biotech case registered on August 30, 2017.
The officer said he and Bassi visited Vadodara on October 7, 2018, and carried out investigations until October 13. “The gist of the findings… led to the establishment of ‘undeniable, cogent, clear and unmistakable’ link of Asthana and his family with fugitive accused Nitin and Chetan Sandesara, and that infuriated Asthana so much that he made a mention of the same in his complaint to the Cabinet Secretary on October 18,” Gupta said.
Gurm, who backed Bassi
CBI cadre officer S S Gurm had spent time with Interpol and investigated the Kotkhai (Shimla) rape case. He was known to be close to Sharma, and was part of the supervisory team investigating the FIR against Asthana. He was an additional SP with AC III when he was transferred to Jabalpur on October 24.
A day after Bassi approached the SC, Gurm petitioned Delhi High Court to intervene in an application filed by Asthana to get the FIR against him quashed. He alleged that Asthana was misleading the court by placing “selective” facts before it, and claimed he had a “reasonable” apprehension that the CBI was seeking to protect and support Asthana. He sought the dismissal of Asthana’s petition.
Gurm said there was a “clear, cogent and an unmistakable” link from Sana to the Prasad Brothers to Goel, and culminating at Asthana. The petition said investigations had revealed that co-accused CBI DSP Devender Kumar had sought to implicate the agency’s Director, and the Rajya Sabha MP C M Ramesh in order to shield Asthana.
“It is highly unfortunate that before the investigation could be concluded and the entire guilt could be unravelled, the Investigation Officer… was transferred overnight from Delhi to Port Blair,” he said in support of Bassi.