Hours after it ordered CBI Director Alok Verma and Special Director Rakesh Asthana to proceed on leave pending investigation into allegations against them, the Government said Wednesday that it took such a step due to the “extraordinary” and “unprecedented” circumstances, and to ensure “fairness and equality”.
Speaking to reporters, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley described the decision as an “interim measure” to ensure that those facing allegations were not investigating their own cases. He said that in this “unique” and “unfortunate” situation, the “requirements of fairness and fair play have to be there”.
The Opposition parties are saying that “we know what the agency was going to do next”, Jaitley said. “If …these Opposition parties have access to what is going on in the mind of an individual in the CBI”, then that “itself demolishes the integrity of the persons whom they are trying to support”, he said.
Soon after Jaitley’s remarks, Congress president Rahul Gandhi alleged in a tweet that Verma was removed because he was gathering documents regarding the Rafale deal. “Prime Minister’s message is clear, whoever will come close to Rafale will be removed or erased,” Gandhi said, adding that the “country and the constitution are in danger”.
According to Jaitley, the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) recommended after a meeting Tuesday evening that “till the investigation is over, to maintain the institutional integrity of the CBI, and in the interest of fairness purely as an interim measure,” Verma and Asthana “will sit out by going on leave for a certain period of time” as an “interim measure”. The CVC has the “power of superintendence” in investigations over CBI, he said.
A Special Investigation Team (SIT) “not functioning under either of the two officers will investigate the case”, Jaitley said, “in accordance with the highest standards of fairness”. To maintain institutional integrity, “the officers under a cloud must stand out for some time, purely as an interim measure” and if they are “innocent, they will come back”, Jaitley said.
However, the official orders and statements on the removal of the two top officers — and the appointment of Joint Director M Nageshwar Rao as the agency’s interim chief — indicate that the scales appear to be tilting in favour of Asthana.
The CVC order divesting Verma of his powers included a lengthy explanation on how he remained “uncooperative” in the Commission’s probe against him — a separate statement issued by the Press Information Bureau (PIB) echoed this assertion. The CVC order also raised doubts over an FIR filed by the CBI under Verma against Asthana on October 15.
Tuesday’s order of the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), divesting Asthana of all powers and duties, stated that the government was seized of the tension between the CBI Director and Special Director and had been keeping a close watch.
In its order on Verma, the CVC stated that the CBI chief did not cooperate in an enquiry against him, based on a complaint from Asthana, despite three notices being issued. It said that the CBI also did not provide the required documents, and that Verma did not provide any report on the “secret note” he had given to CVC against Asthana on October 21.
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Raising doubts over the FIR against Asthana, CVC pointed out that the CBI has invoked Section 13 1D of the Prevention of Corruption Act, which has been omitted from the statute. It said that Sana Sathish Babu, the Hyderabad-based businessman on whose statement the FIR was registered, was recommended for arrest by Asthana and that CBI Director sat on the file.
It said that Sai Manohar, Joint Director of the SIT headed by Asthana, had given a secret note to the CVC on October 22, based on “source information”, about the CBI Director having allegedly received Rs 2 crore from Babu. SIT member DySP Devender Kumar, who was arrested in this case, had written to the CBI Director that the case against him had been built on “spoofed communication” with Babu, the CVC said.
In its order on Asthana, the DoPT said that an “extraordinary and unprecedented situation has arisen which demands that the Central Government exercises its powers” under relevant laws while directing Asthana to stay away from the CBI until the CVC investigates all the allegations. It, however, stated that the officer will continue to enjoy his salary and all emoluments.
“The recent developments with regard to various actions taken by the Director and the Special Director of the CBI have also become a subject matter of critical and negative public debate which has the potential of eroding the faith and the trust which the CBI enjoys and all possible measures must be taken to ensure that it continues to enjoy,” it said.
The PIB’s release, based on the orders of the CVC and the DoPT, said: “The CVC has also observed that the Director, CBI has been non-cooperative with the Commission, non-compliant with the requirements/directions of the Commission and has created willful obstructions in the functioning of the Commission which is a Constitutional body.”
Detailing the sequence of events that led to the removal of Verma and Asthana, sources said that the new interim chief Rao was rushed late Tuesday night to the CBI headquarters with a police escort. After his arrival around midnight, sources said, Rao was taken to the 11th floor where the offices of Verma and Asthana are located.
Both the offices were cordoned off “to ensure that no one entered and tinkered with the documents available there that are part of the CVC probe”, sources said. Rao left the headquarters only at around 7.30 am Wednesday, sources said.