Note: This story was first published at 6:30 am on November 16, 2018.
New Delhi: CBI director Alok Verma, who was recently asked to step down to face an inquiry over charges of procedural irregularities, has accused the central vigilance commissioner K.V. Chowdary of bias and violating a Supreme court order. Not only that, Verma has also put the blame squarely on the Modi government for the crisis India’s top investigation agency is currently facing.
Verma had recently filed a case against Rakesh Asthana, his deputy in the CBI, for allegedly accepting bribes from a Hyderabad-based businessman. Asthana, in turn, had charged Verma with similar acts of corruption. The Supreme Court then ordered an inquiry by the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) to determine the truth of the matter. The CVC subsequently sent an elaborate questionnaire to Verma.
Alok Verma’s response
Verma’s official response – copies of which have been seen by The Wire – is scathing in its remarks against the CBI’s special director Asthana and the way CVC is conducting its probe. The commission is focussing on Asthana’s “baseless” charges against him, Verma says while contending that his deputy complained only after the CBI booked him in a corruption case.
The CBI director alleges that despite the SC specifically directing the CVC to probe into the allegations made against him in the note/letter of the cabinet secretary dated August 24, “not one question raised is from the allegations mentioned” in the letter. Instead, he says, “majority of queries raised are for actions taken after August 24, 2018 and seem to be from an October 18, 2018 letter by Mr Rakesh Asthana to the CVC.”
He adds that the October letter was “written after the CBI had registered a case of extortion involving Mr Rakesh Asthana”, had already arrested the main conduit, Manoj Prasad and had recorded the statement of Satish Sana, the businessman who allegedly paid around Rs 3 crore to Asthana. He also said that the CBI has incriminating evidence against Asthana in the form of WhatsApp messages, call intercepts and call detail records.
Verma goes on to question CVC’s integrity as an independent investigator and hints at the support Asthana and Chowdary may have received from a “top official” at the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) in going after him.
“…the CVC seems to be on a roving expedition to cast aspersions on my integrity and impartiality, which have never once been questioned in the last 39 years of my career in which I have headed police forces across four states/union territories and two institutions (including the CBI). I am surprised that the line of questioning being adopted by the CVC is as if I am already guilty and have to prove my innocence rather than the other way around,” Verma writes in his response to the CVC’s questions.
“Also it seems to be more keen,” he adds, “to establish that Asthana is innocent in an FIR related to extortion where Asthana is an accused and his SIT is under scanner.”
The CBI director further reminded the CVC that he had expressed his apprehensions “at various times during the last year on the integrity of Mr Rakesh Asthana” but it had not “paid any heed” to around half a dozen cases against him. Verma also notes that the CVC and DoPT under the PMO overrode his objections to Asthana’s appointment as the special director of the CBI in 2017. This, despite the fact that he had pointed out that at least six cases of corruption against Asthana were already being probed by the CBI itself, Verma says.
Asthana’s allegations and Verma’s retort
The CVC is inquiring into four specific charges that Asthana made against Verma.
One, Asthana has complained that the CBI director used his power to deliberately let important persons off the hook in the IRCTC corruption case against Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Lalu Prasad Yadav. The case was being handled by Asthana. Two, the CBI special director has also said that Verma did not let Asthana probe the Moin Qureshi case independently and created multiple roadblocks.
Three, he has said that Verma inducted in the CBI two IPS officers whose records were not clean. And, finally, Asthana accused Verma of tipping off Gurnam Singh, a Chandigarh-based ex-deputy director of the Enforcement Directorate (ED), about possible police raids in his house. Singh was being probed in a disproportionate assets case.
Verma, however, denies each and every allegation. In his responses to the CVC, he gives a point-by-point rebuttal, citing official rules, file notings and previous Supreme Court orders to justify his conduct as the CBI director. In doing so, he points out that Asthana was a party in each of his decisions, which the special director now alleges to be a procedural violation.
Verma added that Asthana never raised a problem with any of these so-called controversial decisions and was now fabricating charges against him to divert attention from his involvement in the bribery case.
He also elaborately refuted the two much-discussed accusations against him.
In the IRCTC scam, he was accused by Asthana of deliberately weakening CBI’s stance against IRCTC director Rakesh Saxena. However, he quotes from CBI crime manual to say that there were no procedural violations on his part. He says he was worried about the political fallout of the case as Asthana, a BJP leader and current deputy chief minister of Bihar Sushil Modi and one “top official” in the PMO were constantly “following up on the case”.
He adds that he did not want to rush through the case “without following the due process”. The investigating officer under Asthana could not produce enough evidence to back up the charges against either Lalu Prasad or Saxena, Verma says.
“All these allegations are an afterthought of Mr Rakesh Asthana to cover up his failure and he has succeeded in convincing the powers that be and the CVC by shifting his own oversight and lapses to the undersigned (Verma) and other officers including DoP (Director of Prosecution),” Verma says.
Similarly, Asthana had accused Verma of protecting Sana Satish by not accusing him of bribing a public official and letting him remain as a witness in the Moin Qureshi money laundering case. Verma, however, says that since the ED – which handed over the case to the CBI after initial investigation – had already turned Satish in as a witness, the CBI was only avoiding legal issues by not making him an accused.
“According to recent guidelines, if ED files a chargesheet first, the CBI case will be heard in the same PMLA court, which is a higher court and all the CBI documents will also be sent there. The proposal by SIT under Mr. Asthana would have led to a situation where the same court will be looking into the matter, where in the ED case Mr. Sana is a witness and in the CBI case he will be an accused. This is bound to create legal issues for both the cases and potentially damage the case and help the accused,” says the CBI director, adding that Asthana’s suggestion “did seem malafide”.
Asthana is currently being probed for accepting a bribe from Satish Sana, he goes on to say.
Verma puts PMO in the dock
The CBI director says that a “top official” of the PMO was directly following up on the case against Lalu Prasad, hinting at the possibility of a political vendetta against the opposition leader. Verma told the CVC that he could disclose the name of the PMO official if the matter is investigated further.
He blames the CVC and the DoPT for the “midnight coup” in the CBI when the agency was investigating serious charges of corruption against Asthana.
This, he says, derailed the probe. He also says that he was astounded “how the officers investigating Mr Asthana were transferred outside Delhi to Jabalpur and Port Blair” soon after he was divested of his powers. “It is evident that the CVC complaint by Asthana, and the probe initiated by CVC thereafter, led to more fabrication of documents and a criminal act on the part of Mr Asthana,” Verma says.
In what may do great damage to the reputation of the agency, he also alleged that the CBI selection committee, of which both the CVC and the DoPT is a part, inducted tainted IPS officers into the CBI by glossing over procedures. “The meeting for induction would be called at a very short notice, often the previous evening, not giving CBI enough time to carry out due diligence on the officers proposed by DoPT,” Verma says, adding that “very rarely would officers suggested by CBI be considered for induction”. He further says that no reason was provided by the DoPT for not considering the CBI-recommended officers.
“There was an effort to induct tainted officers within the organisation,” Verma says. He adds that he had pointed out to the CVC grave irregularities in the appointment of one such officer Jyoti Narayan in the CBI. But no action was taken, says Verma.
What may vindicate the opposition parties who have been saying that the Modi government has compromised the autonomy of the CBI, Verma tells the CVC, “…since CVC was overbearing in controlling the inductions within CBI, an atmosphere of indiscipline crept into the organisation…”
He says that because of such factors the CBI has been so compromised that even the ED wrote to Verma pointing out that Rakesh Asthana and his close associate in the CBI Sai Manohar generated false verification reports in some cases. Two such cases were the Moin Qureshi case and the other corruption cases related to the Sandesara group. Asthana is named as an accused in both the cases.
K.V. Chowdary, against whom Verma makes serious allegations, was also involved in the middle of a controversy when he was accused of burying evidence in the Sahara-Birla diaries case. His appointment as the CVC was challenged in the Supreme Court in 2017 but got shot down.
The crisis in the CBI has already snowballed into a political controversy. The opposition has been alleging that the Centre’s unprecedented action forcing the CBI director to step down was not only a heavy-handed decision but was taken to protect Asthana. Verma’s responses to the CVC’s questionnaire, in this light, may only add fuel to the fire.