Supreme Court may nix Rakesh Asthana's appointment as Delhi Police Commissioner for infraction of directives
SC's directives bar IPS officers with less than 6 months to retire to be posted as police chiefs, citing which the CJI had objected to Rakesh Asthana's name in Centre's panel for CBI Director
Why appoint Rakesh Asthana, a 1984 batch IPS officer from Gujarat cadre, as Delhi Police Commissioner with four days to go before his retirement? ‘As a special case in public interest’ is what the Home Ministry notification says.
The former Police Commissioner of Surat has also been given a one-year service extension. Good governance practice? And why was he not appointed as CP in June, 2021 when SN Shrivastava retired and Balaji Srivastava was given additional charge of Delhi Police Commissioner?
What happened between June and July? In June he was not under consideration. By the end of July, he is the Delhi Police Commissioner, normally chosen from the AGMUT (Arunachal-Goa-Mizoram-Union Territory) cadre.
Moreover, just in May, the Centre was actively considering appointing Asthana as Director of CBI. His name was dropped from the list of candidates only after Chief Justice of India N V Ramana reportedly insisted on following the apex court’s guidelines issued consequent to former IPS officer Prakash Singh’s PIL calling for police reforms which bar appointing IPS officers with less than six months as residual service to head police forces. With Leader of the Opposition Adhir Ranjan Chaudhary supporting CJI Ramana’s arguments, PM Narendra Modi, part of the selection panel, is learnt to have acceded, saying the rule of law would be followed.
As part of its directives issued on July 3, 2018, the apex court had also said, "All the States shall send their proposals in anticipation of the vacancies to the Union Public Service Commission, well in time at least three months prior to the date of retirement of the incumbent on the post of Director General of Police."
The Gujarat IPS officer has arguably been controversial. In 2018, when posted as Special Director in CBI, he was involved in an ugly spat with the then CBI Director Alok Verma, after which the government sent both of them on leave. Verma had ordered a PE (Preliminary Enquiry) against Asthana on a complaint by businessman Sathish Sana who claimed that Asthana had received a Rs 3 crore bribe from him while he was being investigated in a money-laundering case against controversial Hyderabad-based exporter Moin Qureshi. But Verma was replaced as CBI Director in a ‘midnight coup’ while Asthana was absolved of the charges and rehabilitated.
His name had also surfaced in a diary obtained by the CBI from the premises of Gujarat-based pharmaceutical company Sterling Biotech, owned by Sandesaras who have been absconding after being charged with defrauding banks of over Rs 5,000 Crore. In this case too, he was exonerated.
Retired police officers we spoke to were unanimous in saying the appointment is unusual and seems to have been made due to Asthana's proximity to the government of the day to 'rehabilitate' him.
Asked if the development came as a surprise to him, Julio Ribeiro, former Commissioner of Police, Bombay who also served as DGP, Punjab, said, “I think it was meant as a surprise. Appointing someone from outside the AGMUT cadre officer as Delhi Police Commissioner, that too just four days before he was to retire is very, very unusual. It is certainly a political appointment.”
Prakash Singh, a former Director General of Police, Uttar Pradesh as well as Assam, quipped, “Only in the case of Ajai Raj Sharma, a 1966 batch officer from the UP cadre, was a non-AGMUT cadre officer appointed as CP, Delhi.” Interestingly, this development happened during the tenure of the then PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Singh, however, felt that the Supreme Court directive, which came consequent to a PIL moved by him calling for police reforms, against appointing IPS officers with less than six months to go for superannuation to head police forces was a ‘grey area’. “The SC needs to give a ruling on this point since Delhi is a UT and technically speaking, the directive was meant for states,” he said.
“I am hoping that one of the aggrieved AGMUT cadre officers, whose career has been impacted by Asthana’s appointment, would have the courage to move the SC for a clarification,” he added.
Asked about his views on the system of ‘additional charges’ currently prevalent in apex police organisations, Singh said this was 'avoidable'. “This should happen only if there's a grave emergency, for example if an incumbent DG is incapacitated by a heart attack or is involved in a accident or passes away. But when everything can be foreseen, then it should be planned. This additional charge business is certainly not a healthy thing," he said.
"In this case, I’m unable to understand why ITBP DG SS Deswal was given additional charge of BSF after Asthana was relieved as its DG. How will he give time to BSF when ITBP is committed to a serious situation in Ladakh?” he said.
Talking about the instance of former CP, Delhi SN Srivastava being given additional charge of the post for almost an year, Singh said it was "bad personnel management by the government". "It would virtually keep a sword hanging over the officer, as the additional charge can be taken away anytime," he said.
Dr Meeran Chadha Borwankar, a 1981 batch Maharashtra cadre IPS officer who served as Commissioner of Police, Pune and Director General, NCRB before retiring as Director General, Bureau of Police Research and Development, said she was taken by surprise at Asthana’s appointment.
Asked for what could be the reasons behind the move and its effect on Delhi Police, she said, “His appointment could be because he is said to be close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah, but Gujarat cadre officers would know more about it. His appointment will definitely demoralise the AGMUT cadre.”
“The appointment goes against the Supreme Court mandated police reforms. I expect it to be challenged,” she added.
Amitabh Thakur, a senior UP cadre IPS officer who was ‘forcibly retired’ by the Yogi govt recently, was more forthright. “In light of Asthana’s troubled tenure in the CBI and his role in Gujarat while Modi was the CM, his appointment as Commissioner of Police, Delhi smacks of blatant political favouritism. It sends a very negative message to the police as well as the public,” he said.
When National Herald reached out for comments to RS Gupta, a 1968 batch AGMUT cadre IPS officer who served as Commissioner of Police Delhi, he downplayed the development. “It is the prerogative of the government to appoint any officer to the post. That’s all there is to it,” he said.
It is pertinent to recall that Asthana was involved in the investigation of the Sabarmati Express fire in Godhra in 2002. He was also heading the Narcotics Control Bureau (NCB) when the agency controversially went after Bollywood personalities with a vengeance following actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s ‘suicide’.
Curiously, the Pegasus Project revealed that his name figured in the list of potential targets during his tenure in the CBI in 2018.
Asthana knows the people in power well, says an IPS officer, adding, ‘They in turn also know him too well’. They can surely help each other.
Incidentally, on Thursday, the Delhi Legislative Assembly passed a resolution against the Centre's decision to appoint Rakesh Asthana as Delhi Police Commissioner, and called for its reversal, citing SC's directives.
In another twist to the tale, activist Saket Gokhale on Thursday posted a tweet claiming that Executive Records relating to Gujarat cadre IPS officers from 1984 batch had gone ‘missing’ on an official website though that of officers of other states of the batch were available.
In a fresh development on Friday, a contempt petition was moved in the Supreme Court challenging the appointment of Rakesh Asthana as the Delhi police commissioner, making Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Home Minister Amit Shah, and Ministry of Home Affairs as respondents.
The plea argued that the Home Ministry headed by Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who headed the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet knowingly and deliberately acted against the Supreme Court judgment; therefore a serious contempt of court is liable to proceed against both respondents.
"The intention of the accused in a contempt case is immaterial. What really matters is the effect or the likely effect of his act on the administration of justice. Any act which causes lack of confidence in the administration of justice, or otherwise interferes or tends to corrupt it, has to be prevented," said the plea.
It pointed out that the Centre gave additional charge of the Delhi Police Commissioner to Balaji Srivastava after the retirement of S.N. Shrivastava on June 30, and there was no indication at the time that the charge was temporary.