Midnight coup at CBI: Supreme Court stops short of exposing Modi Government fully

The SC also upholds the“institutional integrity” of the investigating agency, the CBI. But while reinstating Alok Verma does expose the Modi Govt, the court stops short or shy of exposing it fully

Midnight coup at CBI: Supreme Court stops short of exposing Modi Government fully

Uttam Sengupta

While there is relief at the Supreme Court reinstating CBI Director Alok Verma, sent on forced home leave on October 23 last year, and there is satisfaction in several quarters at the court taking the wind out of the PMO, NSA Ajit Doval and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, the triumvirate who presided over that midnight coup, the judgment appears too restrained and too narrorw, especially after its exuberance in dismissing petitions calling for a court-monitored probe into the Rafale deal.

It is a pity that neither the Government nor the Supreme Court has cared to tell the country what called for the midnight drama at the CBI headquarters on October 23 last year. To refresh public memory, the Central Vigilance Commission recommended, after office hours that day, that the two senior-most CBI officers be sent on leave. The PMO literally burnt the midnight oil and the DoPT issued notifications to appoint a Joint Director Nagaeshwar Rao as the interim CBI Director and sent both Alok Verma and Rakesh Asthana on forced leave.

What is more, Nageshwar Rao was asked to take over at 1 am even as the CBI Director Alok Verma received the notification sending him on forced leave in the morning when he woke up. Searches were reportedly conducted in the headquarters that night and the rumour mill worked overtime, suggesting that important files, tapes and evidence related to sensitive cases were taken out. Muted demands that the Supreme Court call for CCTV footage of that night to ascertain what happened and who entered the building and who left, were drowned in the courtroom drama that followed.

But the Supreme Court on Tuesday, while reinstating Alok Verma, relied upon the fact that there is no express provision in the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act to remove Director, CBI under any circumstances. Nor does the Lokayukta Act of 2013 makes any such mention unlike the CVC Act and the Uttarakhand Police Act, which say that under special circumstances the Vigilance Commissioners and the Director General of Police can be removed or transferred under special circumstances.

In the absence of any legal provision, the Supreme Court held that the CVC’s recommendation sending Verma and Asthana on forced leave was void. Although it had called for a report from the CVC in ‘sealed cover’ on its findings on ‘ serious allegations of corruption’ levelled against the CBI Director, the court felt it unnecessary to delve into them once it settled that the CVC had no jurisdiction to divest the CBI Director of his authority during the term of his service.

One wishes the court had gone into the allegations against Verma and not left it to the high level committee comprising the Prime Minister, the Chief Justice of India and the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha to decide. It is important to remember that the complaints of corruption against Verma were made in August, 2018 by the Special Director Rakesh Asthana and were forwarded to the CVC on August 20 by the Cabinet Secretary.

What happened between August 20 and October 23? Why couldn’t the Cabinet Secretary call both the officers, ‘fighting like kilkenny cats’ to borrow the phrase from the Government’s submission to the court, and sort out the issue? What took the CVC almost two months to decide that it was not prudent to allow the two officers to function?

The second issue is what the Supreme Court means while restraining Alok Verma from making ‘major policy decisions’. It had debarred the interim director Nageshwar Rao also from making ‘major policy decisions’. But that did not prevent Rao from transferring officials, taking out cases from investigating teams and approving PEs (Preliminary Enquiries) against former UP chief minister Akhilesh Yadav in the alleged sand mining scam.

By that token, Alok Verma should also be able to function relatively unhindered. Legal opinion on this point however appears to be divided with one school believing that Verma’s hands have been tied before he retires at the beginning of February.

Another disappointment is the reluctance of the Supreme Court to intervene and declare void or vitiated the overnight transfer of investigating officers following the midnight coup. While some of the officers were summarily transferred to places as far as Port Blair, the apex court has refused to go into the merits of their appeal, leaving them to seek relief from appropriate fora.

All said and done, one can offer only a half-hearted ‘two cheers’ to the Supreme Court.

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