There is a circus of the highest order going on in the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the country’s premier investigating agency. The top two officers of the agency were openly at war with each other, and in a midnight drama, director Alok Verma was issued orders to proceed on leave, as was his warring deputy, Rakesh Asthana. The director was then reinstated in his job by the Supreme Court (SC) on January 10. Within 24 hours, the high-level committee that appointed him, comprising PM Narendra Modi, the then Chief Justice of India (CJI) Justice A.K. Sikri, and the leader of the Congress (the largest Opposition party) in Parliament, Mallikarjun Kharge, met and removed him, in a 2-1 decision, with Mr Kharge dissenting. Within the 24 hours that he was reinstated, Mr Verma transferred about dozen officers. He was shunted out to the post of director-general fire services, but he chose to resign, requesting the government to consider him “deemed superannuated” with immediate effect. M. Nageshwar Rao has reassumed his post as interim director. In all probability, those transferred by Mr Verma will be brought back.
In this sordid spectacle, played out in full public view, one thing has emerged quite clearly: The CBI’s public image has hit rock-bottom. I hold no brief for either Mr Verma or Mr Asthana. But, as a former bureaucrat, I believe that any public servant has the right to prove his innocence, and not be punished on the basis of unsubstantiated allegations. This is an important principle, irrespective of which government is in power, because if it is ignored, then any allegation would suffice to transfer or remove any bureaucrat at the will of the political powers that be.
It is true that, in this case, the Central Vigilance Agency (CVC) had gone into the allegations against Mr Verma and submitted a report, on the basis of which the high-level committee that appointed him found sufficient reason to transfer Mr Verma to the relatively inconsequential task of tending to fire services. But, what was the nature of the accusations brought against Mr Verma in the CVC report? Again, purely from the point of view of a bureaucrat, the CVC report presents grave problems. It lists a menu of allegations, none of them fully substantiated or proven, and some found to be incorrect. How could this then be the basis for the high-powered committee to remove Mr Verma from a post to which he had been reinstated by the SC only 24 hours ago?
Let us examine what exactly is the content of the CVC’s findings. The first charge is that Mr Verma took a bribe to influence investigation. The CVC finding is that no direct proof for this is forthcoming, and the evidence, if any, is circumstantial, and needs further investigation. A second charge is that Mr Verma attempted to call off the raids in Patna in the Lalu Yadav investigations. The CVC finding is that the charge is not substantiated. A third charge is that Mr Verma delayed finalising investigation in a bank fraud in order to favour the prime accused. The CVC finding is that the charge is incorrect. A fourth charge is that he placed a CBI officer of his choice to monitor the bank fraud case in which his relative was allegedly involved. The CVC finding is that the charge is not substantiated. A fifth charge is that Mr Verma did not share with other agencies intelligence inputs on two industrialists. The CVC finding is that the charge is not substantiated. A sixth charge is that Mr Verma is linked to bribes in regard to inquiries on land acquisition matters in Haryana. The CVC finding is that it could not look into these allegations for want of time, and that further inquiry is needed. A seventh charge is that Mr Verma failed to act in a gold smuggling case at the Delhi airport. The CVC finding is that the charge is only partially substantiated, and that the matter needs re-investigation. An eighth charge is that Mr Verma helped cattle smugglers. The CVC finding is that the charge is not substantiated. A ninth charge is that Mr Verma unduly interfered in a CBI case against an Enforcement Directorate officer. The CVC finding is that the charge is only partially substantiated, and needs further investigation.
There are only two matters in which the charge is, as per the CVC, substantiated. The first is that Mr Verma did not include the name of a suspect as an accused in the FIR in the IRCTC case relating to Lalu Yadav. The second is that he tried to induct two officers about whom internal inquiries had raised integrity issues. But even these findings are based on circumstantial evidence. In summary then, of the 11 allegations levelled, as many as six are unsubstantiated or require more investigation and one is found to be incorrect, and four only show the possibility of wrongdoing on the basis of circumstantial evidence, or need further investigation.
Is such a CVC report sufficient ground for the removal of an officer, who, in any case, had some 20 days left to retire? Surely investigation against him, where the CVC had so recommended, could have been initiated without needing to remove him from a post on the basis of largely unsubstantiated allegations, especially since that post has a mandatory two-year tenure. And, while the correct procedure was followed, as per the SC’s directive, for the high-level committee to decide on the removal or transfer of Mr Verma, is it asking for too much if this very committee could have also given Mr Verma a chance to present his point of view, before deciding that he needs to be shunted off to look after fire services?
Such questions have no partisan political provenance. They pertain to the fundamental need to protect the independence and impartiality of the bureaucracy, and keep it insulated from unwarranted political interference, the very reason why certain posts were given a mandatory two-year tenure. Otherwise, all bureaucrats will work under the fear of unproven allegations, severely impairing both their functioning and effectiveness. The CBI has made a circus of itself, and no one knows when and how the curtain will finally come down on this unseemly spectacle. But it is incumbent on all of us to understand the full implications of what is unfolding before our eyes....