Hours after being sent on leave in a dramatic overnight move by the government, CBI Director Alok Verma on Wednesday told the Supreme Court that the agency is expected to function completely independently and autonomously, and there are bound to be occasions when certain investigations into high functionaries do not take the direction that may be desirable to the government.
He said the Centre and the CVC's move was "patently illegal" and such interference "erodes" the independence and autonomy of the premier investigating institution.
Verma, in his petition, said the CBI should be kept independent of the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), which has jurisdiction over the probe agency, since it seriously limits the CBI's independent functioning.
In an unprecedented move by the Central government, Verma and CBI's Special Director Rakesh Asthana were sent on leave till further notice and their offices were sealed on Wednesday. Joint Director M Nageshwar Rao, a 1986 batch officer, took charge as the interim chief of the investigating agency with immediate effect. He will "look after duties and functions of director CBI and shall take over the duties and functions with immediate effect," said a government order put out on Tuesday night.
The Supreme Court agreed to hear on October 26 the petition by Verma challenging the government's decision. Advocate Gopal Shankarnarayana, who filed the petition on Verma's behalf, sought for an urgent hearing from the bench of Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justices SK Kaul and KM Joseph.
"Over the recent past, although all functionaries within the CBI from the investigating officer and the superintending officers up to the Joint Director and the Director have agreed on a certain course of action, the Special Director has been of a different view," the plea said.
Shankarnarayana also challenged the decision of the government by which Joint Director M Nageswara Rao, a 1986-batch Odisha cadre IPS officer, has been given charge as head of the probe agency.
It alleged that "hurdles posed" by Asthana have now been compounded by his complicity in "concocting evidence" to impugn the reputation of Verma, leading to a separate FIR being registered by CBI which has been challenged by the special director in the Delhi High Court.
"As matters stood thus, the CVC (Central Vigilance Commission) and the Central Government have overnight taken the impugned decisions to divest the petitioner of his complete role as Director CBI and to appoint another individual in his stead. These actions are patently illegal for the reasons...," it said. The petition also said that as the apex court has repeatedly stated that CBI ought to be insulated from the government, the present actions give serious credence to the requirement that the agency be given independence from the DoPT.
The Centre's order implies that it has sidelined all the three additional directors number three in the agency's hierarchy, including AK Sharma, whose name had figured in the complaint by Asthana.
The CBI had on Tuesday suspended its deputy superintendent of police Devender Kumar, who is facing bribery allegations involving the agency's second-in-command Asthana.
Kumar, earlier the investigating officer in a case involving meat exporter Moin Qureshi, was arrested on the allegations of forgery in recording the statement of businessman Sathish Sana, who had alleged to have paid bribe to get relief in the case.
In his statement, Sana had purportedly said that he had in June this year discussed his case with Telugu Desam Party's Rajya Sabha member CM Ramesh who, after speaking to the CBI Director, had assured him that he would not be summoned again.
On Tuesday, the Delhi High Court directed the CBI to maintain status quo on the criminal proceedings initiated against Rakesh Asthana, who has challenged the FIR lodged against him on bribery allegations.
Although the CBI cannot arrest Asthana till October 29, the next date of hearing, the high court clarified that there is no stay on the probe considering the nature and gravity of the case.
Besides Asthana, Kumar has also filed a separate petition seeking quashing of the FIR. Justice Najmi Waziri issued notices and sought responses of the probe agency and its Director Alok Kumar Verma as also Joint Director AK Sharma on both the petitions.
(With PTI inputs)