New Delhi: In what came as the first such case in the history of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), the premier probe agency’s Director Alok Verma and Special Director Rakesh Asthana have been “divested of all powers” amid the ongoing spat between them.

As an interim measure, the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave charge of the CBI to Joint Director M Nageswar Rao, an Odisha-cadre officer, with immediate effect, a government order said.

“The Appointments Committee of the Cabinet has approved that during the period of the subsistence of the aforesaid interim measure…M Nageshwar (sic) Rao, IPS, presently working as Joint Director, CBI, shall look after duties and functions of Director, CBI, and shall take over duties and functions with immediate effect,” it read.

Soon after being sent on ‘leave’, Alok Verma challenged the Centre’s decision to divest him of powers in the Supreme Court which agreed to hear the matter on October 26.

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A bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi took note of the submissions of lawyer Gopal Shankarnarayan, appearing for Verma, that his plea needed urgent hearing.

The bench, which also comprised Justices S K Kaul and K M Joseph, agreed to the submissions and said the petition would be heard on October 26.

The CBI chief has also assailed the decision of the government by which Joint Director M Nageshwar Rao has been given charge as head of the probe agency.

The series of fast-paced developments took place a day after the feud within the CBI knocked the doors of the courtroom.

On Tuesday, Delhi High Court directed the CBI to maintain status quo on the criminal proceedings initiated against Special Director Asthana till October 29 and a trial court sent an arrested mid-level officer facing bribery charges to seven-day remand.

The court, however, had clarified there was no stay on the ongoing probe considering the nature and gravity of the case.

During the court hearing, the CBI also submitted that charges of extortion and forgery were added against Asthana and Devender Singh, a Deputy Superintendent police of CBI who was arrested Monday by the agency for allegedly taking bribe and falsification of records.

The CBI, heaping embarrassment upon itself, alleged before a Delhi court that Asthana and Singh were running an extortion racket in the garb of investigation.

New Faces to Probe Asthana Bribery Case

Soon after taking charge as the Interim Director of CBI, Rao overhauled the team probing allegations of corruption against its former Special Director Rakesh Asthana.

Rao, who took over the duties and functions of CBI director late last night, appointed Satish Dagar as Superintendent of Police to probe the case. Dagar has in the past probed cases against Dera Sachcha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim.

His first supervisor will be DIG Tarun Gauba, who had probed Vyapam cases. At joint director-level, V Murugesan has been brought in. The Supreme Court had reposed faith in Murugesan in the coal scam probe, they said.

The previous investigating officer, Deputy SP A K Bassi, has been shunted to Port Blair in “public interest” with “immediate effect”.

The transferred officials include Bassi, SP CBI SS Gum, CBI DIG Manish Kumar Sinha, DIG Taurn Gauba, DIG Jasbir Singh, DIG Anish Prasad, DIG KR Chaurasia, HoB Ram Gopal, SP Satish Dagar, JD (P) Arun Kumar Sharma, A Sai Manohar, HoZ V Murugesan and DIG Amit Kumar.

Oppn Attacks Govt Over Alok Verma’s Removal

The series of developments gave enough fodder for the opposition parties to attack the government over the removal of Alok Verma and the subsequent appointment of Rao as the Interim Director of the premier investigative agency.

Congress chief spokesperson Randeep Surjewala wondered if Verma was “sacked” for his keenness to probe the “layers of corruption” in the Rafale scam and sought an answer from Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

“Modi govt buries the ‘last nail’ into the independence of CBI. Systematic dismantling & denigrating of CBI is now complete. Once a premier investigating agency, PM ensures that CBI’s integrity, credibility & reliability is buried & dead,” Surjewala said on Twitter.

“PM Modi has demonstrated the true colour of his infamous ‘Modi Made Gujarat Model’ by this cloak-and-dagger mugging of CBI. Has the CBI Director been sacked for his keenness to probe the layers of corruption in Rafale Scam? Isn’t the rest a shoddy cover up? Let PM answer!” the Congress leader said.

CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury termed Verma’s removal “illegal”.

It has been done to protect the government’s handpicked officer against whom serious charges of corruption are being investigated, he said, alleging that it points to attempts at a serious cover-up to protect his direct links to the BJP’s top political leadership.

Delhi Chief Minister and AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal echoed him.

“What are the reasons for sending CBI director on leave? Under which law did the Modi govt get the authority to initiate action against the chief of an investigating agency appointed as per the Lokpal Act? What is Modi govt trying to hide?” he said on Twitter.

Govt Refutes Opposition’s Charges as ‘Rubbish’

Addressing the media over the issue, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said that the CVCs recommendation and the government’s action is intended to restore the institutional integrity and credibility of CBI.

The Finance Minister said that the government cannot investigate levelled the two top CBI officials on each other, adding that the power to do so vests with the Central Vigilance Commission, the anti-corruption watchdog.

“Director has been accused by Special Director. A Special Director has been accused by CBI. Two topmost officers of CBI have been accused. Now who will investigate it? Requirements of fairness and fair play have to be there. Government can’t investigate it, CVC has those powers,” said Jaitley.

In interest of fair probe and in an interim measure, both will sit out and a SIT not functioning under both the officers will investigate the matter, he said.

Terming the situation as “peculiar and unfortunate”, Jaitley said that the accused officials cannot be asked to probe charges levelled against them, adding that the opposition’s charges are nothing but “rubbish”.

“Regarding, the charge the three opposition parties have made, I regard this charge as a rubbish. The fact that the three opposition parties are saying, that we know what the agency was going to do next, itself casts a serious doubt on the fairness process,” he added.

Jaitley said the government is committed to ensure that “India’s investigation agency doesn’t become a mockery as few of the officers have made it in the last few days. If the officers are innocent, they will come back”.

CBI vs CBI: How it All Started

In an unprecedented move, the CBI on October 15 registered an FIR against Special Director Rakesh Asthana for allegedly taking a bribe from an accused probed by him in lieu of ensuring relief and a clean chit in the case.

The case was registered on a statement of the alleged bribe giver, Sathish Sana, who was facing probe in a separate case of bribery involving meat exporter Moin Qureshi. Asthana in his complaint against the director two months ago had alleged that it was Sana who paid Verma Rs 2 crore to get relief.

The CBI also arrested Devender Kumar, a deputy SP in Asthana’s team.

The agency told a Delhi court Tuesday that an “extortion racket” was being run in the CBI in the garb of high-profile cases.

The spat between the two top officer is the first of its kind in the history of the agency.

It became public when Verma objected to the elevation of the then Additional Director Rakesh Asthana as Special Director before the Central Vigilance Commission.

The objections were noted, but the commission in a unanimous decision cleared Asthana as Special Director, making him the second-in- command in the agency.

A PIL filed by NGO Common Cause against the decision was also rejected by the Supreme Court.

Asthana, who was in-charge of the Special Investigation Team handling sensitive cases, including those related to Vijay Mallya, Agusta Westland and land acquisition in Haryana, filed an explosive complaint against Verma on August 24, alleging that he took a bribe of Rs 2 crore from an accused probed by him.

Asthana had also complained about 10 more cases of alleged corruption and irregularities against the director. He had alleged that Verma had tried to stop raids on Lalu Prasad Yadav.

The matter was referred by the government to the Central Vigilance Commission which then sought files of cases mentioned in Asthana’s complaint.

In his response, Verma told the commission that Asthana’s role was under probe in at-least six cases, including one related to the loan default by Gujarat-based Sterling Biotech.

He also told the commission that in his absence, his second-in -command Asthana cannot represent in panel meetings.

Asthana urged the government to intervene, seeking an independent probe into the allegations levelled by Verma and the cases in which his role was being alleged.

While communications were being exchanged, they were being leaked to the media which duly reported the developments bringing the first-of-its kind spat in the top brass of the agency in public glare.

Former officers of the agency on condition of anonymity have said the situation is “unfortunate” and may affect cases related to the extradition of Vijay Mallya, Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi.

In the wake of corruption allegations against the top officials of the agency,the accused may also plead that charges against them could be motivated, they said.