PM, SC, CJI, Justice Sikri, CVC, CBI…The many sullied reputations in the canonisation of Saint Alok Verma

One of the first things young reporters are trained to write is a good intro to an article. It is the opening para of a report or any journalistic piece of writing crafted to draw the reader in. Not unoften, journalists go overboard by mixing fact with fiction to induce this effect.

Even in journalism, it was never considered to be a healthy trend. But that malaise seems to have now afflicted even academicians who tend to write journalistic pieces on all subjects. One such recent piece is by Ashoka University vice chancellor Pratap Bhanu Mehta on the transfer of Alok Verma as the director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in The Indian Express.

To borrow from Mehta's academic jargon, he seems to have "overdetermined" the case for the so-called supplication of the Supreme Court in a manner that goes beyond even the worst cases of journalistic infraction.

Unfortunately, he is not an exception. There are many others who seem to have made it their life's mission to elevate a police officer of dubious conduct to sainthood. So his "crucifixion" by a "venal executive and a pusillanimous judiciary" must be dutifully decried. It is of no consequence, obviously, that Verma was leading one half of a factional war in the CBI. A war that would serve only his self-interest — against that of his deputy's — and drag the name of the CBI into the mud no matter who else won or lost.

Another lesson taught in every newsroom is: Comment is free, facts are sacred. So, let us turn to facts to see who or which institution has been saved and who sullied. Facts as established by the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), another important institution of public trust, just like the CBI (actually, it’s the CBI's boss).

As things stand, we need not worry about the integrity of the CVC. It's a given that the CVC is a tainted office for two glaring reasons: One, it is headed by a person appointed by the Narendra Modi government and, two, it has questioned Saint Alok Verma’s actions.

Toothless as a wag the CVC might be but it had a job to do, assigned by no less an authority than the Supreme Court of India (which institution shall continue to be held in high esteem for a few minutes more… till such time as it does not deviate from the script written by the many saviours of Alok Verma).

The CVC reported to the Supreme Court that four of the ten charges brought up against Alok Verma stick. The Supreme Court labelled some as "very uncomplimentary" to Verma. Let's examine just one of them closely, not only because it is pretty shocking but also because it is the genesis of the mess that is the CBI today.

This dates back to 21 October, 2017 (a year before Verma was sent on forced leave on 23 October, 2018). The CVC Selection Committee had convened to consider the promotion of Rakesh Asthana (the then additional director of CBI) to special director. Verma, who himself moved the papers for the promotion in July 2017, now handed over a 'secret note' to the Selection Committee. The sum and substance of the note was that Asthana had received Rs 3.94 crore slush money from an industrialist. But Verma did not confirm the recipient of the alleged payouts, was indeed Asthana (for reasons you will know a little later).

Stupidly, without regard to Verma’s independent spirit or his right to submit any document he pleases, the Selection Committee deliberated on the contents of the secret note and took a considered decision to promote Asthana.

Promptly, Prashant Bhushan moved a PIL in the Supreme Court against Asthana’s appointment. The Court threw it out just as promptly.

But since a secret note alleging payouts to a senior officer was brought on record by no less a person than the Director of the CBI, the committee initiated a probe. The CVC wanted to know the source material for the secret note which led Alok Verma to believe that Asthana had received Rs 3.94 crore bribe. For this, it needed to access CBI records. Beginning with the first letter on 9 November, 2017, the CVC wrote repeatedly to Verma seeking records, without luck.

For one whole year nothing happened. It was only in early November 2018 that the CVC got access to the records after the Supreme Court set up the probe committee following Verma's petition against his forced leave. Alok Verma, it seemed was stalling the probe for good reason because it threw up shocking details of how the CBI had been criminalised from the top.

The secret note that Alok Verma gave the CVC showed 23 payments to one “RA” which Alok Verma readily assumed was Rakesh Asthana. While all the 23 entries added up to an alleged bribe payout of Rs 3.94 crore, the 23rd entry alone accounted for Rs 3.88 crore in favour of “RA”.

After questioning many senior CBI officers, the CVC discovered that the source material for Alok Verma’s secret note was a report prepared by the Special Unit of the CBI. That source report had only 22 entries.

Read this passage from the CVC report to the Supreme Court:

File photo of ex-CBI director Alok Verma. PTI

File photo of ex-CBI director Alok Verma. PTI

“While the secret note prepared by the Special Unit had 22 entries, the one submitted to the committee had 23 entries and the crucial conclusion at the end of the note (Ed: reference is to Alok Verma’s secret note) on page 3 ‘As of now, 23 suspected entries in hard as well as soft data have been detected for a total amount of Rs 3,94,72,106 with resepect to Shri Rakesh Asthana’.”

The secret note handed over to the CVC by Alok Verma was signed by Additional IGP S Balasubramaniam. The latter confirmed to the CVC that the note he had signed to be submitted to the CVC “on the instructions and with the approval of Director, CBI” contained only 22 entries. So, what happened between the time the note traveled from his office to the CVC? Who added entry no 23 and with whose permission? Was Verma not aware of this tampering? Or did he play along?

Let the import of this sink in. The honourable director of the venerated CBI had relied on a fabricated — we still don’t know by whom – document to try and stop Asthana’s promotion.

Tampering with evidence is a criminal offence (maximum jail term of three years). Not to mention of forgery and fraud (up to seven years in prison). The fact that this has been perpetrated under the very nose of the Director of CBI should make it a colossal crime, the kind where no punishment can be enough. A transfer out of the CBI is not even a slap on his wrist.

All this is on record as part of the report that the CVC turned in to the Supreme Court but got little or no play in public discourse because it does not quite suit the narrative of Alok Verma the knight in shining arms fighting valiantly to protect the independence of the institution. Should the Supreme Court have turned a blind eye to this because Saint Verma was waging a holy war on behalf of the CBI? Where is the institution in this murkiest of murky personal fight at the top echelons?

The Supreme Court rightly gave the government a bloody nose for sending Alok Verma on leave without the sanction of the Selection Committee, reinstated him and remitted the case to the Selection Committee for a decision within a week.

With this decision the apex court bought itself a short-term insurance from attack because it was on the lines of what those lined up on Alok Verma’s side wanted. The court was hailed for closing the last loophole in the law to fire-wall the CBI director from the government of the day. This it did indeed, but in this holy war to save the reputation of Alok Verma, over and above that of the CBI or CVC, even the Supreme Court was not to be spared, as you will see shortly.

In the euphoria of Alok Verma's victory against the government, the nuance was lost. The Supreme Court had brought Alok Verma back as a lame duck only because the government was wrong in the strict procedural and legal sense. But it recognised the seriousness of the charges against the director to merit ordering an urgent meeting of the Selection Committee to decide Alok Verma's fate.

Hereabouts, it was time to turn the heat on the Supreme Court which, 36 hours earlier, was being hailed as the protector of the Constitution and institutions of India. That is understandable. Because somewhere in the unwritten constitution of India that our academicians, intellectuals and media seem to be following of late, the country’s institutions are considered safe and independent only as long as they get a particular type of ruling from the courts, the type that have them always on the winning side.

So, when Verma ultimately lost his chair, they lost their shirts, and even perhaps their heads, the heavy artillery came out. Now, even the reputation of the Supreme Court was par for the cause. His transfer by the Selection Committee was termed as hurried, malicious and malafide. Verma, they said, did not get a fair hearing, he did not get to present his side to the Selection Committee. It did not matter that Verma had two sittings with the CVC during the probe and the investigation report itself had gone through one former apex court judge and was examined by a three-judge Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi.

Justice AK Sikri, the second senior-most judge of the Supreme Court was brought down in one felt swoop. Sikri, who was the toast of the media for fast-tracking Yeddyurappa’s vote of confidence from 15 days to 48 hours, had miraculously become a government agent overnight. His crime: He voted with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in favour of Alok Verma’s transfer. And a bigger crime, one month before the CJI decided to nominate him (Justice Sikri) as his representative at the Selection Committee meeting was that Justice Sikri had signed up for the most insignificant post-retirement sinecure from the government.

It didn’t matter to the holders of Verma’s brief that by sullying Justice Sikri’s name they were in effect implicating CJI Gogoi for tangoing with the government.

If we now believe that three trips a year to London are enough to tempt the senior-most judge of the Supreme Court to barter his reputation and that of the apex court, it is because that is exactly what these wise people have implied. We have been led to believe that the reputation of a CBI director — who doesn’t feel a twitch of conscience while serving up fabricated documents to the CVC — is more important than the integrity of the CBI, the CVC, the Constitutional office of the Prime Minister of India, the Chief Justice of India, his senior-most brother judge and the Supreme Court itself. So many sullied institutional and personal reputations to protect the self-interest of one individual must rank as lowest point in India’s journey to build institutions.

Which, of course, brings us to the crucial question of how such officers make the grade to head sensitive institutions in the first place and how much the government is willing to learn from another adage: You reap what you sow.

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Updated Date: Jan 18, 2019 11:21:24 IST

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