THE inner workings of the CBI, unveiled to the public over the past few months, have been shocking but not considered improbable. A petition filed recently before the Supreme Court by a high-ranking official of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) points to massive institutional failure and the larger political malaise in the system. Even Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi commented during the course of the hearings that “nothing shocks us” any more. But details of the extent to which the rot has spread paint a disturbing picture.
In his “instant application” filed on November 19 before the apex court, attached to Alok Verma’s petition against his removal as CBI chief, Deputy Inspector General of Police Manish Kumar Sinha disclosed shocking facts about how the agency functioned. He alleged interference from the topmost offices of the country and asked for an investigation into corruption allegations against senior members of the Union Cabinet and officials in the CBI. The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) and the National Security Adviser (NSA) were also alleged to have played a role in undermining the credibility of the institution and helped cover up the investigation in the Moin Qureshi case.
Manish Kumar Sinha told the court in his petition that “l’affaire Sana is symptomatic of a larger deep-rooted malaise in the country’s premier investigation agency—the CBI”. He warned that if steps were not taken to rectify the processes in the agency, it might become a “Centre for Bogus Investigation”, and the Enforcement Directorate might turn into an “Extortion Directorate”. He was troubled by the Moin Qureshi case, in which Sathish Babu Sana’s complaint and the subsequent investigation brought out worrying aspects, which if true would reflect poorly on the criminal justice delivery system in general and the CBI in particular. The Moin Qureshi case was registered in January/February 2017.
Sana, a Hyderabad-based businessman, filed a complaint with the CBI on October 15 when Manish Kumar Sinha was Head of Branch, Delhi. The complaint, made to the CBI Director, stated that he was being harassed and that bribes were being demanded for the harassment to stop. The complaint mentioned the names of top officers such as Special Director Rakesh Asthana and Deputy Superintendent of Police Devender Kumar.
Even as the complaint was being investigated, there was high drama in the CBI headquarters and it culminated in CBI Director Alok Verma and his Deputy Asthana being sent on leave on the intervening night of October 23 and 24 following the intervention of the PMO. The three officers who were investigating the bribery charges were transferred— Deputy Superintendent of Police and Investigating Officer A.K. Bassi to Port Blair, Superintendent of Police S.S. Gurm to Jabalpur and Manish Kumar Sinha to Nagpur.
Bassi and Gurm filed separate applications before the court for an intervention. Sinha told the court in his petition: “The manner, timing and the speed with which, overnight, in a single stroke, the investigating team was disbanded without assigning any formal reason, and all the main team members of the team were thrown out, to remote places, in a punitive and stigmatic manner, itself portends very ominous signals, not only for the potential career of investigating officers but also the investigation of the entire case. It further reflects how levers of CBI is controlled by powerful persons just to fit into their personal objectives of exonerating or implicating certain individuals, irrespective of the merit of the case.”
Claiming a whistle-blower status for himself, Sinha urged the court to set aside or quash his transfer, provide protection to officers like himself when investigating sensitive matters and set up a special investigation team to probe the veracity of the statements made in his application. He said that he was being penalised for being a conscientious officer who was merely doing his duty in a lawful and diligent manner. His transfer was arbitrary and mala fide since his investigation revealed cogent information against certain powerful persons.
Manish Kumar Sinha joined the Indian Police Service in 2000 and was allotted the Andhra Pradesh cadre where he worked for 13 years, including in districts that had a substantial presence of left-wing extremists. In 2013, he joined the CBI on deputation and was part of the investigation into the chit fund scam in Odisha and the bank fraud cases of Nirav Modi and Mehul Choksi. He received the President’s Police Medal for Gallantry in 2005 and the Police Medal for Meritorious Service in 2016.
In the Moin Qureshi case, on the basis of Sana’s complaint, an FIR was registered. It made serious allegations of bribery against senior officers of the department. Sinha told the Supreme Court that in his capacity as the nodal point for the investigation he had a bird’s-eye view of the entire proceedings and unfettered access to information pertaining to the investigation, as well as awareness of the inputs shared by other agencies.
In his petition, Sinha said that on October 17, two days after the FIR was registered, CBI Director Alok Verma briefed NSA Ajit Doval about the matter. The same night, Doval alerted Asthana that his name was in the FIR and Asthana allegedly pleaded with Doval that he should not be arrested. These details came to light later through the Special Unit (S.U.) of the CBI, which had placed several phone numbers on technical surveillance and was analysing the Call Data Records (CDRs). It was revealed through the CDRs that immediately after one of the accused, Manoj Prasad, was arrested on October 16, his brother, Somesh Prasad, made four calls to Samant Goel, Special Secretary in the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Goel, in turn, made four calls to Asthana. The brothers’ father, Dineshwar Prasad, a retired RAW officer, had also made a call to Goel.
The day after Doval was briefed, the feed from the S.U. dried up, possibly because Goel and the Prasads had been tipped off that their phones were being monitored, according to Sinha. When it was found that they were using WhatsApp to communicate, Bassi insisted that a search be conducted to seize the cell phones of the public servants as evidence. Alok Verma did not give immediate permission but said subsequently, according to Sinha, that the NSA did not permit the seizure of the cell phones.
In his petition before the Supreme Court, Sinha said that on October 20, when searches were going on at the residence and office of Devender Kumar on the basis of inputs provided by the S.U., he received a phone call from Verma instructing him to stop the search and informing him that the instruction had come from the NSA. Sinha claimed that Verma informed him that in one of the mobile phones of Devender Kumar there were some important messages not pertaining to the Qureshi case and that the mobile should not be seized.
Sinha also told the court that during the investigation Sathish Babu Sana had claimed that in June 2018 a few crores of rupees were paid to Haribhai Parthibhai Chaudhary, Union Minister of State for Coal and Mines. His petition said: “As per Shri Sana, Shri Haribhai had intervened with the Senior officers of CBI through the office of the Minister of Personnel, Public Grievances and Pension [‘MOS(P)’], to whom, apparently, the Director-CBI reports to.” The money was paid through a person named Vipul of Ahmedabad.
Sinha in his petition stated that on November 8 Sana told Sinha that Rekha Rani, an IAS officer of the Andhra Pradesh cadre, had reached out to him claiming that Union Law Secretary Suresh Chandra wanted to speak to him. Sana called Chandra in London, through WhatsApp, and Chandra allegedly told him that he had been trying to contact him in order to convey the message of Cabinet Secretary P.K. Sinha that the Union government would offer him full protection; that there would be a drastic change on November 13 and on November 14 Sana should meet him; that even the Intelligence Bureau was unable to track Sana’s movements; that he had tried to communicate the message through one Chamundeshwarnath. The call ended with Sana promising to call him later.
The petition stated that when Sinha asked Sana why Rekha Rani was given the task of contacting him, Sana said one of his companies had its offices at a premises rented by Rekha Rani and that this detail was available with the Ministry of Corporate Affairs. He was worried and asked Sinha for advice, upon which Sinha told him that he was no longer supervising the case and that he should talk to the current Deputy Inspector General (DIG).
Opposition leaders took note of the submissions before the court and targeted the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government on Twitter. Summing up the muckraking after Sinha’s revelations, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted that a crime thriller called “Chowkidar hi chor” [the guard is himself the thief] was playing out in Delhi. “In a new episode, a CBI DIG has levelled serious allegations against a Minister, NSA, Law Secretary and Cabinet Secretary. On the other hand, his partner from Gujarat is collecting crores. Officers are tired, trust has been broken, democracy is crying….”
Sitaram Yechury of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) tweeted: “NSA’s name has now surfaced in connection with the CBI fiasco and earlier as the lead negotiator in the corrupt Rafale deal. Is there still any doubt that the strings of the deals do not stop at the NSA but lead directly to his boss?”
Member of Parliament Sharad Yadav of the Loktantrik Janata Dal said that it was very unfortunate that the credibility of these institutions was being destroyed and that it would be very difficult for the next government at the Centre to correct and restore the credibility.
In an interview to a TV news channel, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley defended the government’s decision to interfere in the CBI and said that sending the two officers on leave was a “cleansing exercise” to ensure its professional functioning.
“There is a deliberate, concerted attempt to change the course of investigation of the said FIR. There is reasonable apprehension/likelihood of tampering with evidence [in order to] exonerate the existing accused persons against whom there already exists overwhelming evidence,” Manish Kumar Sinha told the court, pleading with it to intervene in the Moin Qureshi case.
But Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi was miffed with “leaks” to the media. On November 20, while hearing the petition filed by Alok Verma against his displacement as head of the CBI, a visibly upset Chief Justice said: “We want to know what’s going on? … This court is not a platform for people to come and express what they want.” He handed over to senior Advocate Fali S. Nariman, representing Verma, copies of a report in the news portal The Wire and expressed displeasure that contents of a sealed cover were leaked to the press.
Nariman later clarified that the news report pertained to some extracts of Verma’s reply to the Chief Vigilance Commissioner and not Verma’s submission to the court. The bench, comprising Justices Sanjay Kaul and K.M. Joseph refused to take up any further hearing on the matter and adjourned it to November 29. The Wire also clarified later and tweeted: “This is to clarify that @thewire_in stories were on Alok Verma’s responses to questions the CVC put to him. These were not in a sealed cover and were not meant for the SC. As for his response to CVC’s final report, handed over to SC in sealed cover, we haven’t seen/reported that.”
Meanwhile, journalists pointed out that earlier this year, while addressing an awards function, Justice Ranjan Gogoi had said that “not only independent judges and noisy journalists but even independent journalists and sometimes noisy judges” were democracy’s first line of defence.