With the removal coming just 48 hours after the Supreme Court ruling reinstated him, the opposition cries foul, accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi of sacking the senior officer to steer clear of a corruption investigation.
NEW DELHI — Alok Verma, director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) India’s premier investigation agency, was removed from his position on Thursday.
His sacking comes just 48 hours after India’s Supreme Court ruled that the CBI director could only be removed by the committee that appointed him, according to media reports. The committee included Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Supreme Court Judge AK Sikri and Mallikarjun Kharge, leader of India's largest opposition party, the Congress.
Though Verma was transferred to oversee India's fire services, civil defence and home guards, he chose to resign from the civil services instead.
Both Modi and Sikri ruled that Verma be removed from his position, citing an inquiry by the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), which holds the officer guilty on charges of corruption and dereliction of duty.
In a note of dissent, however, the opposition leader Kharge questioned the CVC’s findings and demanded a probe into the dramatic events of October 23, 2018 -- the night when Verma was fired at 2am, according to a report in The Indian Express newspaper.
Verma described the charges against him as “unsubstantiated and frivolous, made only by one person who is inimical to me”. He was referring to Rakesh Asthana, the special director of the agency, who accused Verma of corruption, which eventually formed the basis of the CVC inquiry.
Opposition parties and critics of the Modi government have a startling take on the controversy. Verma’s sacking, the opposition claims, is an attempt to stall investigations into the Rafale aircraft deal. In April 2015, Modi announced that India would buy 126 Rafale fighter aircraft from Dassault Aviation, a French company. At least 18 of these would be purchased in a ‘fly-away’ condition while 108 would be assembled in India by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).
However, in 2016, the Modi government announced that it would buy just 36 Rafale jets in total, in a fly-away condition. The agreement also contained an offset clause under which Dassault aviation would manufacture items worth 50 percent of the deal, in India, the Indian Express newspaper reported.
The company was free to choose any one of the 75 Indian partners listed in the offset clause. Dassault chose Reliance Defence Limited, part of the Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group that is considered close to Modi, according to another report on the TheNewsMinute.com website.
In September 2018, Francoise Hollande, the former president of France, said in an interview that it was the Indian government that had proposed the name of Reliance Defence Limited. Opposition parties and critics have alleged that the deal was illegally modified by Modi to benefit Reliance Defence Limited, a company that was incorporated just 12 days before Modi announced the modified deal, reported the Indian Express.
On October 1, according to news website Scroll, Arun Shourie, a former minister in an earlier BJP party government, along with lawyer Prashant Bhushan, met Verma at his office. The duo handed a 132-page complaint detailing why the Rafale deal was fit to be investigated under India’s Prevention of Corruption Act, reported the Indian Express newspaper.
Yashwant Sinha, another former BJP minister who is disgruntled with the party, was also a signatory to the complaint submitted by Bhushan and Shourie. A few days later on October 10, media reports quoting unnamed cabinet ministers, claimed that the government was ‘unhappy’ with the CBI director for meeting Shourie and Bhushan. Within a fortnight, on October 23, Verma was divested of his duties as the CBI director, his office was sealed and he was sent on leave, in an unprecedented midnight operation.
“Every step taken by the government has been in violation of an earlier Supreme Court judgment about the autonomy of the organisation,” Shourie told TRTWorld. “Every step shows that the government is scared stiff about the facts an independent officer may unearth.”
It remains to be seen whether the new CBI director Nageshwar Rao will investigate Modi's role in the controversial Rafale deal, or dismiss the case from the outset. So far, he's reversed all the transfers that were ordered by his predecessor.