New Delhi: The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) arrested an investigating officer and conducted searches at its own headquarters on Monday, a week after registering a case against its second top official, Rakesh Asthana, developments that pointed to an unprecedented implosion at India’s top investigating agency.
On Monday evening, CBI sleuths arrested deputy superintendent of police Devender Kumar, the investigating officer of a CBI special investigation team (SIT) probing money-laundering charges against controversial Hyderabad-based meat exporter Moin Qureshi.
Kumar was charged with falsifying the statement of a Hyderabad-based businessman named Sathish Sana—a key witness in the same case—in order to implicate CBI director Alok Verma.
“It was found that Devender Kumar had fabricated the statement...to corroborate the baseless allegations made by Rakesh Asthana against Alok Verma to the Chief Vigilance Commission. The role of other officers of the SIT supervising the Moin Qureshi case is also being probed," CBI said in a statement.
CBI had on 15 October registered a case of criminal conspiracy and corruption against special director Asthana. People familiar with the development said trouble was going to mount for CBI’s No. 2, with the Enforcement Directorate (ED) likely to take over the money-trail probe into Asthana.
“The usual course of action when a money trail is established is that the ED takes over the probe. In this case too, ED is likely to probe the money trail against Rakesh Asthana, more so because it is unprecedented for the second-in-command of the CBI to be under the scanner," a senior central government official said on condition of anonymity.
However, making the tussle between the two top-ranking CBI officers public following the FIR against him, Asthana, in a letter to the cabinet secretary and the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), claimed that he was being framed by director Verma.
Additionally, he cited 10 cases of alleged corruption and irregularities against the CBI director. One of these cases pertains to Sana. Asthana alleged that on 24 August, Sana paid ₹ 2 crore to Verma to get relief in the Qureshi case—allegations that CBI claimed were “false and malicious".
In its 15 October FIR against Asthana, based on a complaint by Sana claiming that Asthana had received a ₹ 3 crore bribe from him, the agency accused Asthana of criminal conspiracy and corruption.
While minister of state for personnel, public grievances and pensions, Jitendra Singh, did not respond to Mint’s phone calls seeking a response, another senior central government official familiar with the developments said that while Asthana had not approached the Delhi high court against the FIR lodged by CBI, he had met officials in the Prime Minister’s Office on Monday evening.
In a statement on Monday, CBI said that “Rakesh Asthana…received illegal gratification through private persons Manoj and Somesh Prasad for giving relief in the case. Satish Sana is one of the witnesses in a case pertaining to Moin Qureshi. The case against the public servants (Asthana and others) relates to transactions beginning in December 2017".
Meanwhile, with Asthana continuing in office on Monday, former CBI officials admitted there was no set procedure to deal with such a situation.
“There are several grey areas in dealing with an officer in a case like this. He may be asked to go on leave pending an inquiry or maybe suspended altogether," the official cited earlier said. “However, that call has to be taken by the highest level of the government and not from within the CBI."
This official said that not only was the tussle between the director and the special director sullying the name of India’s top investigating agency, but also that the accused official needed to be removed with immediate effect in order to set an example.
“It’s no secret that Asthana enjoys external support because of which he is able to periodically challenge the director. This is doing nothing but destroying the reputation of CBI," said a former official, who was closely associated with CBI. “The government should immediately remove Asthana and transfer him to an innocuous post until the probe is complete."
The matter has turned into a political slugfest, with Congress tearing into the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after the agency registered a case against Asthana.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi reacted to the ongoing controversy, tweeting on Monday, “blue-eyed boy has been caught taking bribes. Under this prime minister, the CBI is a weapon of political vendetta".
The rift at the top in CBI has been out in the open, with reports of a fallout between Verma and Asthana surfacing earlier this year, after the agency in a letter to the CVC made it clear that Asthana had not been given any powers to represent the director in the latter’s absence.
Asthana was appointed CBI’s special director in October 2017, and has spearheaded several cases such as the AgustaWestland scam, the coal scam and the probe against liquor baron Vijay Mallya. He also headed an SIT to probe the 2002 Godhra Sabarmati Express burning case and had given Narendra Modi, then Gujarat chief minister, a clean chit in the communal violence that ensued.