Verma was sent on leave on 24 October 2018, and M. Nageswara Rao, a CBI joint director, appointed the interim chief.
The very public fallout between the two top officials of the CBI has not only sullied the agency’s reputation, but has also affected procedures with Rao not being permitted to take fresh policy decisions.
The main issue for consideration before the apex court is whether the government should have consulted the high-powered committee before sending Verma on leave. The judgement, which will potentially decide the future course for Verma, who retires in the first week of February, will be pronounced by a three-judge bench comprising Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justices K.M. Joseph and Sanjay Kishan Kaul.
The centre, through attorney general (AG) K.K. Venugopal, had justified the government’s decision to divest Verma of powers without a nod from the high-powered committee comprising the Prime Minister, the Chief Justice of India and the leader of opposition. Venugopal had told the top court that the committee’s mandate was limited and stood expired after recommending names for the post of CBI director. The Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) had “powers of complete superintendence over CBI" and the provisions of the Central Vigilance Commission Act, 2003, made it clear that such superintendence was not restricted to corruption cases alone, he said.
The AG claimed that the government’s intervention was made in public interest and said that the primary concern was to protect people’s faith and restore confidence in CBI as public opinion was becoming negative because its top two officers were at loggerheads with each other.
The government’s decision to divest Verma of powers was opposed by his lawyer and eminent jurist Fali Nariman, who relied on a 1997 judgement (Vineet Narain vs Union of India) that laid down guidelines on the functioning of the CVC and the CBI.
Solicitor general Tushar Mehta had argued on behalf of the CVC that the centre was empowered to make a reference to the CVC for inquiry against CBI officials. The only limitation the CVC faces is that it cannot ask the CBI to decide a case in a particular manner.
The Supreme Court will rule on a batch of petitions, including one filed by Prashant Bhushan-led non-governmental organization Common Cause, which has challenged the order sending the CBI director on leave and divesting him of all powers. Verma, in his plea, said the centre’s action was “patently illegal" and in violation of the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act, 1946, which provided the CBI director a two-year term.