New Delhi: The Supreme Court on Tuesday reinstated Alok Kumar Verma as the director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) but, dampening the moral victory, barred him from taking fresh policy decisions for the remaining three weeks of his term.

The ruling came two months after Verma was divested of his powers by the centre. With just weeks to go for his 31 January retirement, the apex court’s move may have ensured a dignified end to Verma’s career, but his powers as the CBI chief stand clipped.

A former senior CBI official said Verma was not out of the woods yet, as a selection committee comprising Prime Minister Narendra Modi, leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha Mallikarjun Kharge and Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi is set to review the Central Vigilance Commission’s (CVC’s) findings against him.

“Alok Verma has not been exonerated yet. While the Supreme Court should have passed the order two months back, the selection committee will now decide on whether Verma is free of blame or not. What the court order has done is, it has retained the autonomy of the director for the future where he cannot be arbitrarily sent on leave by the government," said the former official, requesting anonymity.

On 23 October, the centre sent both special director Rakesh Asthana and Verma on leave, divesting them of their powers. The centre intervened after the battle between the two top cops spun out of control with both levelling bribery and graft charges against each other. There is still no clarity on if and when Asthana will resume service.

The matter led to a political slugfest on Tuesday, with Congress party spokesperson Randeep Surjewala saying the “Supreme Court judgement is a lesson for PM Modi’s government." Justifying the action taken by the centre, finance minister Arun Jaitley said the decision was aimed at protecting the reputation of the agency.

“This action taken was perfectly bona fide as there were cross-allegations made by both the officers, and in accordance with recommendations of the CVC. The government felt that in the larger interest of fair and impartial investigation and credibility of CBI, the two officers must recuse themselves," Jaitley told reporters.

Jaitley added that the centre would comply with the SC’s order, which also upheld the protected two-year tenure of the CBI chief.

“The court apparently has strengthened the immunity given to the CBI director in the larger interest of the fair and impartial working of the CBI. At the same time, the court has devised an accountability mechanism. The directions of the court will obviously be complied with," he said.

A three-judge bench comprising Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and justices K.M. Joseph and Sanjay Kishan Kaul set aside the 23 October order of the centre divesting Verma of his powers and appointing CBI joint director Nageshwar Rao as the interim chief after Verma was sent on leave.

Verma’s fate, however, rests on the final decision of the high-powered committee which has been asked to convene a meeting within a week to examine the CVC’s charges against him.

“Alok Kumar Verma as the director, CBI during the interregnum and in terms of this order will be confined only to the exercise of the ongoing routine functions without any fresh initiative, having no major policy or institutional implications," the judgement said.

Highlighting the legislative intent behind certain provisions of the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act, 1946, the court held that it was to ensure “complete insulation of the office of the Director, CBI from all kinds of extraneous influences and uphold the integrity and independence of the institution of the CBI as a whole".

The very public fallout between the two top officials of the CBI has not only sullied the agency’s reputation but also affected its work, because Rao too is not allowed to take fresh policy decisions.

The main issue for consideration before the apex court was whether the government should have consulted the high-powered committee before sending Verma on leave.

The centre, through attorney general K.K. Venugopal, had justified the government’s decision not to seek the approval of the high-powered committee on the grounds that the committee’s mandate was limited to recommending names for the post of CBI director. He claimed that the government’s intervention was made in public interest and that the primary concern was to protect people’s faith and restore confidence in the CBI as public opinion was becoming negative because of the fight between Verma and Asthana.

The government’s decision to divest Verma of powers was opposed by his lawyer and eminent jurist Fali Nariman, who relied on a 1997 judgment (Vineet Narain versus 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 inquiries 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 apex court was ruling on a batch of petitions, including one filed by Prashant Bhushan-led non-governmental organization Common Cause, who have 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.

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