Much has been written about the midnight coup at the Central Bureau of Investigation that divested its chief Alok Verma and his deputy Rakesh Asthana of their powers, and about the politicisation of the agency that this betrayed. The legal battle over the coup has witnessed damning revelations by CBI officials, including a recent disclosure by Manish Sinha, a CBI deputy inspector general, that national security advisor Ajit Doval, among others, had intervened in the probe against Asthana. That the CBI has often been influenced by political powers was endorsed by the Supreme Court when it called the agency a caged parrot in 2013. But rarely before has the agency been mired in such ugly infighting within its ranks—that too publicly. Visuals of four Intelligence Bureau officials who were caught snooping on the CBI director and subsequently dragged by his security officers are an unprecedented low.
At the core of this controversy is a shadow of Narendra Modi’s past—his favoured officials, bureaucrats and law officers with a checkered history, who have been placed in the highest offices in New Delhi. Modi’s relationship with Asthana traces back to the latter’s investigation of the burning of a train at the Godhra railway station in 2002, which killed 59 people, most of whom were karsevaks. Asthana’s investigation concluded that the incident was a pre-planned conspiracy by a Muslim mob, which led to the conviction of 31 people, in March 2011—though several media reports have disputed the official claim and argued that the burning was an accident.
Modi’s career is marked by several skeletons that remain in his closet that were laid to rest with the intervention of trusted aides. The crisis of political interference is now all-pervasive, spread across institutions of law and justice, systematically cultivated over recent years through appointments to the CBI, the Intelligence Bureau and other constitutional offices including that of the solicitor general. Verma’s ouster reportedly took place on the heels of the CBI chief looking into Modi’s controversial government-to-government deal with France to purchase 36 Rafale fighter jets. Many of those appointed to high-profile posts have been involved in whitewashing Modi and Amit Shah’s controversial past, and these appointments need to be questioned in the wake of the controversy.
In August 2013, the year preceding the general elections, both Modi and Shah found themselves in the midst of a controversy that included some of the top cops, bureaucrats, law officers from Gujarat along with ministers in the government. In a damning sting operation, senior Gujarat government and police officials were heard at a meeting, allegedly attempting to derail a CBI investigation into the staged encounter killing of Ishrat Jahan, Javed Shaikh, Amjad Ali Rana and Zeeshan Johar. The purpose of the meeting was to obfuscate the investigation, mislead the court and ensure the accused cops and ministers escape the rule of law.
On 15 June 2004, on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, officers of the Gujarat Police Crime Branch had killed these four people, claiming that they were suspected to be Lashkar-e-Taiba operatives on a mission to assassinate Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat. In September 2009, the Ahmedabad metropolitan magistrate SP Tamang identified the incident as a “fake encounter.” Two years later, the Special Investigation Team inquiring into the encounter, too, concluded that the encounter was “fake,” following which the Gujarat High Court directed the CBI to take over the investigation, in December 2011.