The CBI coup must be seen in context of political appointments since 2014

Many of those appointed to high-profile posts have been involved in whitewashing Narendra Modi and Amit Shah’s controversial past—including their role in the staged encounter killing of Ishrat Jahan and three others—and these appointments need to be questioned in the wake of the CBI coup. Vijayanand Gupta / Hindustan Times / Getty Images
21 November, 2018

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.

One month before the investigation was transferred, GL Singhal, who then headed the Ahmedabad Anti-Terrorism Squad, conducted the sting in which top men in Modi’s dispensation were recorded planning an obfuscation of the case to ensure that the trail did not reach the chief minister’s office. The culture of officials recording their own conversations with ministers and snooping on each other was common place. Since the Gujarat government was famous for using and throwing cops and bureaucrats in the state per its whims, officers often made these recordings to safeguard their own interests in case of an enquiry.

In August 2013, I obtained a copy of the audio recordings of the sting and reported the story for Tehelka, along with the full transcript. The senior officials and state police officers included: Praful Patel, a minister of state in the home ministry; Kamal Trivedi, the state advocate general; GC Murmu, a senior IAS officer who is known to be Modi’s confidante; Pradip Singh Jadeja, then the minister of state for law; AK Sharma, then the Ahmedabad joint commissioner of police; and Tushar Mehta, the additional advocate general at the time, among others. Most of these individuals’ professional fortunes have seen an uptick in recent years.

In the audio tapes, the advocate general Trivedi states that he called one of the SIT officials investigating the Ishrat Jahan fake encounter to his cabin in the presence of GC Murmu and asked him to retire from the investigative body. The officer being spoken about is the Gujarat-cadre official Mohan Jha. Trivedi goes on to say that the Gujarat government is keen on helping the accused and he has been in touch with both Modi and Shah who were following the case closely. Through the course of this conversation, Murmu and Trivedi appear to call Modi, who was on his way to Delhi.

Within a month of the report’s publication in Tehelka, a CBI team investigating the fake encounters, led by Sandeep Tamgadge, a superintendent of police in the investigating agency, interrogated Murmu, Sharma, Trivedi and Mehta. Six months later, the CBI’s leadership witnessed a reshuffle—officers who were investigating and supervising the case had inquiries initiated against them, transferred or retired. Since then, the officials heard in the sting, who seemed to have been complicit in professional misconduct and obfuscation of the investigation in Gujarat, have been placed systematically in the Modi regime in Delhi.

The most recent example is the appointment of Tushar Mehta, who purportedly convened the November 2011 meeting according to the audio recordings of the sting, as the solicitor general of India, on 10 October. Mehta is not without his share of controversies. In October 2015, a petition filed in the Supreme Court revealed a series of emails exchanged between Mehta and S Gurumurthy, an RSS ideologue, in relation to the case concerning the 2002 Gujarat riots. The court dismissed the petition, which sought for the riots cases to be shifted out of Gujarat.

Mehta’s appointment as the government of India’s chief legal advisor came against the backdrop of resignations by multiple law officers—including the additional solicitor generals PS Narasimha and Maninder Singh and the previous solicitor general Ranjit Kumar—over the preceding year. Mehta was appointed despite being a largely unpopular choice within the government—ostensibly, because he had Amit Shah’s approval. According to multiple senior advocates, who requested to remain anonymous, a public rebellion over Mehta’s appointment, by an additional solicitor general considered close to Arun Jaitley, was stymied at the last minute. But the resignations over the last one year speak their own story.

In April 2015, Murmu, who was Modi’s principal secretary in Gujarat till 2014, was brought to Delhi as joint secretary in the department of expenditure. His appointment was cleared by the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet, which is headed by the prime minister. In 2017, Murmu was appointed the special secretary in the department of revenue. The same month as Murmu’s appointment to the government of India, A.K Sharma, another official caught in the sting recordings, who was formerly the special police commissioner of the city crime branch in Ahmedabad, was brought to the CBI as a joint director. This appointment came even while the agency was tied up in knots over the investigation and trial of the four fake encounters in the Ishrat Jahan case—the CBI’s investigation is still ongoing.

One of the senior advocates also told me that in 2017, Kamal Trivedi, who is known to be a close confidante of Amit Shah and appeared to be playing the most dubious role as per the sting recordings, was set to be appointed the additional solicitor general, till Arun Jaitley, then the finance minister, weighed in with his own choice. Trivedi continues to be the advocate general of Gujarat.

Ironically, Sandeep Tamgadge, the Nagaland cadre official who questioned the officials and ministers caught in this sting, was withdrawn from the fake-encounters case and was repatriated to his home cadre in October 2015. Tamgadge had also named Amit Shah as the prime accused and kingpin in the investigation into the death of Tulsi Prajapati, an associate of the gangster Sohrabuddin Sheikh—both of whom were killed in fake encounters by the Gujarat Police. Tamgadge had also filed supplementary chargesheets in the Sohrabuddin and Prajapati cases, explaining in detail Amit Shah’s role in the extortion, kidnapping and murder of the two victims. Shah was discharged in both cases in December 2014. After his repatriation, the CBI launched multiple investigations against Tamgadge and gave him extremely low ratings in his Annual Confidential Report, effectively denying him opportunities for future promotions.

This sting operation by GL Singhal could have decided the future of many of the officials who are now in influential positions in the Modi government and the CBI. Instead, according to officials in the investigating team, it was not included in the second chargesheet in the Ishrat Jahan case, which was filed in February 2014. According to a senior official in the CBI, the process through which the second charge sheet was filed and the exclusion of these key names led to a moment of crisis in the CBI between the special director Anil Sinha and director Ranjit Sinha. Anil Sinha later took over as the director in 2014.

Many appointments have wrecked the credibility of India’s investigative institutions. But for the Modi-Shah duo, these appointees had cleansed them of many of the accusations they have faced in their political journey. In the Sohrabuddin encounter case, the CBI had filed a chargesheet against Amit Shah identifying him as the prime accused charged with murder, conspiracy to murder, extortion and criminal intimidation. Shah was discharged in December 2014. In early October this year, responding to a public interest litigation in the Bombay High Court, the CBI defended its decision not to challenge Amit Shah’s discharge in the Sohrabuddin case, noting that it was a “conscious” and “reasonable” move. This month, the court dismissed the PIL. Meanwhile, in the Ishrat Jahan case, the investigating agencies are still waiting for sanction to prosecute officials charged in the case, which is pending before a special CBI court in Ahmedabad.

When we pitch the ouster of Alok Verma as a CBI-versus-CBI drama, we are offering to further the narrative sold by those who sullied the image of the agency for their own personal agenda. The CBI is facing a crisis today because of the consistent politicisation of the office by the PMO to further its own cause. The CBI has had a history of being manipulated by both the Congress and the BJP in the past, but never before has the investigating agency witnessed such an abysmal state of affairs. When the government of the day disregarded constitutional norms and appointed those who have discredited their earlier offices to national roles, the offices of justice and integrity were bound to be tainted sooner or later.