The Supreme Court on Friday gave the Central Vigilance Commission two weeks to complete a preliminary inquiry into corruption allegations against Alok Verma, the Central Bureau of Investigation chief who was sent on leave by the Centre on October 23.

A bench by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi said the inquiry will be supervised by retired Supreme Court judge AK Patnaik. It also asked the CBI’s interim director Nageswara Rao not to take any policy decisions and confine himself to day-to-day work.

The Centre’s action against Verma followed an unprecedented crisis that saw the agency raid its own offices last week and file a first information report against the second-in-command Rakesh Asthana, who has since been sent on leave as well. Asthana, who was reportedly handpicked as the CBI’s special director by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is accused of taking bribes from a businessman he was investigating for money laundering.

On its face, the Supreme Court’s order appears stern. The court has made sure the Centre does not prolong the inquiry against Verma to keep him away from the CBI until his retirement in January. The supervision by a retired judge ensures fairness and provides credibility to the inquiry. The court has also issued notices to all the involved parties, including the Department of Personnel and Training, which has administrative control over the CBI.

Yet, the court failed to decisively address the fundamental question. The accusation against the Centre was that it violated provisions of the law governing the tenure and independence of the CBI chief. By allowing this violation to remain for the time being, the court temporarily let the Centre off the hook.

Questions still to be answered

The Delhi Special Police Establishment Act lays down that the CBI director cannot be moved out without the approval of the statutory appointment committee consisting of the prime minister, the chief justice and the leader of the opposition. In appointing Rao as the interim director, the Centre ran roughshod over this crucial statutory protection. It’s not clear how the existence of a note making allegations against Verma, or the Central Vigilance Commission conducting a preliminary enquiry against him, allows the Centre to violate the statutory provision.

The problem is not so much with the decision to send Verma on leave as with the manner in which it was done without the statutory committee’s approval. Sending Verma on forced leave and appointing Rao in his place has two implications. First, a de facto illegal transfer has been effected. Second, the legally protected tenure of two years for the CBI director has been undermined. The CBI director’s tenure was fixed on the Supreme Court’s direction in the Vineet Narain case of 1997.

Ideally, the Supreme Court should have reinstated Verma forthwith or at least gone into the legality of his eviction before deciding on other matters. The court also left for subsequent hearings the transfer of several CBI officials who were investigating Asthana, who too has now moved the court against the order sending him on leave.

While the CBI director enjoys a protected tenure, the special director does not. Also, it is only against Asthana that a first information report has been lodged. Therefore, the other question that needed to be answered was whether the Centre was right to send the director on leave, a form of disciplinary action, even before the Central Vigilance Commission had completed its preliminary inquiry, which is necessary to establish if a first information report needs to be filed.

Still, the court’s directions on Friday have at least temporarily stopped the Centre’s illegal interference in the CBI.