Central Bureau of Investigation Director Alok Verma’s counsel Fali Nariman on Thursday told the Supreme Court that Verma cannot be transferred without the approval of the selection committee that appointed him, Bar & Bench reported. The selection committee comprises the prime minister, the leader of the Opposition and the chief justice of India.

A bench comprising Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justices SK Kaul and KM Joseph is hearing two petitions – one by Verma and another by non-profit organisation Common Cause – questioning the government’s move to send the CBI director on leave on October 23 after his second-in-command Rakesh Asthana accused him of corruption. Verma had moved court the following day.

Nariman told the court that although Verma has not been transferred from the agency, the government has divested him of his responsibilities. The CBI director was appointed on February 1, 2017, and “the position of law is that there will be a fixed tenure of two years and this gentleman cannot be even transferred”, PTI quoted the lawyer as saying.

Kapil Sibal, representing Leader of the Opposition Mallikarjun Kharge, submitted to the top court that “the ambit of power of superintendence of the CVC is limited”, ANI reported. Kharge had moved the top court in support of the CBI chief on November 3.

The vigilance commission cannot remove the CBI director or seal his office, Sibal said. Nariman agreed with him. “If this has happened to CBI director, this may happen to the central vigilance commissioner also,” Live Law quoted Sibal as saying. “It can happen to the Election Commission also.”

Lawyer Rajeev Dhawan, who is representing senior CBI officer AK Bassi, argued that no rule can override the two-year term of the CBI director. Bassi, who was transferred to Port Blair in Andaman in October, was investigating Asthana. He has challenged his transfer order and sought a Special Investigating Team inquiry into the allegations against Asthana.

When Gogoi asked him why he had not filed a separate writ petition, Dhawan said he was only assisting the court at this stage.

Attorney General KK Venugopal dismissed the opposing counsels’ arguments questioning the Centre’s power to send Verma on leave. “The power of selection and the final choice for an appointment of director is made by the Union government,” Bar & Bench quoted him as saying. The selection panel, he clarified, selects a group of candidates from which the government appoints one person.

Venugopal argued that the Central Vigilance Commission and the Department of Personnel and Training have complete power to oversee the CBI and the provisions of CVC Act “make it clear that superintendence [of CVC] is not limited to corruption matters alone”. The attorney general said the action taken against Verma does not amount to transfer. “Divesting of charges falls within the powers of central government,” he added.

“The government intervention was to protect the public confidence in CBI, which was getting negative in view of the serious fight between two of its top officials,” Venugopal added. “Government intervention was in public interest.”

Gogoi said the court has not yet examined the central vigilance panel’s inquiry report. The judges will look into it if they feel it is required, and will give all parties an opportunity to respond, Gogoi added. The case will be heard next on December 5, Live Law reported.

The feud in the premier investigating agency became public on October 15 after the agency named Asthana in a First Information Report for allegedly accepting a Rs 2-crore bribe to scuttle an investigation against businessman Moin Qureshi, who is accused in multiple corruption cases. Asthana had in turn accused Verma of trying to falsely implicate him and levelled corruption charges against him.

The Central Vigilance Commission, which had been asked to look into the allegations, submitted a report to the court in a sealed cover on November 12.

CBI Deputy Inspector General Manish Kumar Sinha, who was part of the team investigating Asthana, filed a petition in the court on November 19 claiming that National Security Adviser Ajit Doval’s name had come up during the inquiry and there were allegations of Union minister Haribhai Parthibhai Chaudhary having received a bribe. Sinha is among several CBI officials who were transferred in “public interest” on October 23.