Millennium Post

In the corridors of CBI

The corruption that has silently seeped in the administration of the premier investigation bureau poses a serious question mark over its accountability

"Stab the body and it heals, but injure the heart and the wound lasts a lifetime.''

One does not need to be a voracious political pundit to gauge the stark echoes of Mineko Iwasaki's aforesaid maxim in context of the recent upheavals in India's topmost investigative agency which stands marred by the deadly triumvirate of trust deficit, power struggle and deceit of the highest kind. What lies now in front of us is an agency rotten to the core, struggling to maintain its aura as the citadel of justice.

April Fools' Day coincidentally also happens to be the annual foundation day for the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). In his address on the occasion this year, CBI Director Rishi Kumar Shukla said, "The CBI enjoys the trust of the people, Parliament, the judiciary and the government. Whenever there is a major offence or a credible investigation is required, there is always a demand for a CBI investigation."

It is really tough to rest our beliefs on the trust part of his statement for as far as the recent upheavals are concerned, trust seems to be a farfetched imagination in the echelons of CBI.

The corruption that has silently seeped in the administration of the bureau poses a serious question mark over its accountability. If the recent findings against the CBI officials have anything concrete to offer then it is crystal clear that the prime motive for a number of officials within the CBI had been to mint money in association with their counterparts in the ED.

This monetary influx in and around the echelons of CBI could have gone unabated, and life would have kept going gaga for most of them, had there not been an Achilles' heel in the face of a dashing IPS officer from Gujrat cadre–Rakesh Asthana–who joined CBI with his own unique albeit revolutionary idea of shaking the status quo and put a lid over these questionable attitudes of his fellow colleagues over there.

Former CBI Director Alok Verma, in particular, found this primary assistant a major stumbling block in his properly managed nefarious designs. However, it ultimately resulted in the exposure of his evil deeds in the form of a complaint to the CVC by none other than his own special director Rakesh Asthana. In the enquiry which was put up and supervised by a retired SC Judge, CVC found 50 per cent of the corruption charges prima facie true.

In fact, the 'Game of Thrones' that virtually shattered CBI's credentials had sprung its deadly head as early as 2011-12 when the treacherous ballgame of power equations had already been setup. It started acquiring a shape when the IT sleuths went sniffing out for loopholes during 2014 General Elections when the then PM aspirant Narendra Modi used the links of 'middlemen' to the Congress party in their well-devised and managed election campaign.

Modi won the election and in order to do away with the underlying corruption, the investigating agency constituted a Special Investigation Team led by Rakesh Asthana. It was Asthana's appointment that swept away corrupts in the bureau out of their comfortable cabins. It is equally baffling to note that none of these high-end agencies, including CBI, ED and Income Tax department, could initiate any stern authoritative actions to curb such middlemen or 'tainted officials' until the formation of SIT.

And contrary to the time-tested work ethics of such special investigative teams, the one under Asthana turned the tables around. They were here to expose the scumbags and the sleuths around.

The biggest blow was yet to come from the SIT against the meat exporter Moin Akhtar Quereshi who was first brought under investigation by CBI as an alleged middleman for senior CBI officials after ED's investigation under Foreign Exchange Management Act (FEMA).

An alumnus of Doon School and St. Stephen's College, Qureshi did not start big. In 1993, he entered into the business through a small slaughterhouse that he owned in Rampur, Uttar Pradesh. The business fared moderately.

In a mere span of 16 years, he became the largest meat exporter of India. To whom this giant success can be attributed? Findings suggest that his alumni network assisted him in numerous ways to acquire the throne and run his export empire. Not only an exporter, this man consequently went on to become a significant tax evader in the Indian economy and developed significant hawala channels in Dubai, Canada and European countries.

He did not stop here. He negotiated with the influential bureaucrats and the public servants and consequentially knew about all the ins and outs of the highest investigative agency of the country–CBI. It was not until UPA-II when CBI somehow became suspicious of the handlings of Qureshi and also the involvement of the Congress top brass in the matter.

Meanwhile, as his web of hawala transactions multiplied, Qureshi began setting up an alibi–his daughter Pernia Qureshi and Pakistani wife Nasreen Qureshi. It was through their accounts that Qureshi began transferring funds through shell companies and making payments to high-end luxury designer brands in Europe. Qureshi first came under the radar of the central agencies– IT department, Enforcement Directorate and CBI–in 2011, when the noted Sufi singer from Pakistan Rahat Fateh Ali Khan came to India to perform at Qureshi's daughter's wedding. On his way back, Khan was caught by the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence officials at the Indira Gandhi International Airport with Rs 56 lakh in cash. He claimed that the money was given to him as a fee for his performance at a farmhouse in Delhi where the meat exporter's daughter got married.

Over the next three years, agencies kept Qureshi under surveillance. Multiple raids were conducted at various places in February 2014. One can imagine Qureshi's clout from the fact that it took three more years for CBI to register a case against him. The probe into his alleged wrongful deeds blew the lid on internal fault lines and corruption in the CBI. Names of the two former CBI directors–A P Singh and Ranjit Sinha–popped up during the investigation. It was during the investigation that the CBI found out that Qureshi's daughter Sylvia Moin's company, SM Productions, was given a contract by AP Singh for in-house Diwali celebrations in November 2012. Ranjit Sinha instead gave them the contract to organise CBI's home function in April 2013. According to the IT Department's findings, a bill of Rs 33.5 lakh was charged for the event by SM Productions. During the investigations conducted in connection with the case, IT officials also found many 'suspicious' BlackBerry Messenger (BBM) exchanges between Qureshi and AP Singh, for instance, "Sir 500 words essay is good or 1000-word essay and size of jacket. Fast pls." This message was sent by Qureshi in July 2013, to which AP Singh replied, "500 words. 40 Jacket 16 collar size." The message exchanged also suggested that Qureshi was seeking help from AP Singh in his personal legal indulgences like former Bank of India Chairman, TS Narayanaswamy's, which was being investigated by the CBI. However, following those revealing reports, when the Ministry of Home Affairs was contemplating to remove AP Singh as member of the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), Singh himself stepped down.

CBI recovered messages exchanged between AP Singh and Qureshi that established their links. Besides being a frequent visitor to Singh's residence, Qureshi also exchanged messages with Singh which were about Pradeep Koneru–a businessman and the son of Prasad Koneru–who was being probed by CBI in under a disproportionate assets case against Jaganmohan Reddy, the YSR Congress chief. Unbelievable, it may sound, but the "daredevil" meat exporter visited Singh 70 times in 15 months.

This was not the end of Qureshi's exploits in the CBI. He even designed the apparatus to ensure that Asthana does not step up as the next director of CBI using his alumni connections. One of Qureshi's associates, Sathish Sana, came under the CBI scanner over transactions of more than Rs 50 lakhs over a certain time period. Sana tried to evade CBI through various means before his luck deserted him in September 2018. Facing arrest, Sana recorded a statement before CBI. Developments became muddier thereafter. His statement reads that a bribe of Rs 2 crore was paid to CBI director Alok Verma through TDP MP CM Ramesh.

When Asthana sought permission from his higher authorities for custodial interrogation of Sana, it was straight away denied. On the other hand, a parallel statement from Sana was recorded by CBI under Section 164 of CrPC. Initiating a U-turn in the story, the middleman stated that a bribe of Rs 3 crore was paid to Rakesh Asthana in December 2017 through Dubai-based middleman Manoj Prasad and his brother Somesh Prasad. Even in a lesser time that was taken in denying interrogation of Sana, Alok Verma abruptly ordered to lodge an FIR against Asthana. And, finally the 'delay over denial' struck by the Rampur man and his dear ones succeeded in shattering Asthana's prospects in becoming the next CBI chief. But, on July 27, 2019, lady luck turned her face opposite to Sana and he was arrested by ED sleuths. Interestingly, during his interrogation, his statements are very much contradictory to his earlier ones.

There are many complicated threads that describe the rise of the middlemen in the premier investigation agency. Sample few of them: Rajiv Singh from EOW Ranchi was transferred to AC-I of CBI headquarters at New Delhi despite his involvement in transfer of a bank fraud case, the less-publicised gold-smuggling case at IGI Airport–in which accused Saurav Sharma anticipating safe passage from the top cops was caught red-handed with 3,990 grams of gold–and recommending a 91' batch officer R P Upadhyay for CBI. As Upadhyay was found using Nepal sim cards with ED Joint Director Rajeshwar Singh and Vikas Mehta to hoodwink the CBI telephone surveillance unit, his induction to the CBI was rejected by the special unit of CBI due to his doubtful integrity.

The rise of an officer in UP to Joint Director in ED is no less than a fairy tale. After his deputation in ED, this blue-eyed boy of media (who often medals him as 'encounter man' and 'upright cop'), attained heavy clout. One can imagine his sway that heavyweights like Ranjit Sinha, Goolam Vahanvati and AP Singh were obliged to be a part of his son's birthday which was a so-called intimate family affair. Singh is under the scanner for allegations of having amassed assets disproportionate to his known sources of income. Singh's proximity to Verma as well as previous ED chief Karnal Singh has also been a subject of intense speculation in the higher echelons of the government.

The former CBI Joint Director (Policy) A K Sharma is also alleged to be an axis in this Qureshi-Verma-Singh network. Being the JD (BSFC) in CBI, he did not lodge any case against Sanjay Roy, who is a 'declared' defaulter by the SBI. The buzz is that Sharma's son managed to lay his hands on the membership of an elite and expensive club in New Delhi as Roy is an office-bearer there. Besides, Sharma's family is known to be involved in operating shell companies like Niveshan Ventures, Evolve Project and Management Consultancy Private Ltd, Whitecube Brine Science Private Ltd, Meta World Ecotech Private Ltd, Brevity Enterprises and ItwingsInfosyastem Private Ltd, in partnership with dubious individuals.

Surprisingly, Verma, whose own record is far from being unblemished, went ahead in mud-slinging against Asthana. To order an FIR against his No. 2 was nothing more than a counter-attack to diffuse the 'guilt' in those serious allegations made by Asthana against Verma which were referred to the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) by the Cabinet Secretary. Besides denying the permission in investigating Sana's bribery charges against Verma, Asthana had complained before of being removed from the IRCTC case, in which RJD supremo Lalu Prasad, his wife Rabri Devi and son Tejashwi Yadav were accused. Ambiguity was also over Verma's role in the coal scam and INX Media cases. Also, he was accused of inducting tainted officers.

The CVC investigated Verma on about 10 charges of misconduct, corruption and interference on the basis of Special Director Asthana's testimony letter. The vigilance body recommended criminal investigations in a few other matters, including influencing the probe against Qureshi and uncontrolled induction of tainted officers in CBI over the years. During the course of CVC enquiry, several other complaints were filed against Verma in the last year. These included allegations of a cover-up in the leakage of CBI's internal emails in the Nirav Modi case and the agency diluting a look-out circular against businessman C Sivasankaran, former owner of Aircel.

The CVC reports hardly make any sense unless CBI initiates criminal investigations against the officers concerned in their respective jurisdictions. But the way in which the progress of the investigation gets handled raises certain questions on the attitude of the agency. The promising effort was seen only after the matter was taken up to the Supreme Court. But, unfortunately, the dilly-dallying approach in follow-up actions against the 'guilty' officers has made CBI an organisation of paradoxes–where upright officers have to pay the price of honesty and integrity, while the tainted ones are rewarded.

The judiciary has time and again questioned the inefficiency of CBI. On April 12, while hearing a bribery case against Asthana, the Delhi High Court asked CBI as to why the letters rogatory had not been sent to other foreign countries that are involved and related to the case as yet. The court had issued orders for the same way back in January. It had asked CBI how long it would take for it to complete this process.

The bench of Justice Mukta Gupta instructed ASG Vikramjit Banerjee to submit the sealed papers. The papers, said the bench, should provide the information regarding when the investigating agency was directed by authorities to issue the letters derogatory. Besides, they should also name officials who were involved in this exercise for over the previous two to three working months. There should be a date-wise managed and compiled data so as to ascertain where things got stuck.

It was on January 11 that the High Court had given CBI a 10-week deadline to complete investigations against Asthana and others in the bribery case related to Sana-Qureshi. The investigating agency had asked for a period of six months. A compromise was struck at four months and the bench adjourned the hearing till April 12.

The case continues to be dragged, as again, on May 31, Justice Gupta allowed the CBI's plea seeking an extension to complete its investigation in the case lodged against Asthana, DSP Devender Kumar and middleman Manoj Prasad. The investigating agency has been granted an extension of four months to complete the probe.

It is Asthana who has had to pay the price for the CBI's non-strict and non-disciplinary approach. Verma, an alumnus of St Xavier's School and St Stephen's College in Delhi, had completed a major part of his tenure anyway. But it was Asthana's career that got chequered, thanks to the procrastination by the premier investigation agency. At times one wonders if this was all a deliberate ploy and well-designed cob-web to keep an upright officer from the non-Lutyens' circle at an arm's length.

Nobody really knows that whether CBI is incapable or under the influence of the powerful or prejudiced like in the past but there seems to be an unwillingness to embrace the truth–at least in

Asthana's case.

It remains a mystery whether the agency is trying to sabotage the fair process of investigation or simply trying to make a fool of the whole investigative apparatus in the country? Or is it a Confused Bureau of Interruptions?

(The author is a senior journalist. The views expressed are strictly personal)

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