A petition filed in the Supreme Court by an officer in India’s Central Investigation Bureau (CBI) alleges deep collusion and conspiracy between senior police and intelligence officials. The petition is the latest salvo in a battle between the two top CBI officials.

The drama started in the middle of October when the CBI filed a case against its second-in-command, special director Rakesh Asthana. The case alleged Asthana was trying to “extort” money from someone to escape scrutiny in an ongoing corruption case.

The case cast a spotlight on an ongoing dispute between Asthana and his boss, CBI director Alok Verma.

CBI FIR

Part of the petition filed by CBI deputy superintendent AK Bassi alleging collusion between Indian intelligence and police officials. Photo: Asia Times

Worried about the fallout from the clash between the two most senior officials in the CBI, the government sent both men on leave and transferred all the officials investigating the cases against Asthana. One of the officers, A K Bassi, was posted to the remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands, thousands of miles from New Delhi.

An explosive petition

Bassi’s petition filed in the Supreme Court today (October 30) details material collected during the investigation into Asthana’s alleged corruption. It details calls made between Asthana and Samanta Kumar Goel, a special secretary in India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).

There were also calls between Goel and Manoj Prasad, a Dubai-based Indian businessman and his relatives, who were also accused in the case.

File photo of Samant Kumar Goel, Special Secretary in India's external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW). Photo: Courtesy The Punjabi Society of British Isles
Samant Kumar Goel, Special Secretary in India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Photo: Courtesy The Punjabi Society of British Isles

Goel and Asthana are close friends. Bassi’s petition reveals that Goel made a series of phone calls on the night of October 16, when Manoj Prasad landed in Delhi and was immediately arrested by the CBI. The petition records that first Goel received a call from Manoj’s brother Somesh just after 10pm.

In the early hours of the following day, at about 6:37am, Goel called Asthana and spoke to him at length. He then called Somesh in Dubai and received another call from Asthana after 7am.

Bassi urged the Supreme Court to take custody of the material collected by him as evidence during his investigation. In a call from a number that was under CBI surveillance, a key accused tells another person “Asthana to apna aadmi hai“, or ‘Asthana is our man’. The caller also said “Samant bhai is very close to Asthana.”

Finally, the tapes also say Goel called Somesh and warned him against coming to India.

The recordings raise several questions. Why was Goel involved in a case that had nothing to do with his job as a senior intelligence official? Goel was also coordinating with another junior intelligence official, Rahul Srivastava, posted to Dubai. A contentious, unsigned intelligence report was generated by Srivastav under Goel’s supervision, targeting Rajeshwar Singh, an officer posted with the Enforcement Directorate (ED).

The ED works under the federal finance ministry and was tasked with investigating the role of former finance minister P Chidambaram, who served in the previous Congress government. Rajeshwar Singh was investigating the case, but the report from RAW raised concerns about him as a “national security threat.” This RAW report was considered so sensitive that it was hand-delivered by the intelligence chief to finance secretary Hasmukh Adhia on October 23, 2017.

The reason for targeting Singh could be related to two major cases he was investigating. Besides the case against Chidambaram, he was also handling the directorate’s investigations into the Gujarat-based Sterling Biotech.

Asthana was an alleged recipient of bribes from the family who promoted Sterling and therefore faced an existential threat to his career. Three senior officers from India’s income tax department were also under investigation, a department that came directly under Adhia as the revenue and finance secretary. Singh’s investigation may have been ruffling too many powerful figures.

Senior officials told Asia Times that a proposal had been drawn to use the RAW report to dismiss Singh under article 311(2)(c) of the Indian Constitution. This allows senior officials to be summarily dismissed if they are considered a threat to national security. This was stopped after Singh’s boss intervened with the Prime Minister’s Office.

As reported in Asia Times earlier, in October 2017, Adhia was hoping to be India’s top bureaucrat, while Goel had his sights set on being the RAW chief, while his classmate, Asthana, was slotted to be the CBI chief. Between them, they would control the most powerful federal institutions in India.

India’s Watergate moment?

Verma, who was appointed as the director of the CBI in February 2017, was opposed to Asthana’s elevation as a special director. Verma put it on record that, as allowed by the law, Asthana was unfit for promotion. In fact, Verma pointed out, Asthana was facing charges of corruption in another case that hailed back to 2011.

Since he was likely to be accused, his continuation in the CBI, which was investigating this case, was a clear case of conflict of interest. The CBI director, Verma, was referring to a case of alleged fraud against a Gujarat-based firm known as Sterling Biotech, which was also under investigation by the Enforcement Directorate. The promoters of the firm, Chetan and Nitin Sandesara, were allegedly close to Asthana and a document alleged he had also accepted a bribe.

While the government moved to stop the clash between the two top CBI officials and sent them on leave, its actions came under scrutiny after Verma petitioned the Supreme Court. Existing Indian laws give the CBI director a two-year tenure to ensure a degree of autonomy while investigating high corruption.

After being sent on leave, Verma’s security officials found four men from India’s Intelligence Bureau (IB) carrying out physical surveillance on his official residence. While the government tried to pass off the incident as “routine patrolling”, Asia Times was told the men may have come from the Haryana unit of the IB. If true, then it undermines the “routine patrolling” theory of the government.

However, the actions of the government are now being questioned amid accusations of bias in favor of Asthana. All the officers close to Verma were transferred, a charge that has been repeated by Bassi in his petition to the Supreme Court.

A key CBI officer close to Asthana has now been accused by Bassi of giving false evidence. This officer, A Sai Manohar, has been placed in the CBI as joint director (Policy), considered to be the third most powerful position in the federal investigation agency.

As more facts, allegations and counter-allegations emerge, this is seen by some as India’s Watergate moment – a scandal that led to US President Richard Nixon’s resignation.