CBI chief Alok Verma removed by PM Modi-led panel

A man walks past India's Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) headquarters building in New Delhi, March 6, 2018. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi/Files

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) chief Alok Verma was ousted on Thursday by a panel led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the government said, drawing criticism from the main opposition Congress party.

“By removing #AlokVerma from his position without giving him the chance to present his case, PM Modi has shown once again that he’s too afraid of an investigation,” the Congress said on Twitter.

Verma was suspended in October along with his deputy after they accused each other of bribery and interfering in investigations.

The spat embarrassed the CBI, which fulfils a similar role to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, and also led to accusations that the Modi government had damaged the independence of the agency.

The Supreme Court ordered the government on Tuesday to reinstate Verma, but barred him from taking major policy decisions until the conclusion of the probe.

In his earlier petition to the court, Verma had described his ousting as eroding “the independence of the institution” and its officers’ morale. Some critics said the government’s actions were part of a wider pattern of government authoritarianism.

A government statement announcing Verma’s removal said he had been assigned as director general of fire services. The statement named M. Nageshwar Rao as his replacement.

The CBI is investigating several high profile cases, including a $2 billion fraud at Punjab National Bank involving fugitive diamond billionaire Nirav Modi, loan defaults by liquor baron Vijay Mallya and police firing on anti-Vedanta protesters in Tamil Nadu.

Reporting by Nigam Prusty; Writing by Sudarshan Varadhan; Editing by Gareth Jones, William Maclean