The Corrupt Chief Justices of The Supreme Court of India
Rudimentary logic demands that the highest chairs must have the soundest legs. By that measure, judges ought to have impeccable moral character. But in India, judges are protected less by their sterling reputations than by an arcane law: the “contempt of court” act, which - strangely, only in India! - prohibits raising any questions about judges or their actions.
This has reduced talk of judicial corruption to a sullen whisper rather than a democratic debate.
Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan has fought this unhealthy immunity for 20 years. In September 2009, partly as a result of his relentless campaigns, the judiciary finally agreed to declare their financial assets. It was a big first step. Much remained to be done. Soon after, in an interview with TEHELKA, Bhushan outlined other mechanisms needed to make judges more accountable and spoke of various forms of judicial corruption. Among other things, he asserted that “half of the last 16 Chief Justices have been corrupt.”
Based on this interview, lawyer Harish Salve slapped a contempt of court case against Bhushan and TEHELKA editor Tarun J Tejpal. At first Bhushan argued his right as a citizen to voice his perceptions. But the court insisted on pursuing the matter further, saying the ramifications of the case for the credibility of the Supreme Court were far greater than those that had been under consideration in either “Duda’s case or Bal Thackeray’s case”. (The former had called the Supreme Court a haven of FERA violators, bride-burners and racketeers; the latter had said, “I piss on the Supreme Court.”)
Pushed to demonstrate that his views were not just reckless assertions, Bhushan has now filed a supplementary affidavit with evidence backing his statement about corrupt judges. In the affidavit, Bhushan reiterates the difficulty in getting documentary evidence of corruption in the higher judiciary because no investigation is allowed against judges, there is no disciplinary authority one can turn to, and even FIRs require prior permission from the Chief Justice of India.
Despite this, his affidavit casts chilling light on the apparent misconduct of many judges. A week earlier, in a historic move, constitutionalist and former law minister Shanti Bhushan also filed an affidavit, seeking to implead himself in the case. Like his son, he asserted eight out of the last 16 Chief Justices have been corrupt and submitted their names in a sealed envelope to the bench. He would consider it a “great honour”, he said, “to spend time in jail for making an effort to get for the people of India an honest and clean judiciary.”
Truth, in India, has only recently become a defence. But if the court pursues these courageous affidavits and tasks the Bhushans to prove their allegations with evidence, it could become a unique moment in history. Retired justice V.R. Krishna Iyer has already said this is a historic opportunity for public cleansing. The first step is to share information in public interest. Here, therefore, are edited excerpts from Prashant Bhushan’s affidavit.
25.09.1990 - 24.11.1991
CHIEF JUSTICE Ranganath Mishra as a judge of the Supreme Court presided over a Commission of Inquiry on the genocide of Sikhs in 1984. He conducted the inquiry proceedings in a highly biased manner and went on to give a clean chit to the Congress party, despite there being considerable evidence implicating senior leaders of the party.
The evidence against the Congress leaders and party has come out in subsequent official inquiry reports as well as in the subsequent CBI investigations.
He went on, after his retirement, to agree to become an appointed Rajya Sabha (Upper House) Member of Parliament of the Congress.
Such actions, to my mind, clearly smack of corruption. Corruption, as I have mentioned earlier, is not used in a narrow sense of taking bribe alone, but in a wider sense of being morally culpable or blameworthy.
25.11.1991 - 12.12.1991
CHIEF JUSTICE K.N. Singh who followed Justice Rangnath Mishra, passed a series of unusually benevolent orders in favour of Jain Exports and its sister concern, Jain Shudh Vanaspati. Several of these were passed during his 18-day tenure as Chief Justice, and many of these cases were ordered to be listed before him by oral mentioning.
This became such a talked about scandal in the corridors of the Court that eventually in a hearing on 9 December 1991, the counsel for the Union of India was forced to object to the manner in which the cases came to be listed before Justice K.N. Singh’s bench. He was forced to give a laboured explanation about how and why he ordered the matter to be listed before him when it was before another bench.
All these judgments came to be reviewed and reversed later by a series of subsequent benches, in some of which, the review petitions were heard in open court, in a departure from the normal procedure.
On 1 April 1991 and 9 September 1991, Justice K.N. Singh allowed two Civil Appeals of Jain Exports regarding the import of caustic soda and reduced the import duty payable by the company from 92 percent to 10 percent. Both these orders were subsequently reviewed and set aside.
On 28 November 1991, (during his 18 day tenure as Chief Justice of India) Justice Singh dismissed the appeal of Union of India against Jain Shudh Vanaspati in a case involving the import of edible oil in stainless steel containers (the import of which was banned), which were fraudulently painted over to disguise them as mild steel containers. This order was reviewed and set aside on 16 July 1993 by a bench of Justice J.S. Verma and P.B. Sawant.
All these orders of Justice K.N. Singh in the Jain Exports and Jain Shudh Vanaspati cases were widely understood and regarded as having been passed for corrupt considerations. They became a much talked about scandal in the Court, even while he was Chief Justice.
25.10.1994 - 24.03.1997
CHIEF JUSTICE A.M. Ahmadi, who succeeded Justice Venkatachalaiah (who was widely respected and regarded as a judge of great integrity), went on to quash the charge of culpable homicide in the criminal case arising out of the Bhopal Gas leak. Seven benches were changed during the hearing of this case, the only common judge in all these benches was Justice Ahmadi who was Chief Justice and constituting the benches.
This judgment of quashing the charge of culpable homicide before the trial not only delayed the trial but led to such miscarriage of justice, that the Supreme Court has thought it fit to issue notice on a curative petition filed by the CBI even 14 years after that judgment.
Justice Ahmadi then went on to deal with and pass several orders in the Union Carbide case involving the setting up of a hospital from the sale proceeds of Union Carbide India Limited’s shares held by Union Carbide Corporation, U.S.A.
In fact, he passed the orders releasing the amount of Rs. 1.87 billion for the construction of the hospital from the attached funds of Union Carbide.
Quite remarkably, after having dealt with these cases of Union Carbide, Justice Ahmadi (soon after his retirement) went on to become the lifetime Chairman of the same hospital trust whose case he had extensively dealt with as Chief Justice.
A Supreme Court bench headed by Justice Kuldip Singh had, on 10 May 1996, passed an order staying all construction within 5 km of Badkal and Surajkund lakes in Faridabad for environmental reasons. This order prevented any construction in plots in a development called Kant Enclave, which is adjoining Surajkund lake and on land which had been notified as Forest Land under S4 of the Punjab Land Preservation Act.
Being forest land, no construction was permissible on this land without the prior permission of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, and also without the permission of the Supreme Court by virtue of the orders of the Court in the Godavarman case.
Despite this, however, Justice Ahmadi, who was as this time the Chief Justice of the Court, went on to purchase plots in this development around this time and also went on thereafter to construct one of the first houses on this (a palatial house where he has lived since his retirement) in violation of the orders of the Court and the Forest Conservation Act.
Soon after the original order of Justice Kuldip Singh, Justice Ahmadi as Chief Justice set about reconstituting these benches and urgently listing review petitions filed by Kant Enclave and others against these orders, where these orders came to be successively modified.
The order prohibiting construction within 5 km of the lakes was modified to 1 km by the order dated 11 October 1996. This order was further modified in the review petitions filed by Kant Enclave and others by order dated 17 March 1997, to obviate the need to get no-objection certificates from the Pollution Control Boards for construction. This was further modified by even allowing construction even within 1 km of Surajkund lake by an order dated 13 April 1998 by a bench headed by the then Chief Justice M.M. Punchhi.
The fact that the construction of Justice Ahmadi’s house in Kant Enclave is completely illegal and in violation of the Supreme Court’s judgments, as well as the Forest Conservation Act, has now been emphatically stated by the Supreme Court itself in its order dated 14 May 2008 on the clarification application on behalf of Kant Enclave.
The Centrally Empowered Committee of the Court has found the violations of those who constructed their houses in Kant Enclave so egregious, that they have recommended the demolition of these constructions which includes that of Justice Ahmadi in their report dated 13 January 2009.
I regard Justice Ahmadi’s actions in all this as morally culpable and indeed corrupt. They had become a much talked about scandal in the corridors of the court as well as among judges at that time.