THE story of Bharthari Prasad, a judicial officer of Uttar Pradesh belonging to a Scheduled Caste, may well be illustrative of a larger malaise within the judiciary. Prasad joined the judicial service as a Munsiff Magistrate in Fatehpur in May 1975, and served in various places in the State until June 1996, when he became the IX Additional District Judge, Allahabad. Through this period there was no adverse entry in Prasad's service record - on the contrary, his superiors put on record their appreciation of his impeccable integrity, impartiality and punctuality.
Prasad's travails began after he was transferred from the office of the VII Additional District and Sessions Judge (ADJ), Allahabad to that of the VI ADJ, Allahabad. Prasad was succeeded by Ashok Kumar Shrivastava. The Hindi daily, Aaj, on June 8, 1997 carried a report suggesting that Shrivastava had the entire chamber, including the furniture previously used by Prasad, washed with water from the Ganga to "thoroughly cleanse and purify" it before assuming office.
The Aaj report created a sensation. It was mentioned in some quarters that Shrivastava was liable for action under the Prevention of Untouchability Act. The District Judge (D.J.), Allahabad, B.K.Rathi, asked Prasad to contradict the newspaper repo rt, but Prasad refused to do so, denying any role in the publication of the report.
The inquiry conducted by Rathi into the incident revealed certain startling facts. In their statements to the D.J., officials of the VII Additional District Judge's chamber confirmed the report. Shrivastava admitted that the incident took place, but deni ed that Ganga water was used. He claimed that he was suffering from asthma and was allergic to dust. The statement of the person who was said to have washed the chamber and the furniture was, however, not recorded. The D.J. concluded that the incident wa s totally fabricated and baseless.
In his representation to the High Court, Prasad alleged that while Rathi took his statement on oath, Shrivastava was allowed to make his statement without swearing an oath.
Prasad's transfer from Allahabad to Mainpuri turned out to be equally controversial. As the transfer order was dated July 2, 1998, it defies explanation how Prasad could have "fabricated" the Ganga water episode in June 1997. Prasad was asked to vacate h is official accommodation in Allahabad in favour of his successor ADJ, A.K. Kakkar, on July 3, 1998, within a day of his transfer. Prasad was suffering from a heart ailment and was undergoing treatment at a hospital in Mumbai. In view of his ill-health, it was necessary for Prasad to stay at a place where proper medical facilities were available. Prasad declined the transfer order on these grounds and complained to the High Court against his transfer.
The court rejected his complaint and he was relieved from duty on July 18, 1998. Meanwhile, Prasad filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court challenging his transfer. On August 12, 1998, Prasad was placed under suspension. On August 19, the D.J. recorde d an adverse entry in the Annual Confidential Report for 1997-98, questioning Prasad's integrity. Among the "adverse grounds" mentioned in the ACR were that Prasad was "punctual and dismissed cases which lacked evidence".
While the departmental inquiry ordered against Prasad was still pending, the State government ordered "in public interest" the compulsory retirement of Prasad on December 17, 1998, even though he was due to retire in the normal course on December 31, 200 0. Prasad challenged his compulsory retirement order in the High Court, which dismissed his petition in February. Prasad's special leave petition (SLP) against the court's order came up for hearing in the Supreme Court in August. The Supreme Court has is sued notices to the respondents, the High Court and the State government, and permitted Prasad to use his official accommodation in Allahabad until further orders.
Prasad's counsel R.K. Jain argued before a Supreme Court Bench headed by Chief Justice A.S. Anand in August that Prasad's case demonstrated that caste bias still existed. Jain concurred with the suggestion that the Prasad's case also underscored the dama ge poor representation of the weaker sections in the judiciary could do to their interests.