MANY heads have rolled in the multi-crore-rupee scam involving the Delhi Development Authority (DDA). Senior officers of the DDA, such as former Vice-Chairman Subhash Sharma, Commissioner (Planning) Vijay Risbud, Commissioner (Lands) Anand Sharan, Director (Land Disposal) Jagdish Chander, and several minor officials are now behind bars. However, the Central Bureau of Investigation's (CBI) arrest of former Delhi High Court Judge Shamit Mukherjee, the first such arrest in legal history, has set off a debate on judicial ethics.
Shamit Mukherjee was taken into custody for a week by the CBI under the Prevention of Corruption Act, after it raided his three residences in Delhi and found `incriminating documents' and two locker keys. The residence and office of High Court lawyer Anshu Aggarwal were also searched by the CBI.
Earlier, in March, during the CBI's exhaustive probe of the scam, about 20 Delhi High Court files were recovered from the house of Dharamveer Khattar, a middleman and a key suspect. Transcripts of Khattar's telephonic conversations revealed details of `illegal gratification' demanded by Shamit Mukherjee in return for judicial favours, the CBI alleged.
The CBI has charged Mukherjee with criminal conspiracy to favour restaurant-owner Vinod Khatri in the Azad Singh vs DDA case, which related to the widening of Aruna Asaf Ali Road. Khatri, whose Sahara Restaurant is situated on that road, opposed the widening of the road to 45 metres, as the DDA had proposed. According to the First Information Report (FIR) against Shamit Mukherjee, a draft judgment was prepared and given to Khattar, who handed it over to Khatri for approval. Another damning allegation was that Mukherjee requested Khattar to get the lawyer representing the DDA replaced by a more `pliable' one, so that he could deliver a judgment against the DDA. Khattar, in turn, had asked Subhash Sharma to do so, and the lawyer had been duly replaced, the CBI said.
As these allegations began to surface, the Chief Justice was apprised of them and Judge Mukherjee was compelled to resign on March 31. However, he denied any links with the issue and cited personal reasons for his resignation.
President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, who had been sent the resignation letter as a matter of course, also voiced a strong opinion. He said that if a Judge was found guilty of such malpractices, mere resignation was not sufficient and that he should be tried like a normal citizen. As of now, a Judge is automatically entitled to a degree of protection from prosecution while he or she occupies the Bench. But this protection ceases the moment he or she quits office. As evidence started to pile up against him, Mukherjee tried to withdraw his resignation, but his attempt was blocked by the Law Ministry.
The arrest has triggered a debate on the degree of protection judicial officers are entitled to. Several top lawyers have rallied around Mukherjee, and the High Court Bar Association came out in support of the former Judge, quoting the Judges' Protection Act, 1985, which states that no criminal proceedings can be initiated against a person who is or has been a Judge. In fact, the only way to strip a Judge of the superior judiciary of office is by impeachment in Parliament, and this has only been attempted once - in the Justice Ramaswami case.
However, Special Judge V.K. Jain countered the Bar Assocation's argument. "I cannot believe that if a Judge has been indulging in corruption, misusing his position and accepting gratification while performing his duty, the law gives him absolute immunity from prosecution," he said.
Attorney-General Soli Sorabjee observed that incidents like this seriously damaged the credibility of the judiciary. He said he was "depressed" by Shamit Mukherjee's arrest and remarked that its impact "will be devastating on the public".