Judges in the dock

Print edition : July 20, 2002

The Chief Justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court strips three Judges of the court of work for their alleged role in the scandal involving former Punjab Public Service Commission chief Ravi Sidhu.

WITH its massive concrete walls, the Punjab and Haryana High Court resembles nothing so much as a fortress, built to secure justice from scrutiny by the world outside. Now the ramparts have been breached decisively. Chief Justice Arun B. Saharya's June 29 decision to strip three corruption-tainted High Court Judges of work is a seismic event, unprecedented in the long struggle for judicial accountability. For the first time in India, Judges have faced administrative action for misconduct, and the event could prove just a precursor to even harsher sanction. But his colleagues are not the only people Justice Saharya has placed in the dock: Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh and his inner circle of advisers must now answer questions that threaten to undermine their legitimacy.

Justice Saharya's orders came in response to credible allegations that three Judges - Justices Amarbir Singh Gill, M.L. Singhal and Mehtab Singh Gill - had participated in former Punjab Public Service Commission (PPSC) chief Ravi Inder Pal Singh Sidhu's colossal jobs-for-cash fraud. Sidhu had organised the manipulation of mark-sheets and the pre-delivery of examination papers to help Justice Amarbir Gill's daughter, Amol Gill, and Justice Singhal's daughter, Sapna Singhal, gain government jobs. Justice Mehtab Gill's role was even more serious. A childhood friend of Sidhu, the Judge funnelled several candidates through Sidhu's enterprise of fraud. When Amarinder Singh came to power on an anti-corruption platform, Mehtab Gill is believed to have promised legal protection for the PPSC chief and his aides. All three Judges were indicted in the testimony of Sidhu's closest aides.

Chief Justice Arun B. Saharya of the Punjab and Haryana High Court.-

The order stripping Justices Amarbir Gill, Singhal and Mehtab Gill of work came after a six-week and still-continuing in-house inquiry conducted by Chief Justice Saharya. In May, Saharya requisitioned the services of the then Punjab Police Intelligence chief A.P. Bhatnagar, who was earlier associated with the Justice J.S. Verma Commission of Inquiry which investigated the Rajiv Gandhi assassination. The decision came after the Punjab and Haryana High Court Bar Association launched a feisty protest against judicial corruption. The lawyers' protests were provoked by an earlier order by Justice K.S. Garewal barring police officials from providing information to the media on the Sidhu scandal, and the media from reporting whatever information they had. This outraged the media as well. In a front-page article, the Editor of The Tribune, asserted "that the people's right to information cannot be compromised with" and added that "we will be damned if we deny them their rightful due".

In key senses, the showdown of June 29 was provoked by sustained efforts to sabotage the investigation in the Ravi Sidhu case. Soon after the PPSC chief's arrest, Punjab Vigilance Department head A.P. Pandey gave out a list of beneficiaries based on the statements of Sidhu's aides. That list, it soon turned out, excluded the names of Judges, senior Indian Administrative Service officers and other influential figures. He also repeatedly claimed that there was no evidence to support allegations that Judges were involved in the scandal. Bhatnagar and his deputy, Inspector-General of Police Sumedh Singh Saini, who had together organised Sidhu's entrapment while receiving a Rs.5-lakh bribe and spearheaded the subsequent investigation, were incensed. Intelligence officials let it be known that they intended to pursue all suspects irrespective of their status. By late May, relations between Vigilance and Intelligence had broken down. While Intelligence officials charged Pandey with wilfully stalling the probe, he in turn demanded their removal. Amarinder Singh's inner circle, sources told Frontline, counselled the slowing down of the investigation, arguing that exposure of the tainted Judges would antagonise the judiciary. Four days before Chief Justice Saharya's order, the entire Intelligence establishment - Bhatnagar, Saini, Deputy Inspector-General R.P. Singh and Superintendent of Police S.S. Mand - were removed from their positions. This round of transfers, as in the case of the events that preceded and followed it, was unprecedented in its scale.

IT is unlikely that the findings of Chief Justice Saharya's inquiry will ever be revealed, but it is clear he would not have acted without considerable evidence at his disposal. What is known, however, makes it hard not to feel deep unease at the Punjab government's response to the events in the High Court. For reasons it understands best, the Vigilance Department seems to believe that the Chief Justice is, so to speak, targeting the wrong set of thieves. "As far as my file is concerned", says Vigilance Department head Pandey, "there are some High Court Judges named. At the time I spoke to the media on this question I had no conclusive evidence. We have some conclusive evidence now, and that evidence has been placed before him. I do not know from where the Chief Justice has found what. I would not like to contradict whatever he is doing."

Pandey's generous refusal to "contradict" the Chief Justice obviously does not settle the issue. When Pandey told the Chandigarh media that he had no hard evidence against Judges and other influential people, he had none against others the Vigilance Department had named, either. All it possessed were the confessional statements of Sidhu's key aides, Randhir Singh Dhira and Jagman Singh. And when the Vigilance Department had hard evidence, it seemed reluctant to act on it. Consider the fact that the former PPSC chief was granted bail in the first of two cases filed against him because no charge-sheet was filed within 90 days as required. Pandey says the decision not to file the charge-sheet was made after "intensive consultation with legal people". "We were advised that since the charges were under the Prevention of Corruption Act a Judge may throw out the case unless we obtained the sanction first", he said. Perhaps he needs new advisers. Section 167 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC) confers on the accused a right to obtain bail if investigation is not completed in 90 days. The completion of investigation by the police by filing the charge-sheet is one thing; the court's decision to take cognisance of the charge-sheet is another. The issue of sanction falls in the second of these stages, a fact well known to the Central Bureau of Investigation, which often files charge-sheets even while awaiting the grant of official sanction.

Even more curious, no charge-sheets were filed against Randhir Singh Dhira and another key associate of Sidhu, Prem Sagar, and this again enabled them to obtain bail. Pandey explains that "Dhira and Prem Sagar were arrested on the basis of first information report 7, in which we believe now that it is legally prudent to charge Ravi Sidhu alone. We registered a separate case against Dhira and Prem Sagar." The argument makes little sense. If, as Pandey claims, Dhira and Prem Sagar had no role in the first of the Sidhu cases, the Vigilance Department should have immediately filed an application before the trial Judge seeking their discharge. It is, indeed, a serious offence to keep suspects in jail after coming to know of their innocence. Dhira's confession to a Judge in Patiala had also provoked considerable controversy, since he omitted the names of several beneficiaries of the PPSC fraud - in fact 31 of 62 - whom he had earlier named during his interrogation by Intelligence officials. Pandey accepts that a subsequent additional confession made by Dhira was the consequence of media "hulla gulla" (outcry) against the omission.

Sidhu's mother, Prithpal Kaur, along with his brother Reetinder and his wife, played a key role in handling his funds. They have all now left the country. The Vigilance Department claims that this happened because it then had no knowledge of their role in Sidhu's affairs. Assuming this to be true, it still does not explain why no action was taken to prevent them from leaving the country and, even more serious, why no subsequent effort was made to make them return. Speaking to journalists in Chandigarh, CBI spokesperson S.M. Khan rebutted Pandey's claims that the Vigilance Department had asked the agency to take steps to prevent Sidhu's relatives from leaving the country. "My Superintendent of Police", Pandey says, "went and met the officer in charge of Interpol matters to help locate their assets. I also spoke to CBI Director P.C. Sharma who assured us of all help. S.M. Khan may not be aware of the facts." Perhaps not, but this begs the question why no step has so far been taken to revoke the Sidhu family's passports, or secure their extradition.

Wilful inertia, the leitmotif of the Vigilance Department's working, might just have succeeded had it not been for Chief Justice Saharya's commitment to his judicial responsibilities. The transferred Intelligence officials would have been disgraced; their investigation of allegations against Judges put down to personal malice. Given the sheer impunity with which some of the scam-tainted Judges acted, it is possible that they were counting on some such outcome. Justice Mehtab Gill, for example, told both The Indian Express and his colleagues he did not know Sidhu at all. In fact, Sidhu's family had moved to the family home of Justice Mehtab Gill at Charick near Moga after Partition. As a student, the PPSC chief often spent his summer vacation at the Gill home in Charick. That the friendship persisted is evident from photographs of Sidhu's swearing in, which record the Judge's wife and mother engaged in conversation with Prithpal Kaur. Dhira was also invited to the function, and was photographed with Sidhu.

So far, the Chief Minister has made no effort to explain just why he has tolerated the Vigilance Department's appalling lack of resolve. Suspect examination sheets have yet to be examined by forensic experts; dozens of well-placed scam beneficiaries, Amol Gill and Sapna Singhal among them, have yet to be questioned; at least three senior IAS officers named by Sidhu's aides remain wholly un-investigated. All of this is at a par with the past. For four weeks after Sidhu's arrest on March 25, the Vigilance Department came up with precious little information on his activities and repeatedly sought to close the investigation. It was only after Dhira surrendered to Intelligence officials in late April that a clear picture emerged on Sidhu's activities. Another key aide, Jagman Singh, again surrendered to Intelligence officials. Still, the record shows, the Vigilance Department failed to round up further suspects or pursue the new leads - until, that is, Chief Justice Saharya's stinging indictment.

Acting now will not get the Chief Minister off the hook. Full account will have to be given for past failures, most notably the wholesale purge in the Intelligence department. Amarinder Singh's stated reason for the purge was that it had no business registering criminal cases. His advisers perhaps omitted to tell him that - if legal niceties were what provoked his ire - neither did the Vigilance Department, that power being vested by the CrPC in officers-in-charge of police stations. While many argue that criticism of the official conduct of the case will deflect attention from the deep corruption of the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party regime, precisely the converse is true. Should Amarinder Singh now choose not to introspect and review past actions, the door will lie open for the Union government's intervention through the CBI. That, in turn, will subvert the enormous public goodwill generated in the course of Amarinder Singh's anti-corruption campaign.

Meanwhile, in New Delhi, Chief Justice of India B.N. Kirpal will face an even larger challenge. No one but he and Chief Justice Saharya are aware of the sustained discussions they have had on the megaton-sized events in Chandigarh. Chief Justice Saharya has no powers other than to strip the scam-tainted Judges of their work, but the CJI could be considering transferring them to another High Court. Political parties too will have to discover the will to use the final sanction of impeachment. It is now 12 years since the Justice V. Ramaswami scandal broke out, ironically enough in Chandigarh. On that occasion, eminent lawyer P.P. Rao has recorded, three successive CJI advised Justice Ramaswami not to attend to his judicial work, "but none of them took the next logical step of withdrawing work from the judge". And Parliament chose, because of narrow political considerations, not to impeach Justice Ramaswami.

Justice Saharya has marched across the line none dared to cross in 1992. It will now rest on the political establishment to see if it can find the courage to act to establish judicial accountability.

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