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Trying times ahead

Print edition : Oct 27, 2001 T+T-

The Supreme Court order transferring to Jharkhand all cases relating to the fodder scam will be a real challenge for RJD leader Laloo Prasad Yadav and the government the party heads in Bihar.

THE shifting, from courts in Bihar to those in Jharkhand, of all the 36 cases relating to the fodder scam, including cases in which Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) supremo Laloo Prasad Yadav is an accused, has come as a blow to the former Bihar Chief Minister. Although Laloo Prasad made a forceful plea that the cases be tried only in Patna, the Supreme Court, on October 5, ordered the transfer of all the cases to Jharkhand while ruling that courts in the newly formed State alone had the jurisdiction to try them.

A three-Judge Bench of the apex court comprising Justice K.T. Thomas, Justice S.S.M. Quadri and Justice U.C. Banerjee said:

"These 36 fodder scam cases related to a series of orchestrated fraudulent acts, by which a staggeringly huge amount of public money was plundered or looted after creating fake bills and other false documents with the active participation or connivance of several high-ups in the administration of the State.

"Though it is unnecessary now to mention the whopping sum so plundered in each case, we are told that the aggregate of them exceeds Rs.720 crores. The persons arraigned in the cases include men who held high offices, besides the two former Chief Ministers of Bihar (Lalu Prasad Yadav, as his name is spelt in the books, and Jagannath Mishra)."

The Bench held that the 36 cases, in respect of which the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) had already filed charge-sheets, involved the withdrawal of huge amounts from the treasuries now situated in Jharkhand, which was carved out of Bihar. "We have no doubt that when the offence is under Section 13(1)(c) or Section 13(I)(d) of the Prevention of Corruption Act, the sole determinative factor regarding the court having jurisdiction is the place where the offence was committed," Justice Thomas, who wrote the judgment for the Bench, said.

The Patna High Court had earlier dismissed a petition from the CBI seeking the transfer of the cases to Jharkhand. The investigative agency then filed a special leave petition in the Supreme Court against the ruling.

Setting aside the Patna High Court order, the Supreme Court Bench said: "In our considered view, all the 36 cases involved in these appeals stood transferred to the corresponding courts situated within the territories of Jharkhand State" with effect from November 15, 2000, when the new State was created. "We, therefore, direct the Registrar of the High Court of Patna to instruct the officers concerned for despatching the records of all the 36 cases to the corresponding courts in Jharkhand to do whatever it needed for reaching such records in the appropriate courts," the Bench said. However, in order to avoid any confusion or repetition in the process of trial of the cases, which had already started before a Special Judge in Patna, the apex court made it clear that evidence already recorded in any of the 36 cases would be treated as evidence recorded by a proper court with jurisdiction. "In other words, the Special Judge need not call the witnesses already examined over again for repetition of what has already come on record," Justice Thomas said.

Sources in the CBI said that more than 90 per cent of the total funds involved in the multi-crore-rupee fodder scam were fraudulently withdrawn from treasuries located in areas that now come under Jharkhand. The remaining funds were from the rest of Bihar. Informed sources said this amount was likely to reach Rs.721.89 crores.

The CBI has registered 64 cases in all relating to the fodder scam. Of these, 52 cases involve the withdrawal of huge sums from treasuries situated in territories now falling under Jharkhand. Of these 52, charge-sheets were filed in Patna in 36 cases before the Special Court prior to the formation of the Jharkhand State. The Patna High Court, dismissing the petition filed by the CBI, had ruled that none of the 36 cases could be transferred to Jharkhand.

Meanwhile, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government of Jharkhand, headed by Babulal Marandi, has set up seven special CBI courts, in Dumka, Ranchi and Chaibasa, to try the cases. The courts are expected to start trial proceedings at the earliest.

LALOO PRASAD YADAV said that he respected the ruling of the apex court and was prepared to go to Jharkhand for trial. He, however, saw a motive in the CBI's eagerness to hold the trial in different courts in Jharkhand, and accused it of being a political tool of the NDA. "I know that a political conspiracy is behind the decision to send me to Jharkhand for trial where arrangements are being made for my permanent exile. The Supreme Court ruling, however, would have no impact on the RJD government in Bihar, which stands like a rock,'' he said.

As the CBI sought to tighten the noose on him, Laloo Prasad Yadav raised the political pitch, saying that it would be unsafe for him to stay in the prison of an NDA-ruled State. Political observers, however, feel that Laloo Prasad is afraid of an attempt to topple his wife Rabri Devi's government in Bihar if he is jailed for a long period in Jharkhand. The chances of a long jail term for him increased as the CBI, shortly after the October 5 order, sought Bihar Governor V.C. Pandey's sanction to prosecute Laloo Prasad and Jagannath Mishra in yet another fodder scam case (RC 63A/96), which deals with the conspiracy behind the scam. The case relates to the fraudulent withdrawal of Rs.45.51 lakhs from the Bhagalpur treasury between 1994 and 1996 by the Bihar Animal Husbandry Department. Some senior government officials, including Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officers Mahesh Prasad and Beck Julius and retired IAS officer Phoolchand Singh, have been named as accused in the case. CBI Additional Director U.N. Biswas said that the Centre had empowered the Jharkhand government to grant sanction of prosecution to the CBI against all 63 government officials, including IAS officers, accused in the fodder scam cases. The CBI is also preparing to get the Governor's nod to prosecute Laloo Prasad and Jagannath Mishra in another regular case - 68(A)/96 - relating to the withdrawal of Rs.38 crore from the Chaibasa treasury by the Bihar Animal Husbandry Department.

Once these cases are also opened along with the 36 others that the Supreme Court ordered transferred to Jharkhand, the RJD chief's jail term might get prolonged. Although Laloo Prasad is putting up a brave front, he knows that he has no other option but to appear before the various special courts in Jharkhand for trial and even serve time in jail in the new State. The problems of having to go to jail in Jharkhand are, however, less important than the fact that he will not be around to cope with the political threat posed by the NDA as well as by dissidents in his own party ranks who may easily be bought over. According to reports, the NDA in Bihar has already weaned away some disgruntled leaders in the RJD.

It was just six months ago that the RJD was rocked by a revolt that was spearheaded by a one-time aide of Laloo Prasad, Ranjan Yadav. "Ranjan may be lying low like the other rebels in the party. The RJD has a history of revolts. There is no ruling out another one. That is what Laloo Prasad is bothered about," said Opposition leader in the Assembly Sushil Modi of the BJP. Modi and Union Minister Ram Vilas Paswan have said that shifting Laloo Prasad to Jharkhand's capital Ranchi would stop him from controlling his wife's government in Bihar and acting as de facto Chief Minister.

But the real onslaught was launched by RJD national spokesman Shivananda Tiwari, who apprehended a threat to Laloo Prasad from the statements of NDA leaders, including the Jharkhand Chief Minister. Tiwari feared that the manner in which the NDA leaders had sought to use the court ruling to vent their anger and hatred indicated a security risk to Laloo Prasad Yadav in the Ranchi jail if the designated court denied him bail after he surrendered. Tiwari said that the RJD would explore options to ensure proper security for him. He stressed that Laloo Prasad had been provided with Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) personnel at the court's behest in view of some threat perceptions. The court had given a similar direction for special arrangements when the RJD chief was lodged thrice in Beur jail in Patna in connection with the fodder scam and disproportionate assets cases between late 1997 and early 2000. The authorities of Beur jail were only too eager to provide him with all sorts of comforts, besides facilities to run the government from jail while his wife performed the ritual of occupying the Chief Minister's chair. The situation is likely to change radically in the event of Laloo Prasad's stay in a Jharkhand jail. The BJP Chief Minister of Jharkhand has already stated that Laloo Prasad Yadav would be treated like an "ordinary undertrial".