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The case of Harin Pathak

Print edition : Oct 27, 2001 T+T-

THE appalling ethical standards that enabled Harin Pathak to become Minister of State for Defence Production and Supplies make the controversy surrounding the appointment of his senior Minister, George Fernandes, seem trivial. Fernandes was made Defence Minister even though he is facing an investigation in connection with the Tehelka tapes. Pathak is an accused in a murder case.

On November 3, 2000, an Ahmedabad court had framed charges against Pathak and the then Gujarat Health Minister Ashok Bhatt, in connection with the murder of a police officer in 1985. The two leaders at first refused to resign, saying that they had been victimised. They met Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee but he went by Union Law Minister Arun Jaitley's advice that it was not advisable for Pathak to continue in office after charges had been framed against him. The two Gujarat politicians were told to resign, and they did so reluctantly.

Pathak and Bhatt then moved the Gujarat High Court. On November 14, 2000, the High Court struck down the charges, taking objection to the fact that copies of the charges and other relevant documents had not been supplied to the defence. The trial court was ordered to frame charges afresh, but for reasons that are still unclear it did not do so within the mandated time. Pathak and his co-accused then filed applications to be discharged from the case, but Additional City Civil and Sessions Judge V.C. Modi rejected them, saying that there was "ample evidence against the accused". Bhatt and one other accused filed appeals against the order, but Pathak chose not to.

So, the Minister of State for Defence Production's position is much the same vis-a-vis the law as it was when he resigned last year. What then could have altered the Union government's criteria for deciding when Ministers must leave office on ethical grounds? One possible reason became evident during the Lok Sabha debate on the demolition of the Babri Masjid in December last. The Congress(I) moved a motion seeking to censure the Prime Minister for his refusal to ask for the resignation of three Union Ministers: L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharati. All three are being tried for their role in the demolition. Several M.Ps who participated in the debate asked why one set of standards applied to Pathak, and another to Advani and Joshi.

Now, the BJP has set a new standard: no one needs to resign irrespective of the seriousness of the crime they are tried for. Both Pathak and Bhatt are back in office. This doctrine of non-accountability is even more disturbing, read against the details of the murder Pathak is charged with having committed.

In April 1985, the Gujarat State Armed Police shot dead a member of a violent anti-reservation mob in the Khadia area of the walled city. The Ahmedabad High Court ordered an investigation into the firing. On April 25, a team went to Khadia to investigate the violence and the police firing. According to the First Information Report filed at the Astodia police station, Pathak, Bhatt and Gujarat Minister of State for Transport Bimal Shah's brother Kiran Shah responded to the arrival of the team with inflammatory speeches.

In the middle of these speeches, someone in the crowd stabbed a Home Guard, Ratilal. Head constable Laxman Desai attempted to save Ratilal, only to find the mob now turn against him. Desai was lynched in full public view. The State government's perceived unwillingness to prosecute Pathak, then a member of the BJP's State Working Committee, was to provoke a mutiny in the city police. However, the politician's career flourished, and in 1989 he was elected for the first of five terms in the Lok Sabha.

In a purely legal sense, there is no reason for Pathak not to hold office. His supporters could point out that he no longer faced charges. This, however, is a frivolous argument, for charges could still be framed against him. Ironically, the BJP has been in the forefront of asking for the resignation of politicians of other parties who are facing criminal prosecution, notably former Bihar Chief Minister Laloo Prasad Yadav.

In the cases of the Babri Masjid demolition, it drew a distinction between politicians charged with what it claims are political offences, and those accused of corruption. Pathak's alleged offence, however, is not political, but simple murder.

The BJP has evidently found a new way to play politics: when the Opposition looks as if they are breaking through, just shift the goalposts. Unfortunately, this game has no referee to call foul.