ON March 24, Justice P.N. Prakash of the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court smelt a rat at the happenings in the Magistrate Court at Melur in Madurai district before which a batch of cases in the multi-crore granite quarrying scam were pending.
The Bench was hearing petitions of the Keelavalavu and Othakadai police, which claimed that the magistrate, K.V. Mahendra Boopathy, was showing reluctance to take up the offences of a “seriously grave nature” filed under various sections of law in the granite scam and refusing to commit them to the Sessions Court, which is the competent judicial authority to probe such cases. The bench made a few scathing remarks against the magistrate, who has since been suspended.
“One can wake up a sleeping man, but not a person pretending to sleep,” said Justice Prakash, referring to the magistrate for not taking on file the charges and committing the cases to the Sessions Court according to the directions of the High Court, which was monitoring the granite scam investigation after appointing U. Sagayam, a serving Indian Administrative Service officer, as its Legal Commissioner.
Sagayam submitted a voluminous report to the court with his recommendations on November 23, 2015, after a year-long probe into the scam (“The mother of all loot”, Frontline , July 24, 2015.)
The magistrate, it was expected, would at least now adhere to the High Court’s directions in all cases relating to the granite scam. A senior official attached to the Mining Department claimed that after the Mines and Minerals (Development and Regulations) Amendment Act, 2015, came into force in January last year, the Sessions Court alone had the jurisdiction to try cases of such nature.
But what followed was a series of bizarre acts involving members of the subordinate judiciary in Tamil Nadu. On March 29, the Melur magistrate, ignoring the High Court’s caustic observations and warnings, took on file two charges against P.R. Palanisamy, a granite baron and owner of PRP Granites, who is allegedly involved in the multi-crore scam, and Sahadevan, a granite lessee, in a case relating to illegal mining, transporting and hoarding of granite slabs on patta land, and also in another charge filed under Section 379 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC). He acquitted both the miners of illegal hoarding.
But not satisfied with this, the magistrate went a step further and recommended criminal prosecution of a former Madurai Collector, Anshul Mishra, who had filed the petitions against the two miners with regard to the illegal hoarding of granite blocks and also the two Special Public Prosecutors (SPPs), K.C.A.D. Gnanagiri and R. Sheela, who argued in the case under Sections 181, 182, 191 and 199 of the IPC, for “misguiding the court”.
The police had actually filed as many as 98 cases, many of them of a serious nature, against the illegal quarry owners under Sections 147, 447, 379, 420, 434, 465, 467, 468, 471, 304 (ii) read with 511, 120 B, 109, 114 and 297 of the IPC, Sections 6, 3 (a) and 4 (a) of the Explosives Substances Act, 1908, Sec 3 (i), (iv) and 3 (i), (xiv) of the S.C./S.T. (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, and Sections 3 (i) (ii) and 4 of the Tamil Nadu Public Properties Damages and Losses Act, 1992 (TNPPDL), besides invoking the provisions of the Tamil Nadu Prevention of Illegal Mining, Transportation, Storage of Minerals and Mineral Dealers Rules, 2011, and the Mines and Minerals Development and Regulation Act. Charge sheets for all these cases had already been filed before the court and have been pending for long now.
Instead of taking cognisance of these cases of grave crimes, the magistrate chose to pass orders on miscellaneous petitions filed separately in 2013 by Anshul Mishra, who was instrumental in bringing the granite looters before the law, stating that Palanisamy and Sahadevan had transported and hoarded illegally quarried granite slabs of about 4,900 and 900 cubic metres, respectively, and stocked them in patta lands in Melur and Keelavalavu villages in Madurai district.
These cases were filed under the provisions of the Tamil Nadu Prevention of Illegal Mining, Transportation, Storage of Minerals and Mineral Dealers Rules, 2011. Mishra asked the Melur court, which has the territorial jurisdiction, to permit the State government to take possession of the hoarded material and auction it.
While many cases of other serious offences were pending, the magistrate also chose to take on file a charge in a case filed under Section 379 of the IPC against Palanisamy and Sahadevan.He said that under the Mines Act, if the quarry owner who had a licence to quarry transported and stored the material in a different area without permission, the punishment should be a mere penalty of Rs.25,000.
But, if the mineral was mined illegally, the accused, he contended, would have to undergo one year’s imprisonment as per law or a fine of Rs.25,000 or both. In this case, the accused had the licence to mine.
The magistrate, taking up the offence under Section 379 (theft), observed that the two miners also did not have the intention to cause loss to the government and did not violate any law, and acquitted them.
Quoting a Sanskrit verse on the tenets of justice, he said that the hands that hold the balance of justice should be strong.
He claimed that the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court was critical of him since the prosecution had failed to point out that he (Boopathy) had in fact passed certain orders in a batch of cases relating to mining.
He also referred to some conflicting verdicts by two different judges of the Madras High Court in this regard to justify his stand. “Hence, I have to act sub silentio (in silence),” he said.
Then came his instructions to the court head clerk to initiate steps for criminal prosecution against Mishra and the two SPPs.
He said that the prosecution should be punished for “blatant lies” and “suppression of facts” since Mishra had ceased to be the Madurai Collector at the time when the case was filed in 2013. “Officials and government representatives have misrepresented the facts,” he said.
Refuting this claim, a senior police officer in Madurai district, who did not wish to be named, told Frontline that had the magistrate told them to file a fresh petition, they could have done so. “It is just a technical formality. After three years of inaction, he raked up a mere procedural issue to dismiss the case itself,” he said.
The verdict created a furore and prompted the Madras High Court to send a two-member team comprising the Madurai Principal District Judge A.M. Basheer Ahmed and Special District Judge S. Saravanan of the Madurai District Court to conduct an inquiry. Based on their report, the Madras High Court Registry, on April 1, placed the magistrate under suspension pending further inquiry. In fact, the investigating officers in these cases faced some embarrassing moments because of the way the magistrate handled the granite cases involving mining barons.
Despite their repeated requests to commit the cases to the Sessions Court, especially those filed under the TNPPDL Act and in accordance with the law, Boopathy did not do so, leading to an inordinate delay in trying the cases. Hence, the State prosecutors had no other alternative but to approach the High Court to get their grievances addressed. Justice Prakash went on record in his report that the magistrate had refused to act according to the directions of the High Court in granite cases since 2015. Justice Prakash suggested that contempt proceedings and disciplinary action be taken against the magistrate who was showing “his obstinacy”.
Justice M.M. Sundresh and Justice S. Vaidyanathan, in their reports on the magistrate in 2015 and January 2016 respectively, held that the magistrate was trying to justify his actions.
Justice Sundresh said that he was “sticking to his guns by contending that there is no intention on the part of the accused to cause loss and that he has refused to take cognisance of the major offences”.
He took cognisance of a lesser offence under Section 379, which, he claimed, “prescribes a flea-bite sentence”.
Boopathy’s suspension comes in the wake of stern action by the Madras High Court in fulfilment of its commitment to ensure the proper dispensation of justice at all levels, especially in the subordinate judiciary in Tamil Nadu.
Recently, an Additional Sessions Judge in Tiruvarur was sacked following some serious allegations. The High Court dismissed six district judges last year, while a sub judge was placed under suspension on the day of her retirement on charges of corruption.
Meanwhile, the State has decided to challenge the order passed by Boopathy acquitting the granite miners and to take steps to nullify his order calling for the criminal prosecution of the former Collector and the two SPPs. The Madras High Court, in pursuance of the Sagayam report on the granite scam, had asked the government to submit a report on whether a Central Bureau of Investigation or a Crime Branch-Criminal Investigation Department inquiry was needed into the multi-crore granite scam.