DMK Ministers in hot water as High Court orders review of acquittals

Taking suo motu notice of the corruption cases against the ministers, the judge alleges a ‘well-orchestrated pattern’ to secure their discharge.

Published : Sep 04, 2023 18:00 IST - 13 MINS READ

K. Ponmudi, Tamil Nadu Minister for Higher Education.

K. Ponmudi, Tamil Nadu Minister for Higher Education. | Photo Credit: B. JOTHI RAMALINGAM

A Madras High Court judge, in an unprecedented move, took suo motu notice and revised the acquittal and discharge orders given to three senior DMK Ministers of the Tamil Nadu government in corruption cases that were heard by Special Courts. He followed it up a few days later with a fourth revision, this time of a 2012 discharge order in a corruption case against former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O. Panneerselvam of the AIADMK.

Then, on 31 August, the judge said he would examine all judgments passed so far by special courts in MP/MLA cases in the State. He said there were complaints of corruption cases against legislators being withdrawn during every regime change.

Also Read | Controversial arrest of Tamil Nadu Minister Senthil Balaji sparks outrage and political backlash

The revision orders, filed by Justice N. Anand Venkatesh of the Madras High Court, come as an embarrassment to the DMK at a time when it has been working hard to ward off a series of corruption charges levelled against its Ministers and leaders by its political opponents, especially the BJP. The party that prides itself on its Dravidian model of governance recently launched a campaign for the 2024 Lok Sabha election.

Justice Venkatesh, who is also the State’s portfolio judge for Special Courts for MPs and MLAs, reviewed the orders of the special courts at Vellore and Srivilliputhur, which acquitted the DMK Ministers K. Ponmudi, K.K.S.S.R. Ramachandran, and Thangam Thennarasu of corruption charges and discharged them. The judge said he had found damning material to suggest that “something was rotten in the State of Denmark”.

Thangam Thennarasu, Minister for Finance, Planning, Human Resources Management, Pensions and Pensionary benefits, Statistics and Archeology.

Thangam Thennarasu, Minister for Finance, Planning, Human Resources Management, Pensions and Pensionary benefits, Statistics and Archeology. | Photo Credit: B. JOTHI RAMALINGAM

The judge said that O. Panneerselvam’s case had led to the devising of a modus operandi, which was subsequently followed by the incumbent Revenue Minister K.K.S.S.R. Ramachandran and Finance Minister Thangam Thennarasu to get the disproportionate assets cases against them discharged.

His reports speak of “a well-orchestrated pattern” in these cases with their orders for further investigations and in their closure reports. The special courts’ orders, he said, suffered from “grave illegality” and “gross miscarriage of justice” and needed to be revisited. Justice Venkatesh has directed the registry to inform the government and serve notices on all the accused, on the investigation agency, and on the State’s Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption (DVAC), and has posted the hearing for September.

DMK’s reaction

The DMK was quick to react to the judge’s orders. R.S. Bharathi, the DMK’s organising secretary and senior spokesperson, said the judge was using a “pick and choose” policy that smacked of discrimination. Addressing media persons on August 24, he said that even though judges were vested with discretionary powers to take up cases suo motu, “the discretion should not be shaped by mala fide intentions”. While saying the DMK “respects and trusts the judges and judicial independence”, Bharathi asked if the judge would apply the same yardstick in similar cases.

Bharathi also asked if judicial officers in subordinate courts could function without fear or favour if a superior authority started scrutinising all their orders. The DMK, Bharathi said, would take up the issue with the Supreme Court.

In a rebuttal, Justice Venkatesh said that those who could not tolerate criticism were unfit to hold public office. Responding to an advocate’s plea asking him to initiate a contempt case against the DMK spokesperson for alleging mala fide intention behind his orders, the judge said in open court on August 25: “Let anyone talk anything. I know I am true to my conscience. I have a better job to do.”

The DMK has reasons to be wary about developments that are inimical to its ideological and political relevance today. The party, which is now on the moral high ground against the BJP, is apprehensive of being trapped in political awkwardness.

Political experts believe the party’s discomfort stems from the ongoing confrontation with Tamil Nadu Governor R.N. Ravi, whose statements and actions, it believes, are harming governance. The Governor is still sitting on various Bills and orders of public importance and indulges in acts and speeches that go against the elected government.

  • Madras High Court Judge N. Anand Venkatesh has sent shockwaves through Tamil Nadu’s political landscape, by revising acquittal and discharge orders for senior DMK Ministers. His actions have raised significant doubts about the state of corruption cases in the region.
  • These unexpected developments couldn’t have come at a more critical time for the DMK, as the party is already grappling with a barrage of corruption allegations. Justice Venkatesh’s revisions have further complicated the political scene in Tamil Nadu.
  • Beyond the immediate political fallout, Justice Venkatesh’s decisions have sparked a heated debate about judicial intervention and the overall integrity of the criminal justice system. These controversies are contributing to the growing political tension in the State..

Meanwhile, at least two DMK Ministers have fallen foul of the Enforcement Directorate (ED). Minister for Electricity Senthil Balaji was arrested in a jobs-for-money scam as well as on money laundering charges, which are alleged to have taken place a decade ago when he was Transport Minister in the then AIADMK government. The DMK’s Education Minister, K. Ponmudi, was taken in for interrogation in a money laundering and sand quarry scam, while Ponmudi’s son, Gautham Sigamani, a DMK Lok Sabha MP, was also interrogated in the same case.

Significance of the revisions

“It is frustrating. As they [the Central government] choose to play vindictive politics against us for political gains, we need to be careful and remain restrained. But we have to clarify everything to the people,” a senior DMK functionary told Frontline. It is in this politically charged climate that Justice Venkatesh’s judicial revisions assume significance. He issued three separate orders in the cases against the three Ministers—an 18-page report on the acquittal of K. Ponmudi on August 10; and two 30-page reports, one each on the discharge of Revenue Minister K.K.S.S.R. Ramachandran and Finance Minister Thangam Thennarasu, on August 23. The reports raise disturbing questions on the conduct of the prosecuting agency and the judiciary.

K.K.S.S.R. Ramachandran, Minister for Revenue and Disaster Management.

K.K.S.S.R. Ramachandran, Minister for Revenue and Disaster Management. | Photo Credit: G. MOORTHY

While the case against Ponmudi ended in his acquittal in the Special Court at Vellore on June 28 this year, the cases against Ramachandran and Thennarasu were dismissed by the Special Court at Srivilliputhur in Virudhunagar district, on July 20, 2023, and on December 12, 2022.

In his report on the closure of the two cases, the judge talks in detail about how the prosecution process was grossly abused. He writes that a powerful political system went to a great extent to tweak the process of the law.

The judge writes that he saw a common modus operandi in all three cases. He notes: “The three stakeholders, viz., the accused, the prosecution, and the Special Court, have acted in tandem to reduce the administration of the criminal justice system to a complete farce.” According to the judge, when his attention was drawn to the acquittal of Ponmudi, he found something “seriously amiss” and sought the case records. While going through the records, “the doubt… was proved right,” he notes.

The report goes on to say that after the accused became Ministers, the prosecution “very magnanimously came forward” to conduct “further investigation”, especially in the cases of Ramachandran and Thennarasu, which led to closure reports that supported their discharge.

“Something is very rotten in the Special Court for MP/MLA Cases,” the judge said, pointing out that the cases were adjourned until 2021, which was when the main accused were made Ministers in the State cabinet. It was apparent, the judge said, that upon a change of power in the State in 2021, “all the players in the game suddenly found themselves on the same team”. “This, therefore, is yet another instance of a criminal trial being derailed by the active design of those at the helm of political power,” he observed.

The KKSSR Ramachandran case

The case against the Minister for Backward Classes was that between April 1, 2006, and March 31, 2010, he along with his wife R. Aadhilakshmi and friend K.S.P. Shanmugamoorthy amassed assets worth Rs 44.59 lakh that was in excess of their known sources of income.

On December 20, 2011, the DVAC, Virudhunagar, registered a case under the Prevention of Corruption Act. After investigations, an exhaustive final report was filed before the Special Court in Madurai on September 5, 2012. The case was transferred to the Special court for MPs and MLAs in Srivilliputhur for administrative reasons. It dragged on till the Assembly elections of May 2021, which saw Ramachandran become Minister again in the new DMK government.

Famous judgments
Justice N. Anand Venkatesh, 52, is a first- generation lawyer who became a permanent judge of the Madras High Court in February 2020. He has shown a sensitive grasp over the law and its nuances in his verdicts.
In a landmark case on the LGBTQIA+ community in 2021, he actually attended a psycho-educative counselling class to understand the prejudices the community faced. It was following his orders that the National Medical Commission declared conversion therapy an act of professional misconduct. The Tamil Nadu government amended its Conduct Rules to prevent its officers harassing the LGBTQIA+ community.
Ruling on a 2023 petition from a widow denied entry into a temple in Erode, he ruled that marital status could not decide a woman’s identity. In a case about a temple in Myladuthurai, he said: “If temples are turned into a source of discrimination and violence, it will be better to close [them] down”. He also refused to quash a 2018 criminal case against comedian S. Ve. Sekher for circulating an abusive post about women journalists on his social media account.

Then, on September 15, 2021, the investigation officer sought “further” investigation, which the court accepted. He subsequently filed a Final Closure Report, which claimed that the Minister’s family had savings of Rs 1.49 lakh and not disproportionate assets worth Rs 44.59 lakh. The special court judge V. Thilaham accepted the closure report on October 28, 2022, and discharged all three accused on July 20, 2023. On the same day and in the same court, an identically worded Final Closure Report was filed in the case against Thennarasu and his wife.

The Thangam Thennarasu case

The Thangam Thennarasu case was exactly the same as Ramachandran’s. Thennarasu and his wife Manimegalai had allegedly amassed assets worth Rs. 74.58 lakh between May 15, 2006 and March 31, 2010, when he was School Education Minister in the then DMK government.

The Virudhunagar DVAC filed a case on February 14, 2012 under the Prevention of Corruption Act. The then investigation officer S. Swaminathan filed a final report before the special court in Madurai on November 15, 2012. This case too was transferred to the special court in Srivilliputhur. A spate of discharge petitions, appeals, adjournments, the COVID outbreak, and administrative decisions delayed its hearing.

Here, too, the Investigation Officer Boominathan sought “further” investigation when Thennarasu became a Minister. On October 28, 2022, Boominathan filed the Final Closure Report, which claimed that the accused had excess savings of Rs. 1.54 lakh and not disproportionate assets worth Rs. 74.85 lakh as mentioned in the 2012 charge sheet. The Minister and his wife were discharged on December 12, 2022.

“Whether the final report was right or wrong could have been assessed only after trial,” the judge noted, saying the special court order suffered from grave illegality which resulted in gross miscarriage of justice.

Also Read | Tamil Nadu Cabinet reshuffle: PTR shifted to IT ministry, TRB Rajaa gets Industries

Justice Venkatesh came down heavily on the two investigating officers of the DVAC (K. Ramachandran in the Ramachandran case and Boominathan in the Thennarasu case) who, he said, had “cooked up a cocktail hitherto unknown to criminal law” by filing “final closure reports”. “This was clearly mischievous since there can be only one final report under the law (Section 173(2) of the CrPC),” he said.

The special court also entertained this “strange and bizarre procedure”. The judge said neither the investigating agency nor the magistrate had any power under law to conduct a “fresh investigation”.

As for the acquittal of Ponmudi by the special court at Vellore, the judge called it “a shocking and calculated attempt to manipulate and subvert the criminal justice system”. He said it was disturbing that the case was transferred from the Villupuram Special Court to Vellore towards the end of the trial, following an administrative order from the Madras High Court.

The charges against Ponmudi were that when he was the Minister of Transport in the then DMK government between May 13, 1996 and September 30, 2001, he allegedly acquired properties and other pecuniary resources disproportionate to his known sources of income.

The Cuddalore DVAC registered an FIR on March 14, 2002 under the Prevention of Corruption Act against Ponmudi, his wife Visalakshi, and three others. A final report was set before the Special Judge, Villupuram in 2003.

The accused filed discharge petitions, which were opposed by the prosecution. The matter went to the Supreme Court, which set aside the petitions. Consequently, in 2019, charges were again framed against three of the accused, including Ponmudi (two of the accused had passed away by then).

Judge Venkatesh pointed out the anomalies at this stage. The special court judge wrote a letter to the Madras High Court seeking permission to expedite the hearing by conducting a special sitting for four days in May 2022. The High Court rejected it. The High Court’s Administrative Judges of Villupuram district sent notes, dated July 6, 2022, directing the case to be transferred to the Vellore Special Court from the Villupuram court. The Chief Justice approved this.

The judge goes on to say that on June 23, 2023, written submissions were made and within four days, the Vellore court “managed (or rather stage-managed) to deliver a 226-page testament/judgment acquitting all the accused. Two days thereafter, the Principal District Judge of Vellore retired.”

Judge Venkatesh decided to exercise his powers under Section 397 and 401 of the CrPC and Article 227 of the Constitution since he found a calculated attempt to “undermine and thwart the administration of criminal justice”.

He asked how the two judges got the power to transfer a pending criminal case from one district to another by way of an administrative note. This was a judicial power vested with the High Court under Section 407 of the CrPC. “A note of the Administrative Judges directing the transfer is ex-facie illegal and non-est in law,” he said.

Reacting to Justice Venkatesh’s suo motu revision, Justice K. Chandru, former judge of the Madras High Court, said that in corruption cases when the regime changed, the character of investigation too invariably underwent a change. He pointed to the special court that the DMK government (1996-2001) constituted to try the corruption case it had filed against Jayalalitha, which she challenged.

When Jayalalitha returned to power in 2001, things took a different course. As a result of the efforts of DMK leader K. Anbazhagan, the case was transferred to a special court in Karnataka, where, after a protracted trial, Jayalalitha was convicted. “But for the transfer, the result of the case would have been different,” said Judge Chandru.

In corruption cases against Ministers, there is always the suspicion that the investigation officer may show bias towards the ruling dispensation. “It is in this background that Justice Anand Venkatesh took suo motu cognisance under Section 397 of the CrPC, which cannot be faulted,” the former judge said.

“The judge also cannot be asked why earlier cases of Ministers in the previous government were not taken up in a similar manner. Maybe the same judge was not there or other judges may not have wanted to exercise such extraordinary powers. No improper motives can be attributed to the judge on this score,” he said.

He pointed out that if the argument made by R.S. Bharathi was accepted, then no judge would be able to use revisional powers. Justice Chandru said: “Under no circumstances can the criminal justice system be allowed to be perverted at anyone’s behest. After all, in the revision petition the aggrieved parties will also be heard before any orders are passed.”

More stories from this issue

Sign in to Unlock member-only benefits!
  • Bookmark stories to read later.
  • Comment on stories to start conversations.
  • Subscribe to our newsletters.
  • Get notified about discounts and offers to our products.
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide to our community guidelines for posting your comment