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Justice by the backdoor?

Justice by the backdoor?

Author: Sandhya Jain
Publication: Vijayvaani.com
Date: January 4, 2011
URL: http://www.vijayvaani.com/FrmPublicDisplayArticle.aspx?id=1570

That justice must be seen to be done is a wise adage. As allegations swirl and corroborative evidence surfaces of a possible quid pro quo in the wealth amassed by the kin of 'uncle judges,' the Supreme Court must urgently limit the damage to its credibility by revisiting questionable judgments by controversial or tainted judges.

The writer urged as much in the previous column; indeed, a quiet judicial review should have begun when senior advocates began questioning extra-judicial angles to decisions of a former Chief Justice of India. In September 2010, former Union Law Minister Shanti Bhushan furnished the court with a list of sixteen former Chief Justices of India, of whom eight were inarguably corrupt. Mr Bhushan said six of the former CJIs were upright, but he could not vouch for the remaining two judges, an indication of the gravity of the rot undermining the last bastion of justice.

Justice R.C. Lahoti shines among the honest six, yet he was overlooked for the post of chairman, National Human Rights Commission, because of purported pro-Hindu leanings (read: he was not a certified anti-Hindu). As Mr. Y.K. Sabharwal was in the eye of the storm over tainted judges, the UPA kept the post vacant until Justice K.G. Balakrishnan retired in May 2010, and could take up the job which is reserved for former Chief Justices of India.

The last judgment delivered by Justice Balakrishnan before demitting office pertained to the pricing of natural gas in a dispute between the Ambani brothers. Upholding the government contention that gas was a national resource whose price it alone could fix, he gave a steep benefit to one party by directing Reliance Natural Resources Ltd. (RNRL) to pay US$ 4.20 per mmBTU to Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL), instead of the contracted price of US$2.34 per mmBTU. This had the tacit consent of the Petroleum Ministry that should have pocketed the differential for the good of the common man.

Now the pigeons have come home to roost with the surfacing of a Nira Radia-Balakrishnan connection. News reports say Delhi-based journalist Dr. M. Furquan filed a complaint before the Vice President in May 2010, alleging that Justice Balakrishnan's son Pradeep had mediated with Dubai-based NRI businessman Yusuf Ali to settle the legal battle between the Ambani brothers over the Krishna Godavari basin gas supply. The complainant alleged that Pradeep, a practicing lawyer in the Supreme Court, made several trips to Dubai in this connection. This is something which can and should be speedily verified from his passport.

The already public Radia tapes mention the clean chit given by Mr Balakrishnan to then Telecom Minister Andimuthu Raja in the matter of trying to influence a Madras High Court judge to give bail to a father-son team in a murder case. On July 7, 2009, Radia told Ratan Tata: "Yeah, I met Raja today… The Chief Justice has given his clearance on him and he's happy..."

Dr Furquan further alleged that Mr Balakrishnan granted relief to CPM leader Pinarayi Vijayan in the SNC-Lavalin scandal at the behest of his family members who are reputedly friendly with the minister. Furquan alleged that mining tycoon Janardhana Reddy met Mr. Balakrishnan's son-in-law P.V. Sreenijin in Kochi for help in cases involving the Reddy brothers.

Eminent Supreme Court judge (retd) V.R. Krishna Iyer has demanded that Balakrishnan be made to step down as NHRC chairman, and a probe ordered into proliferating allegations of corruption against him. The current controversy centres round his lawyer son-in-law P.V. Sreenijin, who has reportedly amassed staggering wealth in the past three years, according to a Malayalam television channel. These include flats and landed properties in prime locations in Ernakulam and Thrissur districts, all currently valued at over Rs 7 crore. Sreenijin had unsuccessfully contested the 2006 assembly polls from Njarackkal assembly constituency in Ernakulam, and in his affidavit to the Election Commission declared a bank balance of Rs 25,000/-, three gold sovereigns then valued at Rs. 18,000/-, and no landed property.

It is alleged that the wealth of Mr Balakrishnan's kin rose sharply in the period co-terminus with his supremacy at the apex court - January 2007 to May 2010. Interestingly, his appointment as Chief Justice of India was challenged by a Kerala High Court advocate who filed a petition in the apex court claiming that Mr Balakrishnan was illegally appointed to the Kerala High Court in 1985 though he lacked the mandatory qualifications for the post, viz. a minimum of 10 years service as District Judge or 10 years practice as an Advocate. The petitioner charged that Justice Balakrishnan had worked merely as Munsif Magistrate from 1973 to 1983, a subordinate judiciary post, and was thus ineligible to be a High Court Judge. It followed that his elevation as Chief Justice of India was also illegal. The Supreme Court did not go into the merits of the petition, which was simply dismissed as belated. Yet a government servant found appointed against a fake degree is dismissed from service at the moment of discovery, there being no time bar or amnesty against an illegal appointment.

Observers say that as the late K. Karunakaran - an accused in the Palmolein import scam which also embraces Chief Vigilance Commissioner P.J. Thomas - was instrumental in elevating Mr Balakrishnan to the High Court, that latter returned the favour by staying the proceedings in the case indefinitely at Supreme Court level.

It is interesting, though not surprising, that Justice Balakrishnan had urged Dr Subramanian Swamy not to press his case for disqualification of Congress president Sonia Gandhi for repeatedly lying under oath in false affidavits to the Returning Officer of Rae Bareilly constituency. The judge invoked a 'stale case' doctrine which has no basis in law, and the issue is of sufficient national interest to merit fresh scrutiny.

Present indications, however, suggest that the UPA has no intention of tackling the issue of corruption in the higher echelons of the judiciary, and may let the matter hang fire, as in the case of tainted CVC P.J. Thomas, who resisted all hints and nudges to resign. In this eventuality, the Government or Supreme Court must immediately institute a mechanism whereby whistleblowers can report cases of judicial corruption, and investigate the same in a time-bound manner. The seizure of disproportionate assets would be a good idea.

- The writer is Editor, www.vijayvaani.com


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