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The struggle against venality
April 09, 2003
Have you ever had a bureaucrat asking you for a 'sweetener' just to do his job? And, of course, we all take it for granted that the average politician is up to his elbow in graft. Tales of corruption are staple reading for every Indian. The sole light at the end of the tunnel seemed to be the judiciary.
So, let us turn away from the battles in Baghdad, and concern ourselves with a war closer home -- the struggle against venality. Happily, honest citizens have powerful allies in this battle, none less than the President and the Chief Justice of India themselves. So, how did they come to be involved?
Some months ago, the Central Bureau of Investigation started investigating allegations of large-scale wrongdoing in the Delhi Development Authority. Controlling as it does large chunks of land in the capital of India, this body is a virtual magnet for the corrupt.
A key suspect was a middleman called Dharamveer Singh Khattar. When the CBI finally decided to net the fish, raiding the homes of certain officers, it found illegal assets reputedly worth crores of rupees. But what even the CBI's worldly-wise officers did not expect to find was evidence suggesting that the scam might involve persons in the Delhi high court.
The CBI reputedly found 20 or so Delhi high court files in Khattar's possession when they searched his house, documents that had no business being there. While the investigating officers have been, understandably, circumspect on just what these files contained, I understand that most -- if not all -- the cases concerned are being heard by a particular judge.
The CBI director was so disturbed at what his officers had found that he decided to ask for advice from the Chief Justice of India. He, in turn, lost no time; after some quick consultations with certain senior colleagues, he summoned the chief justice of the Delhi high court to appraise him of the developments. The sequel was not long in coming; on the next working day, it was announced that Justice Shamit Mukherjee, an additional judge of the Delhi high court, had resigned his post.
By now, rumours of the files found in Khattar's house were floating around Delhi. Inevitably, journalists asked Justice Mukherjee if he were involved in any manner with the Delhi Development Authority scandal. The judge denied any links.
Meanwhile, Justice Mukherjee's letter of resignation had been sent for approval to the President of India. The normal procedure on such occasions is for the head of state to approve as a matter of course. Fortunately, President Kalam is an unconventional man. His response was to raise a fundamental principle: if a judge were truly involved in such a scam, was it enough to let him resign? Would there be no further action?
A judge is entitled to a certain amount of protection while he continues to occupy the Bench. But that ceases automatically from the moment he quits that seat.
Justice Mukherjee subsequently announced he had 'withdrawn' his resignation. However, the Union law ministry feels that Justice Mukherjee isn't entitled to change his mind in this fashion. He had not specified any date for his resignation to come into force, and it therefore came into force with immediate effect.
I understand the Bar has taken the matter very seriously, asking for a complete investigation of the scandal. There is now no reason why the CBI should hesitate to conduct the most searching enquiry. The officers are now assured of backing from the Bar, the Chief Justice of India and his colleagues, and the President himself.
One might wonder why it was necessary for the President to ask whether even judges shouldn't face the consequences of their actions. But for now let us rejoice that he did do so, and that the Chief Justice and his brethren responded nobly. In the midst of all the bad news, it is good to know that the highest in the land share our concerns about corruption in high places.
T V R Shenoy