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The Rediff Special/ R Balaji & Ranjit Kumar Sinha in New Delhi

Supreme Court grapples with corruption issue

December 28, 2008

Judges, like Caesar's wife, should be above suspicion, was the focal point in 2008 for the Supreme Court which took extreme steps to keep the judiciary free from corruption after scams allegedly involving judges broke out.

The image of the third pillar of democracy came under a cloud with the names of judges coming up in the Uttar Pradesh [Images] provident fund scam and cash-at-judge door scam in Chandigarh.

Capping this was Chief Justice of India K G Balakrishnan's decision to recommend the impeachment of a sitting judge of the Calcutta high court, Justice Soumitra Sen, for 'misconduct' and 'misappropriation of funds'.

It is the second instance in India's judicial history that a decision has been taken to move an impeachment motion in Parliament against a judge since 1991 when the motion against then Supreme Court judge Justice V Ramaswamy was defeated.

Sensing that the image of the judiciary has reached its nadir in the wake of scams, the Chief Justice gave his consent for a CBI probe into the cash-at-judge door scam in which a woman judge of the Punjab and Haryana high court came under the scanner.

However, the litmus test for the apex court to act against its fraternity came in the Uttar Pradesh provident fund scam. The Chief Justice and Justice B N Agrawal, the senior- most judge after him, recused themselves from the Bench after former Union law minister Shanti Bhushan made allegations that the apex court was trying to protect the corrupt judges.

Belying such allegations, the collegium headed by the Chief Justice refused to confirm the appointment of an additional judge from the Allahabad high court as permanent; it later recommended the transfer of four judges to pave the way for the Central Bureau of Investigation to conduct a free and fair probe into the scam in which the names of 34 judges and judicial officers have cropped up.

While the Supreme Court found it tough to save face, a judgment by a Bench headed by Justice Arijit Pasayat left no stone unturned to criticise a former Chief Justice of India for extending the tenure of Justice Ashok Kumar of the Madras high court in 2005 as an additional judge when he was found 'unsuitable' for appointment as a permanent judge.

The apex court expressed dismay over a former CJI, whom it did not name, being 'swayed by the views of the government' which amounted to 'surrender.'

If the Justice Ashok Kumar case opened a Pandora's Box on the controversial appointment of judges, differences between the Chief Justice-headed Collegium and government on the issue came into open this year when the Prime Minister's Office opposed the elevation of chief justices of three high courts to the apex court by bypassing the seniority of three other chief justices of high courts.

Though the Collegium had its way, Law Minister H R Bhardwaj on more than one occasion, criticised the prevalent practice on appointment of judges.

While corruption involving judiciary dominated the year, a Constitution Bench delivered a landmark verdict paving the way for the government's controversial law on 27 per cent quota for Other Backward Classes in central educational institutions with a rider that the creamy layer has to be kept out of its ambit.

The judgement, however, brought worries for the government which swung into action to enhance the annual income of Rs 150,000 to Rs 450,000 to broaden the definition of the creamy layer prompting the anti-quota petitioners, including a former IIT professor, to challenge what experts dubbed as the second round of the legal battle against quotas.

More worries were in store for the UPA-government as it once again failed this year to push the Sethusamudram shipping canal project through the controversial alignment of the Ram Setu.

The Centre -- which last year was forced to withdraw two controversial affidavits questioning the existence of Lord Rama [Images], the Ramayana [Images] and Adam's Bridge or the Ram Setu as a man-made bridge -- filed a comprehensive affidavit in February in support of the project, but was not able to secure a green signal as the apex court asked the Prime Minister's Office to look the matter afresh for alternative alignment.

The verdict has been reserved as the apex court awaits the report of the expert committee, headed by environmentalist R K Pachauri, which has been asked to examine the feasibility of alternative alignment for carrying out the project which the Tamil Nadu government is pressuring the government to take forward.

A flip-flop by the Centre, similar to the Sethusamudram project case, was witnessed again when the Centre failed to defend the ban before a tribunal on the Students Islamic Movement of India, which allegedly has been involved in subversive activities in recent years.

The government later filed an appeal in the apex court which in an interim order stayed the decision.

While the hearing on the Sethusamudram project witnessed high-voltage arguments, the campaign launched by the Raj Thackeray-led Maharashtra Navnirman Sena in Mumbai [Images] and other parts of Maharashtra against north Indians evoked sharp criticism from the apex court which said it would not allow the 'balkanisation' of the nation.

Despite the apex court saying that courts cannot be used as an arena for waging political battles, it turned out to be one of the favourite fields for leaders of all major political to corner their rivals.

The love-hate relationship between the Centre and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati [Images] found its echo in the apex court. No sooner did the Bahujan Samaj Party withdrew support to the government, the CBI said it had evidence to prosecute her in the disproportionate assets case of 2003.

The biggest beneficiary of the severing of ties between the Congress and BSP was Mayawati's arch rival Mulayam Singh Yadav [Images] whose Samajwadi Party supported the the government in the July 22 trust vote in the Lok Sabha.

The CBI, on the Centre's advice, decided to withdraw an application from the apex court against the Samajwadi Party chief in the disproportionate assets case in which it had earlier found evidence to proceed against him.

The Centre and the CBI also came out in support of Railway Minister Lalu Prasad and his wife Rabri Devi by opposing the stand of the Bihar government to file an appeal against their acquittal by a trial court in the disproportionate assets case which an off-shoot of the multi-crore fodder scam.

The issue of Sonia Gandhi's [Images] foreign origin was also raked up in the apex court where the Centre asserted that the Congress party president's citizenship by registration did not put any bar on her from being elected to hold a constitutional post.

Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss, who won accolades for his tough stand to ban smoking in public places, drew flak for his decision to bring a law aimed at removing cardiologist Dr P Venugopal as the director of the prestigious All India Institute of Medical Sciences.

Though many of the judgments and observations were passed on Public Interest Litigation, the apex court witnessed some sharp differences in open court among the judges on entertaining such petitions which finally resulted into revising the guidelines. The result was a considerable decline in PILs in the second half of the year.

The Rediff Specials

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