Eminent lawyers trade charges over CJ's appointment
Syed Firdaus Ashraf in Bombay
Never before in India's history has the Chief Justice of India's appointment been mired in such controversy, as this time over Justice M M Punchhi's elevation to the highest judicial office in the land.
Ignited by eminent lawyers Ram Jethmalani, V M Tarkunde, Shanti Bhushan, Kamini Jaiswal and Indira Jaising -- who submitted a letter to Chief Justice of India J S Verma in May, listing grave allegations against Justice Punchhi -- the controversy is getting curiouser and curiouser.
Why did these lawyers not raise the issue earlier? After all, Justice Punchhi has been a Supreme Court judge for eight years. Does it imply that they had nothing against his being a judge? Why did they directly approach the Chief Justice of India, when a Supreme Court verdict clearly states that such issues should be routed through the bar associations?
Caught in the whirlpool of such serious questions, the Supreme Court Bar Association unanimously decided on Tuesday to suspend the lawyers who raise doubts about the judge. Though the suspended members can practise in court, they will not be able to use the SCBA library or enter the bar's chamber.
"If they had any grievance, why did they not approach the SCBA instead of directly going to then President Shankar Dayal Sharma (with copies of their letter to the Chief Justice of India)?'' asks SCBA president Kapil Sibal. ''Even before suspending these eminent lawyers, we gave them an opportunity to approach us. But they never bothered to do so."
But Jethmalani told Rediff On The NeT, in a telephone conversation, "The Committee on Judicial Accountability, set up in 1991, had authorised its members to hold the judiciary accountable. And, therefore, we met the President in confidence to give our opinion."
If the issue was discussed in confidence, why was the letter leaked to the media? Raising the question, the SCBA took strong objection to the fact that an article on the issue appeared in The Hindu.
As for the timing of the letter, says Kamini Jaiswal, "Most of the cases are very recent -- three in 1996 and two cases in March and May 1997. We need concrete evidence, and cannot complain against a Supreme Court judge with just one case in hand."
Rejecting the contention, the SCBA said the manner in which Justice Punchhi has been admitting justice these last eight years has left no doubt that the allegations against him are frivolous.
United Lawyers Front president Anis Suharwardy, one of the lawyers who demanded the legal luminaries's suspension, goes a step further. "Everyone knows that a Supreme Court judgment is never given by one judge. Then how can these people single out Justice Punchhi?"
Counters Jaiswal, "In one of the cases, Justice Punchhi and his colleague on a two-judge bench differed. The case was moved to a three-judge bench, whose members went against Justice Puncchi's decision."
Rejecting the SCBA's move to suspend them, the lawyers said such a decision had to be ratified by two-thirds of the 3,000-strong body. At Tuesday's meeting, where the decision was taken, only 600 lawyers favoured the move, they said.
The suspended lawyers even see a Congress gameplan behind the move. They allege that all the prominent SCBA members either represent Congressmen or are Congressmen themselves. "It is well known that Sibal is a Congress MP, G L Sanghi is Kesri's counsel, P P Rao is a close aide of former prime minister P V Narasimha Rao and Vikram Mahajan is a former Congress minister," points out Jaiswal.
''And they don't want to take any action against Justice Puncchi'', she continues, like in the case of then Supreme Court Justice K Ramaswamy against whom an impeachment motion was taken up in Parliament. The motion fell through when the then ruling Congress party abstained during the vote
As for their future course of action, Jaiswal says, "The ball is now in the court of the President and the Chief Justice of India.''
In case they decide against Justice Punchhi's elevation, Justice S C Agarwal could become the next Chief Justice of India.
The Committee on Judicial Accountability has now challenged the SCBA's suspension order even as suspended lawyer Shanti Bhushan resigned from the lawyers's body.
Where Angels Fear To Tread
Row over chief justice of India's appointment