The rebuttal of charges of forged signatures and absent beneficiaries by Zakir Hussain Memorial trust climaxed, literally, on Sunday, when during a media interaction Union Law Minister Salman Khurshid and the director of the trust, his wife Louise Khurshid, reproduced Rangee Mistri, a beneficiary, before mediapersons. Priyanka reports from New Delhi.
A resident of Farrukhabad, Mistri was interviewed by news channel Aaj Tak (of the India Today Group). The channel later aired a report directly targeting the union law minister and the trust of siphoning funds (about Rs 77.87 lakh during 2009-10) meant for buying and distribution of equipment for the physically challenged in 17 districts of Uttar Pradesh.
It also talked about the camps for the handicap, which it reiterates never happened; handicap people on the list of beneficiaries, some of whom, the report said, did not exist, while many others did not receive any equipment.
Mistri was one of the people the channel had interviewed. And on Sunday, he was brought back and asked the same question in what Khurshid termed was a 'reverse sting.'
On being asked if he had received any equipment (Mistri's is hearing impaired), Mistri answered, "I had got a hearing aid two years ago. It doesn't work sometimes. I thought I will get a new one, and so I said I haven't got it."
Congress party workers standing close to Khurshid burst into jubiliation, like they had won a battle, while many in the audience couldn't believe what was happening.
Khurshid informed he was at the University of Oxford, lecturing young law students when the report was being telecast.
On Sunday, he tried to put up his side of the story.
Khurshid first produced a photograph of Chief Development Officer J B Singh, which showed him at a camp. The minister said the photograph is dated July 17, 2010, and said it was taken during a camp for the physically challenged in Mainpuri, Uttar Pradesh. The camp was also reported in Dainik Jagran on July 20, he added.
The Union law minister said he had proof that camps for the handicap were organised in many cities in Uttar Pradesh, most of which were not attended by close aides.
The minister said that the trust had organised camps at Sant Ravidas Nagar, Bulandshahr, Bareilly (attended by Congress Member of Parliament Rajiv Shukla), Allahabad, Etah (attended by Ajay Anmol), Farrukhabad, Mainpuri, Siddharth Nagar and many more.
Louise Khurshid, director of the trust said that it had organised 34 and not just 17 camps. "These were assessment camps," she explained that camps are held first, then a budget estimate is sent to the government, following which grants are approved later.
In a typical camp, doctors examine the physically disabled, and take measurements according to which an order for the equipment is placed with a government agency.
"None of these were sold in the market," said Khurshid, listing equipment- tricycles- 37, clutches (for males) - 20, clutches (for women) - 20, sticks for the visually challenged - 5 (and so on).
Setting aside charges that a Comptroller and Auditor General of India report had found financial irregularities in the trust's workings the minister argued the CAG report was preliminary and it in its report had not included documents from the trust. He said that he will provide documents of the camps organised by the trust.
"I am open to investigation by any one, even the CAG," Khurshid said.
Seemingly, Khurshid had come all prepared to counter the charges-- from taking care of the transport expenses of the physically challenged -- to releasing a list of beneficiaries signed by Ram Anurag Verma, a Viklang kalyan officer.
He cited a letter written by Founder-publisher and Editor-in-Chief of India Today and the Chief Executive of the India Today Group Aroon Purie on October 8 earlier this month, stating that he held the law minister in the highest regard, and a day later found him to be 'the worst person on the face of earth.'
He added, "If I can be bullied into giving something I have compassion for, I fear to think what others will have to go through."
But instead of being bullied into a matter of investigation, the minister lost his cool many times during the press meet. He shouted at journalists, and almost dared them to ask difficult questions. He said 'shut up' on a few occasions, and it appeared like he had felt insulted by merely being asked probing questions.
Many of the questions however remained unanswered. A number of beneficiaries have been listed in the trust's documents, which may or may not even exist. To which the law minister replied, "I can continue to bring more people who will tell you they have benefitted, and I am sure they (India Today Group) can do the same."
"Mistri is here. I will bring the other person later," he said.
In fact, Khurshid was adamant and said that if he is put through investigation, then the work of the channel should also be investigated.
Also, the trust is being charged of submitting a false affidavit, to which the minister replied that a certificate had been issued by the Uttar Pradesh government. He added that Louise had written a letter dated September 17, 2012 the UP government asked it to 'verify the signatures of the people who conducted the test checks.'
Chief Development Officer, J B Singh, for instance, had said his signatures were forged on the trust's documents.
The minister said that they had approached the UP government to conduct an inquiry to find out who had forged the signatures on the documents related to camps and distribution of equipment.