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June 24, 1997


'I would like to do something for cricket, and the country'

Prem Panicker

Why Justice Chandrachud?

Ever since the news broke that the Board of Control for Cricket in India had appointed the former chief justice of India to probe allegations of betting and match-fixing in Indian cricket, I have had mail from readers asking this question.

One obvious answer would be that Yashwant Vishnu Chandrachud is one of the most respected jurists around, with an outstanding track record. He topped his batch in law school, being the only student, in the year 1942, to emerge with a first class. From 1943 to 1961, he practised law in the Bombay high court, before serving there as a judge between the years 1961 to 1972. He then served as a judge in the Supreme Court between 1972 and 1985. He is the court's longest-serving chief justice, having served in that office between 1978 and 1985.

And in all this time, he has earned a reputation for being a very straight, unbending jurist in whose vocabulary, 'compromise' is not a listed entry.

But there is more -- Justice Chandrachud is a diehard cricket fan, who has been known to go out of his way to find time to follow the fortunes of the Indian side. "Right from my schooldays," the jurist, very willing to talk and, as always very vocal, "I have had a passion for cricket. I used to be a regular member of my school team (Marathi Vidyalaya, Pune). I wasn't as regular with the college team, but I did play for S P College (also in Pune). And since then, I've followed the fortunes of our team very closely."

Which brings us to his present brief -- to probe, in exhaustive detail, the rumours of betting and match-fixing in Indian cricket.

"I need to point out that the terms of reference for my enquiry are not yet finalised," says the judge. "We are still working on that, and it should be finalised in two days from now." And yes, he confirms it will be made public the minute it is ready.

However, the judge is already aware that his terms are to be wide ranging. "I can probe any and every aspect of the matter. Request anybody -- officials, players, journalists, police officers, whoever I see fit -- to appear before the commission and answer my questions."

Does "anybody" include, say, the likes of Aamir Sohail, who recently alleged that an Indian player had attempted to bribe him during the 1994 Singer Cup in Sri Lanka? "No, I will not be talking to foreign players or officials. In any event, the BCCI perception is that Sohail's allegations are merely malicious."

Interestingly, for someone who has passionately followed the game, and the team, for decades now, Justice Chandrachud avers that he has, till date, not had any reason at all to suspect skullduggery. "True, the Indian team has in recent times lost games it looked certain to win; there have been some dramatic collapses. But I see that as part of the way we play our game -- we either play brilliantly, or shabbily, you can always see the team swinging between the sublime and the ridiculous and that is not a new phenomenon."

But so many instances in the past year alone?

"In the past year the Indian team has played more cricket than in any two years before this, so it follows that there will be more instances, doesn't it?" the jurist asks back, like an expert lawyer cornering a witness.

Does this mean, then, that he has prejudged the case? "No, no, I was speaking as a fan, not as a jurist," he interjects. " The situation changed the minute Manoj Prabhakar came up with his allegations. From that point on, the need for an enquiry was obvious. And now that the task has fallen to me, I intend to do it to the best of my ability. It is, in a way, my own contribution to the game I love."

So what was his reaction when he first read Prabhakar's allegations? "I would think it was pretty much that of the average cricket fan. I was shocked, appalled, distressed."

And did this reaction lead him to condemn the team he follows with passion?

"No, because besides being a cricket fan, I am also a trained lawyer. The trouble is that these days, the media thinks a day gone without front-paging some scandal or the other is a day wasted -- and I know enough not to believe everything I read."

But the charges appear to have been universally believed, I point out, telling him about the dozens of emails I've been getting from readers around the world. "Yes, well, that is more a comment about public morality today than about cricket in particular," Justice Chandrachud argues. "There has been such a steep fall in values, that today, any rumour about any public figure is immediately taken as truth! I mean, 30 years back, you couldn't even voice a rumour about the wrongdoing of a political figure, or a sportsman. Today, it appears that is all we talk about. A sign of the times, I guess."

Interestingly, the judge tends to divide the problem into two halves -- betting being one, and match fixing being the other. "Betting goes on all the time, in every field of activity... I mean, people even bet on car numbers, so it would be naive to assume it doesn't happen in cricket," he says.

But it is illegal, surely? "Of course it is, it is a clear contravention of the Gambling Act," agrees the jurist.

So what then will his commission do about it? "It is this way -- I have been given a brief to enquire, to set down my findings -- I am not empowered to take action. So assume that I find an instance, or instances, of betting. I am convinced of the veracity of the testimony. Then I can, and will, record my findings, and from that stage on, it is in the hands of the Board, and of the police officials of the respective areas, to decide on what action to take."

What then of match-fixing? "The same thing applies. I would like to talk to the people involved. I would like to question them, listen to their answers, evaluate at first hand their reliability. It is only after this that I can come to any conclusion."

I edge into the next question with a bit of hesitation -- I mean, how does one tell a jurist of his stature that inquiry commissions are seen, by the common people, as merely devices to stall, to sweep things under the most convenient carpet? My hesitant query draws a hearth laugh. "True enough," says the judge, "Commissions of enquiry have at times yielded less than they were supposed to. What can I say? For one thing, I am whole-heartedly committed to this, and have no intention of soft-peddling, of helping anyone cover anything up. As for facing public criticism in the event -- and I am merely mentioning a possibility here -- that the results of the enquiry do not match expectations, well, I have been a jurist for over two decades, and if you are worried about criticism, you can never ever do anything."

The judge is quick to admit that his commission's performance will be more subjective than anything else. "Sure, I can call for witnesses, I can ask to study documents -- the BCCI is giving me a very free hand. But ultimately, it all depends on what I believe, what my instinct, honed through these years in jurisprudence, tells me. I mean, if one person accuses another and the other person denies it, what evidence can I bank on? I have to depend, in the final analysis, on the instinct of a lawyer, of a judge -- the instinct I have depended on throughout my career."

Justice Chandrachud, whose consultancy tends to keep him busily shuttling between Bombay and Pune, has indicated to the BCCI that he would prefer to base himself in Bombay. "The Board has agreed, and has promised to bear the expenses if someone I need to talk to has to be flown down here. I plan to travel outside Bombay only if it is absolutely necessary," he says, adding that he is still not sure where the commission's offices will be. "Those are details that will be worked out over the next couple of days," he says.

For a moment towards the end of our conversation, the jurist takes a back seat and the fan takes over, as the judge talks of heroes past and present. "Sunil Gavaskar and Kapil Dev... they are my all-time heroes," he says, unabashed.

And what of the current Indian team? How does he rate them? "It is a funny thing, you get the feeling that there is some key element missing in the side. Something required to turn this into a team of world beaters.

"I think Sachin Tendulkar, as a player, is out of this world. Javagal Srinath is one of the best fast bowlers in the world today. Saurav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid, too, would be assets to any side in contemporary cricket. In fact, I would add Azharuddin to that list -- he is an artist, though of late it looks like his mind is not really in it. I don't know... we have great players... we need to have a great team..."

One step in the direction of building the team would be to clear the miasma of scandal that hangs over Indian cricket today, lowering the morale of players and of fans alike.

"Very true," admits Justice Chandrachud. "And that is why I am honoured to be entrusted with such a task. And determined to do the very best I can, to fulfill my brief... this is my contribution to Indian cricket..."