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July 29, 2000
Government may prefer to let Jethmalani be
Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi
The controversy set off by Ram Jethmalani is getting hotter. On the one hand there is the question of the compensation paid for land owned by Mala Anand, wife of Chief Justice of India Adarsh Sein Anand. On the other is the issue of violation of the Official Secrets Act, with the former law and justice minister releasing copies of confidential official correspondence to the newsweekly India Today. The letters were uploaded on the magazine's web site on Saturday morning.
A cross-section of senior advocates, who insisted on anonymity, said that by going public with the documents, Jethmalani had thrown the gauntlet to the government while simultaneously targeting the chief justice.
Jethmalani has openly violated the Official Secrets Act, 1923, and broken the oath of office and secrecy he took when assuming charge as a minister of the Union. "The oath clearly says a minister will not divulge any official communication even after demitting office," a senior advocate pointed out.
Yet, no one expects action against Jethmalani.
Arguably one of India's top criminal lawyers, with years of experience at the bar and a record of handling some of the country's toughest cases, Jethmalani's crowning moment came when he managed, against odds, to get one of the three persons accused of assassinating Prime Minister Indira Gandhi acquitted.
But the brilliant lawyer is also a loose cannon, never afraid to take on anyone and ever ready to shoot. Thus, in the early 1990s, he took up the case of the controversial stock broker Harshad Mehta, accused in the Bombay Stock Exchange securities scandal. And, at a dramatic press conference, alleged that his client had paid Rs 10 million as bribe in cash to Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao.
Of course, it was later found that on the date at the time mentioned by Mehta and Jethmalani, Rao was meeting a Pakistani delegation!
"Despite that, Jethmalani remains one of India's best lawyers. At the bar, we often say that from number 1 to 10 is Jethmalani, then come the rest like Soli Sorabjee and Fali Nariman. Thus, if the government actually makes a case against him, it will be fighting a very tough opponent," said one advocate.
Another senior advocate doubted the government would actually prosecute Jethmalani, given the delicate nature of the controversy. "In press statements so far, he has named the chief justice of India, the attorney general and others. And he is eminently capable of summoning them to the witness stand. Imagine the embarrassment and legal piquancy if he calls the chief justice or attorney general to the stand to cross-examine them," the advocate pointed out.
Even Supreme Court lawyer Abhishek Manu Singhvi, advocate for Mala Anand and her mother, said that while legally there could be a case against Jethmalani, it is best avoided. "It is a red herring. Prosecuting him at this juncture will make him a martyr," he said. "A court battle will bog down the country's chief justice and attorney general, and maybe others too, and create further complications and turmoil, which is the last thing the government wants."
The issue against Chief Justice Anand, head of the country's judiciary and the third highest constitutional authority after the President and vice-president, was first raised by the magazine Kalchakra (against which the Supreme Court had passed severe strictures in 1997) in its February 2000 issue.
The article made allegations against not the chief justice himself but his wife and mother-in-law, saying they got compensation - against the rules - for land owned by them in Madhya Pradesh.
The issue was taken up by the Madras-based fortnightly Frontline, which asked how compensation could be paid for land after 20 years, when the law of limitation puts a bar of 12 years.
Legal luminaries warn that adverse comments against the chief justice would make his position untenable and rock the judiciary. "It is not a question of the legal aspects of the case, it is the moral dimension," a senior advocate said.
"Chief Justice Anand is innocent, but the very fact that his wife and mother-in-law are being accused of having got questionable favours puts him in an embarrassing position," another advocate pointed out.
"The legal points can be examined. But the worry is that it may lead to mudslinging, and can we afford that [at this level]?" the advocate wondered.
Though no one has even suggested that Chief Justice Anand should resign, top lawyers are clearly worried about Jethmalani making an issue of the deal. If the controversy hots up, resignation cannot be ruled out, they say.
Singhvi, however, insists there is no controversy. "There is no question of the chief justice resigning. It is a mere allegation. If for every allegation our judges resign, constitutional governance will come to a halt. I don't think Kalchakra even deserves a response from me," he said.
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