In a punishment reminiscent of a classroom rebuke, the Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered the former acting Central Bureau of Investigation director M Nageswara Rao and agency's legal advisor S Bhasuram to sit in the courtroom the whole day after holding them guilty of 'brazen' contempt of its orders.
"Go to one corner of the court and sit down till the rising of this court," thundered Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, awarding the sentence to 'maintain' the dignity and majesty of the court.
Sparing the two of a possible jail term, the apex court also threatened to extend the duration of the sentence till the rising of the court on Wednesday when Attorney General K K Venugopal made a request at 3.40 pm -- just 20 minutes ahead of scheduled closure of court proceedings -- that the two officers be allowed to leave.
The court earlier in the day gave an option to Rao and Bhasuram to say something as the sentence for them could be 30 days in jail.
"Do you have to say something?" it asked.
Venugopal repeatedly requested the court to look into other options as per the law and sought leniency for them.
The court had earlier directed Rao and Bhasuram to remain seated till the rising of the court and imposed a fine of Rs 1 lakh each to be paid within one week for transferring an officer who was probing the Bihar shelter homes sexual assault cases.
"We could not have done anything else," it observed.
"In our considered view, it is a case where contempt has been committed by both--the then acting CBI Director, M N Rao, and the director prosecution (of the agency)" said the court holding them guilty for 'wilfully disobeying' its orders by transferring CBI Joint Director A K Sharma as additional director general of Central Reserve Police Force on January 18.
"We have heard Rao and Bhasuram for commission of contempt of court and we impose one lakh fine and sentence them till the rising of the court," said the three-member bench, also comprising justices L N Rao and Sanjiv Khanna.
"The apology tendered, though stated to be unconditional, is not so. There is a submission/contention that the actions were not willful, with which contention, we are in total disagreement," the bench said.
The apex court noted that Rao was fully aware of its order that A K Sharma, joint director CBI, who was heading the team probing the Muzaffarpur shelter home cases cannot be transferred without the permission of the top court.
The bench said it did not understand nor can appreciate and comprehend how Rao without satisfying himself that the court had been taken into confidence, approve of the draft order relieving Sharma from the CBI and giving additional charge to G K Goswami.
It noted that the charge against them is that they violated October 31, 2018 and November 28, 2018 orders restraining any change in the team investigating the Muzaffarpur shelter home case.
Despite explicit directions of the court that Sharma, Joint Director, CBI will continue to remain the head of the investigating team, he had been transferred out of the CBI and posted as the Additional Director General, CRPF, the court said.
A pensive looking Rao and Bhasuram, who on Monday had tendered unconditional and unqualified apologies for their roles in the transfer of Sharma, remained in the CJI's courtroom till 4 pm, the end of the normal working hours of the judicial side of the apex court.
They also remained seated during the one-hour lunch break.
The two reached the courtroom before the start of court proceedings at 10.30 am and sat in the visitors gallery but went near the dais after the lawyers asked them to come forward when the hearing of the contempt case came up.
Minutes after they were pronounced guilty, the two officers, clad in blue suits, quickly returned to the visitors' gallery to take their seats.
The court responded furiously when Venugopal sought its permission to allow the officers to leave the courtroom.
"What's this? Do you want us to sentence him till the rising of the court tomorrow? Go and sit where you were," the CJI said.
Before passing the order at around 11.40 am in the pre-lunch session, the bench told Rao and Bhasuram they have been held guilty of contempt of court and it was not accepting their unconditional and unqualified apologies.
At the outset, the Attorney General, appearing for the CBI and its officer, referred to the noting on the file related to the transfer of Sharma and said that it was a case of 'error of judgment' on Rao's part as he had acted on the 'incorrect legal advise'.
"It is not wilful. Facts are little muddled... Rao has put himself to the mercy of this court," Venugopal said and sought leniency from the bench.
"Let us see the sequence of events. From the note of the Acting (CBI) Director, this much is obvious that he knew that there was an order of the Supreme Court (against the transfer of the CBI officer). He also seeks the opinion of the legal advisor," the bench said.
Later, Rao approved the relieving order of the CBI officer without 'satisfying' himself whether the sanction of the court has been secured or not and 'if this is not the contempt then what is contempt', the bench said, adding 'the axe falls on the Supreme Court orders'.
"He is the Acting Director of the CBI...Would the heavens have fallen if the relieving orders were passed after taking the Supreme Court into confidence," a furious CJI remarked.
The CJI told the Attorney General, "Let us be very clear that I don't think any of us have as judges had the opportunity to invoke the jurisdiction of the contempt".
"We are and I can say I have not invoked the contempt powers and punished anyone. Speaking for myself I can say I have not invoked contempt power in the last 20 years. However, the dignity and majesty of the court has to be maintained," the CJI said.
"But this is brazen," the CJI said, adding that he was of the 'firm view' that 'the majesty of judiciary' has to be maintained.
At this moment, the Attorney General said, "To err is human, to forgive is divine."
The bench said the officers have committed the contempt and asked, "Why should a contemnor be defended at government expenses?"
Dealing with Rao's approval to the transfer Sharma, the bench made clear at the outset that Rao can be held guilty of contempt as he did not bother to check while signing the relieving order of Sharma.
"Not only that Rao did not even seek 'post facto' approval of the apex court to the decision for two weeks," it said.
Rejecting the defence of the two officers, the bench said though they have tendered an unconditional and unqualified apology, 'we don't agree with the contentions raised by them'.
The bench said that Rao was aware of the apex court direction that the CBI officer probing the shelter home sexual assault cases cannot be transferred without its consent.
However, his 'attitude is 'I have done what I thought was required',' the bench said.
"This is a blatant contempt of court. If this is not contempt of court then what is," asked the bench.
The court had on February 7 come down heavily on the CBI for transferring Sharma out of the agency in violation of the court's order.
It had also taken note of the violation of two earlier orders and issued contempt notice to Rao.