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Impeachment: The chairman was right

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The new crop of Congressmen must acquaint themselves with the history of their party vis-a-vis our Constitution and judiciary

Since leaders of the Congress Party are unhappy with the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha for rejecting the notice of impeachment against Chief Justice Dipak Misra, it is worth reflecting over the conduct of this party vis-a-vis impeachment of judges in the past.

As discussed in the previous column, Mr G S Dhillon, the Speaker of the Lok Sabha during Indira Gandhi’s prime ministership in 1970, rejected an impeachment notice against a judge of the Supreme Court at the preliminary stage on the ground that it was frivolous. Then why deny Mr Naidu the right to do so in respect of Chief Justice Dipak Misra?

Secondly, if the party is so worried about the image of the judiciary, why did it not vote in favour of the motion to remove Justice V Ramaswami, who faced grave charges of misbehavior, in the Lok Sabha in 1993?

Since a quarter century has gone by since the Ramaswami impeachment saga, it is necessary to jog public memory about what this case was all about. The notice of motion for removal of Justice V Ramaswami of the Supreme Court was sent by Madhu Dandavate and 107 other MPs on February 21, 1991 to the Speaker of the Lok Sabha. It related to acts of misbehavior during Justice Ramaswami’s tenure as Chief Justice of Punjab and Haryana between 1987-89. The allegations made against the judge indicated gross misuse of office and included: Purchasing furniture, carpets etc. for the High Court and for his residence worth about Rs 50 lakh from hand-picked dealers at highly inflated rates and without inviting tenders; purchasing more than Rs 13 lakh worth of furniture, carpets etc. for his official residence when he was entitled to spend only Rs 38,500; purchasing silver maces worth Rs 3.60 lakh at highly inflated prices from a firm in his home town without inviting bids even after other judges opposed the move as being wholly unnecessary and a relic of the colonial past; and that he misused public funds and built up a residential telephone bill of Rs 9.10 lakh in Chandigarh and even made the high court pay for his residential telephone bills in Madras. But the most shameful charges were that he got himself reimbursed for fake petrol and car repair bills; that he misappropriated furniture and other items purchased from court funds for his official residence; and that he replaced several items of furniture, carpets and suitcases purchased with public funds for his residence with old and inferior quality items!

There is a lot more, but for the sake of brevity, many more instances of petty behavior of the judge are not listed here. I do not think there has ever been a more scandalous charge-sheet against a senior member of the judiciary. Yet, Mr Kapil Sibal was his chief defender and the Congress Party chose not to impeach him!

Mr Rabi Ray, the Speaker, admitted the motion and constituted an inquiry committee comprising Justice P B Sawant of the Supreme Court, Justice P D Desai, Chief Justice of the High Court of Bombay, and Justice O Chinnappa Reddy, former judge of the Supreme Court. This committee, which submitted its report to the Speaker in July, 1992, came up with a damning indictment of Justice Ramaswami.

It said: “Justice Ramaswami’s  conduct… discloses willful and gross misuse of office, purposeful and persistent negligence in the discharge of duties, intentional and habitual extravagance at the cost of the public exchequer, moral turpitude by using public funds for private purposes in diverse ways and reckless disregard of statutory rules  and brings disrepute to the high judicial office and dishonor to the institution of judiciary and undermines the faith and confidence which the public reposes in the administration of justice.

The acts are of such a nature that his continuance in office will be prejudicial to the administration of justice and to the public interest”. Also, there was something very petty about the conduct of this judge, because the committee found many articles missing when he handed over his official residence in Chandigarh. Among them were five new suitcases, which he got the High Court to purchase just before his elevation to the Supreme Court!

This must certainly be the severest indictment of a judge of the apex court .Yet, despite such a damning indictment, the Congress Party chose to let him off the hook when the motion for his impeachment was put to vote in the Lok Sabha in May, 1993 and Mr Sibal played the role of this judge’s chief defender.

Yet another judge who faced grave charges of misbehavior was Justice Soumitra Sen, judge of the Calcutta High Court. He was charged with misappropriating Rs 33.22 lakh which he had received in his capacity as Receiver appointed by the High Court of Calcutta.

Unlike the Ramaswami and the Sen cases where grave charges were made against the judges and the accusations were backed by compelling evidence, the signatories to the motion against CJI Misra appeared to be “unsure of their own case”. The RS Chairman said, for example, the signatories said in one allegation that the Chief Justice “may have been involved in a conspiracy of paying illegal gratification”. At another place they said “he (CJI) too was likely to fall within the scope of investigation”. Therefore, Mr Naidu said “in the absence of credible and verifiable information placed before me… it would be an inappropriate and irresponsible act to accept statements which have little empirical basis”.

Anyone who compares the petition filed against CJI Misra with the weighty petitions  filed against Justice Ramaswami and Justice Sen will clearly see the difference.

Finally, a word about the Congress Party’s commitment to an independent judiciary. The party campaigned vigorously for a “committed” judiciary in the 1970s—meaning  committed to the party and its leader Indira Gandhi, after the Supreme Court ruled that the basic structure of the Constitution cannot be amended.

The party also brought in the 42nd Amendment to strip the higher judiciary of its powers. The respect the party had for the Supreme Court is best explained by what its leaders said in Parliament during the debate on the 42nd Amendment. Here is a glimpse:

C M Stephen: Now the power of this Parliament (through the 42nd Amendment) is declared to be out of bounds for any court. It is left to the courts whether they should defy it. I do not know whether they will have the temerity to do that but if they do… that will be a bad day for the judiciary. The committee of the House is sitting with regard to the enquiry into the conduct of judges and all that. We have got our methods, our machinery.

Swaran Singh: Unfortunately, the courts transgressed the limits prescribed for them. It is a crude sort of invasion. NKP Salve: In the life of every nation …there comes a time when the Constitution has to be saved from the court and the court from itself. The new crop of Congresspersons must acquaint themselves with the history of their party vis-a-vis our Constitution and judiciary.

A Surya Prakash
Chairman, Prasar Bharati

Courtesy: New Indian Express

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