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ASSAULTING THE BENCHES

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The growing and steady barrage of ad hominem  public attacks on sitting senior judges reveal how the Supreme Court has become an arena for target practice by politicians and opportunists from within and outside. The onus is now on CJI SA Bobde to meet a daunting challenge of defending this apex institution aggressively.

By Shaheen Parween

Not since Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1967, has a politician dared to take on a senior judge of the Supreme Court so openly and with such serious charges. Earlier this month, Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister YS Jaganmohan Reddy caused a sensation in judicial circles when he wrote to the Chief Justice of India SA Bobde, alleging improper conduct by Supreme Court judge, Justice NV Ramana. Reddy has accused Justice Ramana of intervening in legal matters to protect the interests of the Telugu Desam Party and its president, and his predecessor, N Chandrababu Naidu. His allegations are even more sensational considering that Justice Ramana is in line to become the next chief justice of India.

Read related story: A tainted man, throwing ink at the top judiciary

The letter refers to the period when Justice Ramana was a judge of the Andhra Pradesh High Court. The chief minister’s allegations referred to land deals in the state capital Amaravati, which had come under judicial scrutiny, and claimed that Justice Ramana had interfered in these cases. The letter was made public on October 10, when the chief minister’s principal adviser Ajeya Kallam, shared it with the media, while refusing to take any questions. The letter and additional documents, are a desperate bid to imply a connection between Justice Ramana and Naidu.

 

Justice Ramana
Justice NV Ramana

The reaction in judicial circles has been swift and decisive. All the High Courts Bar Associations passed a resolution condemning the allegations made by Reddy against Justice Ramana, saying that the latter’s integrity was beyond doubt and could not be questioned. Terming the basis of the allegations made in the letter against the senior judge who is slated to be the next chief justice of India as well as judges of the Andhra Pradesh High Court, as baseless and unfounded, the resolution said it was an attempt to interfere with the due administration of justice by the High Court. The DHCBA even claimed that the contents of the letter were tantamount to contempt of court and its circulation in the public domain was nothing but an attempt to shake the people’s confidence in the Judiciary.

The Supreme Court Bar Association also condemned the release of the letter and said in its resolution that the comments in the letter were unwarranted, that it defied propriety and was not in consonance with the high office of constitutional functionary involved. It added that was an affront to the independence of the Judiciary.

Jagan Mohan Reddy
Jaganmohan Reddy

In addition, a hundred students from leading law schools across India also wrote a letter to CJI Bobde condemning the action of Reddy. The letter said that the allegations by Reddy against Justice Ramana were scurrilous, scandalous and contemptuous, and the entire action was nothing but a calculated political drama aimed at undermining the credibility of the Judiciary.   

Read the full Letter from Law Students

Observers of state politics see the motivation as being a brazen attempt by Reddy to settle scores with his bitter rival, Naidu. Reddy’s plan, they say, is to pay Naidu back for embroiling him in a slew of cases in which he is facing trial before a CBI court in Hyderabad. These include charges of accumulating wealth by dubious means when his father, the late YS Rajasekhara Reddy (YSR), was chief minister of undivided Andhra Pradesh. According to India Legal’s investigations, Reddy’s attack on the Judiciary follows the Andhra Pradesh High Court’s order restraining the publication of the contents of the FIR registered against a former additional advocate general and two daughters of the sitting judge of the Supreme Court. India Legal’s investigation shows that in order to avoid the order of the High Court which would come under contempt of court, Reddy’s letter to the CJI narrates the same content which was part of the FIR and releasing it to media was a well planned strategy in consultation with J Chelameswar, former Supreme Court judge along with a Delhi based media consultant. A close confidant of Reddy revealed, on condition of anonymity, that the Judiciary has been targeted because of the recent judgment in which the Supreme Court had ordered that all cases against lawmakers facing serious criminal charges are to be disposed of within a period of two months. Significantly, the bench hearing these cases is headed by Ramana.

Last week, Advocate Ashwini Upadhyay, on whose PIL the apex court had ordered the special court to be set up for cases against MPs and MLAs, wrote to the CJI urging him to call a meeting of the full court following the controversial letter written by Reddy targeting Justice Ramana, saying it was “a blatant attempt to shake the confidence of the public at large in the judiciary.” He added: “Reddy has crossed the line which separates Judiciary and Executive”.

The current legal pressure faced by Reddy in the CBI cases is seen as inspiring an act of frustration which led him and his party to launch an open attack on the judiciary. In this, he was apparently advised by retired Justice Chelameswar, which led to the registration of an FIR against the former additional advocate general and others. Other threats and abuses in public of judges of the High Court led to the registration of another FIR.  On its part, the CBI has charged that Reddy accepted Rs 1,172 crore from various investors to help them get favours from the state government in the form of land, mining leases and licenses for new industries. However, many cases remained in limbo because the Congress party, in power at the Centre, wanted to go slow against Reddy in memory of his late father, who had been a political talisman for them in the state.

Once Reddy became the chief minister, he was a frequent visitor to the High Court of Telangana in connection with cases relating to CBI and money laundering charges. In 2019, Reddy filed an affidavit with the Election Commission which disclosed that he had 31 criminal cases pending against him. That led him to believe that the Judiciary was unnecessarily harassing him. At the time when the alleged offences were committed, he was not a public servant and hence should not have been tried under sections of the Prevention of Corruption Act. Sources say that Reddy was of the view that the decision of the CBI courts could have been “managed” if he had proper political allies. He was also hoping that a non-Congress government at the centre would help him in his cases but that was not to be. The centre has so far steered clear of bending rules involving serious fraud and corruption cases by politicians. That left him with the only option of attacking the Judiciary, via Justice Ramana who has a reputation for being upright and a stickler for judicial propriety.  Reddy has taken a desperate gamble in taking on the Judiciary, and judging by the reaction from the judicial community, it could well boomerang.

The story at a glance

  • Andhra Pradesh CM YS Jaganmohan Reddy allegedly conspires with Dilip Cherian, Justice Chelameswar and other advisers to write to CJI SA Bobde, alleging improper conduct by Supreme Court judge, Justice NV Ramana, and thus maligning the judiciary and judges. His principal adviser shares it with the media.
  • Reddy accuses Justice Ramana of intervening in legal matters to protect the interests of the TDP and its president and his predecessor, N Chandrababu Naidu.
  • The letter refers to the period when Justice Ramana was a judge of the Andhra Pradesh High Court.
  • The allegations refer to land deals in Amaravati, which had come under judicial scrutiny, and claimed that Justice Ramana had interfered in these cases.
  • The entire judicial fraternity, including Delhi High Court Bar Association and SCBA and law students condemn the letter and its contents.
  • Observers of state politics see this as a brazen attempt by Reddy to settle scores with his bitter rival, former CM Chandrababu Naidu, trageting him for embroiling Reddy in a slew of cases in which he is facing trial before a CBI court in Hyderabad.
  • India Legal’s probe reveals that Reddy’s attack on the judiciary follows the Andhra Pradesh High Court’s order restraining the publication of the contents of the FIR registered against a former Additional Advocate General and two daughters of the sitting judge of the Supreme Court.
  • India Legal’s investigation also shows that in order to avoid the order of the High Court which would come under contempt of court, Reddy’s letter to the CJI narrates the same content which was part of the FIR.
  • The probe says that releasing the letter to media was a well-planned strategy in consultation with J Chelameswar, a former Supreme Court judge, along with a Delhi based media consultant.
  • The Judiciary seems to have been targeted because of the recent judgment in which the Supreme Court had ordered that all cases against lawmakers facing serious criminal charges are to be disposed of within a period of two months.
  • Significantly, the bench hearing these cases is headed by Justice Ramana.
  • Reddy feels that at the time when the alleged offences were committed, he was not a public servant and hence should not have been tried under sections of the Prevention of Corruption Act.
  • Reddy hoped that a non-Congress government at the centre would help him in his cases but that was not to be.
  • There are many key faces linked to the entire controversy and they are all connected to Reddy in some form or the other.

Dramatis Personae

Justice Chelameswar: Investigations show that the key source behind the explosive letter by YS Jaganmohan Reddy to the CJI is retired Justice J Chelameswar. He was, in fact, not just a key source but it was his brainchild in consultation with Advocate Prashant Bhushan and Senior Advocate Dushyant Dave.

This is evident from the various communications of Dave to the different bar members in which the language was identical to Justice Chelameswar’s. He had been in touch with President of SCBA, Dushyant Dave and few other lawyers, who were given responsibilities to contain the fallout of the press conference where the letter was released. It is also known that all the news regarding the letter was circulated in the Bar Association by Justice Chelameswar. After demitting office as Supreme Court judge, Justice Chelameswar joined the YS Jaganmohan Reddy camp, with the brief to help in defending the YSRCP party from all pending criminal cases. The quid pro quo was that he would be offered a Rajya Sabha seat.

Justice Jasti Chelameswar
Justice J Chelameswar

Ever since, Justice Chelameswar has devoted all his time to handling all criminal matters relating to Jaganmohan Reddy. In legal circles in the state, it is believed that it was because of his efforts that Reddy was given exemption from personal appearance in the Telangana High Court in the pending money laundering and misappropriation of assets cases. There were also occasions when Justice Chelameswar was seen waiting for CM Reddy in his out office at the latter’s residence. Sources close to him say that Justice Chelameswar was bitter at being robbed of an opportunity to become the CJI, in the seniority system followed by the Collegium. He felt that after the retirement of Justice JS Khehar as the CJI in August 2017, the post of the next CJI should have been given to him and not Justice Dipak Misra.

According to a well-established Collegium precedent, seniority in the higher judiciary is determined from the date when a judge takes his oath in the High Court. The record clearly shows that Justice Misra became a judge in the Orissa High Court on January 1, 1996, while Justice Chelameswar was elevated to that position in the Andhra Pradesh High Court on June 23, 1997, thus clearly establishing Justice Misra’s seniority.

As chief justice of Assam High Court, Justice Chelameswar received favours from various state governments. He also courted controversy when he and three other senior judges went public on January 12 with their grievances over the way Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra was running the top court. Judicial circles saw it as an attempt to induct a few favoured lawyers in the higher judiciary which actually backfired. It is also alleged that Justice Chelameswar had captured two elephants from the wild, which were gifted to temples. A case is still pending “against unknown persons” under various provisions of wildlife preservation laws. As chief justice of Gauhati HC, Justice Chelameswar made a family trip to Kolkata and was unhappy that the Calcutta HC did not do the extra running around for him to pamper him. He issued an order that the Gauhati HC would deny all help and facilities to the chief justice of Calcutta HC. Justice Chelameswar was also allegedly involved in hushing up a sexual assault case in Guwahati involving a powerful personality, and the concerned person extended all help to him to ensure that he was elevated to the SC.

Incidentally, he is the only Supreme Court judge to have a heavy vehicle driving license.

  • Dilip Cherian: In any controversy, dispute or litigation, Jaganmohan Reddy has engaged Dilip Cherian and his public relations consultancy business. Cherian was visibly active when the Andhra High Court ordered a stay on the publications. Along with Justice Chelameswar, Cherian drafted the controversial letter to the CJI which was released at a press conference and copies of the letter were shared in advance with a senior Supreme Court advocate by Justice Chelameswar.
Dilip Cherian
  • Chief Advisers: Reddy has appointed more than half-a-dozen loyalists, some working with his private companies, as government advisers, most of them with a status equivalent to a cabinet minister. They include:

a) Ajeya Kallam, a former bureaucrat who retired as chief secretary of the state. He was appointed as principal adviser to the CM and is considered quite powerful in the CMO.

b) Sajjala Ramakrishna Reddy, a former journalist, who worked as editorial director of a media house known to follow the YSRCP party line, was appointed adviser, public affairs, and holds additional charge as political secretary to the CM.

c) GVD Krishna Mohan, another journalist who worked with the same Telugu media group that runs a newspaper, a TV channel and an online portal, was appointed as adviser for communications. Mohan, before joining as adviser to the government, was heading the media wing of the YSRCP.

d) Devulapalli Amar, another senior journalist, who ran a popular discussion show on the TV channel owned by the same media house, was appointed adviser for national media and inter-state affairs. He was allowed to open offices in Amaravati, Hyderabad and New Delhi.

e) K Ramachandra Murthy, another senior journalist who held a high editorial role in the media group close to the chief minister, was appointed adviser with the role of framing public policy.

f) Talasila Raghuram, who was appointed programmes coordinator in the CMO, was given cabinet rank. Raghuram was associated with YSRCP as a programme coordinator before his elevation.

g) YV Subba Reddy, the chairman of the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam board, is also an influential member of the Reddy’s close group. He is the uncle of Reddy.

h) V Vijayasai Reddy is a Rajya Sabha member from the YSRCP and chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Commerce. He is the YSRCP’s parliamentary party leader and its national general secretary. He was the family auditor of the Reddys.

Read Also: BOBDE’S BURDEN

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