There are questions and issues that cast a shadow on the integrity of the loquacious PIL lawyer
By India Legal Bureau
It is rightly said that Prashant Bhushan is a man who loves wearing different hats. One day, he is a champion PIL lawyer. On another, he dons the mantle of an activist. And then, literally at the drop of a hat, he is seen in the garb of a politician. Over the years, the multiple roles he enacts have ensured him a place in the news, often for all the wrong reasons.
In fact, he has courted controversy and there is no dearth of accusations against Bhushan. These include questionable land deals, filing PILs serving vested interests by the dozen and operating numerous NGOs which nurture questionable agendas. It is another matter that such allegations run counter to the anti-corruption crusader image he projects.
Changing tracks is another art he has mastered. Remember Bhushan was initially involved with the India Against Corruption movement led by Anna Hazare but soon fell out with him and joined Arvind Kejriwal to set up the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). However, he quickly announced differences with the “muffler man” and formed Swaraj Abhiyan, which is strongly opposed to the AAP.
Bhushan has also courted controversy on several counts. He has labeled judges corrupt and has advocated for a plebiscite in Kashmir. He infamously demanded a referendum on deployment of security forces in Naxal-affected areas. More recently, he attracted criticism for condemning the killing of militant commander Burhan Wani by the armed forces in Kashmir.
Here are some of the controversies he is associated with:
FILING SUSPECT PILs
Sources have it that Prashant Bhushan shoots off anonymous complaints listing charges against individuals/organizations and then uses these to file PILs. In fact, Bhushan was pulled up by the Chief Justice of India TS Thakur for running a PIL center. The court asked: “Why should we hear PILs filed by CPIL (Centre for Public Interest Litigation that Bhushan is associated with)? You are a professional litigant. Can you become a ‘center’ for PIL? Can anyone walk into your office and tell you ‘I want to file a PIL’?”
The apex court observed further: “Prashant Bhushan, you have an image of a crusader. But can you become the centre for public interest litigation? Can the system be taken for a ride in such a manner? We cannot allow this. We must be satisfied that you have a committee which scrutinizes the complaints and allows only genuine ones to be converted into public interest litigations…We must have the confidence that when CPIL files a petition, it is not prompted by someone who has a vested interest, even though the cause may appear genuine. If a corporate rival gives documents for filing of a PIL, will you do it? Why would that corporate source not come out in the open and pursue the litigation in its own name? Why should CPIL be a front for settling corporate rivalry or personal vendetta? CPIL should not become proxy litigant. It should not become an instrument in the hands of commercial players.”
Bhushan maintained that CPIL was formed by senior lawyers and had a committee of senior advocates, scrutinising every petition before it is filed in court. “There is a committee which comprises Fali Nariman, Anil Divan, Kamini Jaiswal, my father and myself. All petitions are scrutinized by us,” he said. Fali Nariman and the others quickly reacted, saying that they had nothing to do with the PILs as claimed by Prashant.
JAIN HAWALA CASE
This involved payments allegedly received by politicians through four hawala brokers, namely the Jain brothers. It was a $18 million bribery scandal that implicated some of the country’s leading politicians in the Nineties. Crusader-journalist Vineet Narain who was at the forefront of the expose said: “I have burnt my fingers with the Bhushans during my Jain Hawala crusade…controversy and suspicion had arisen even earlier on the Bhushans…after initially helping me in drafting the petition (Jain Hawala case), the Bhushans, made several attempts to sabotage the biggest crusade against corruption and finally derailed the case.”
HIMACHAL LAND SCANDAL- 1
Prashant Bhushan found himself entangled in a land scandal in Himachal when he was found to have secured property by filing a false affidavit to ensure that he got domicile status (DS). Once he secured ownership he sold the land only to purchase another property which was possible because he had domicile status. The case is currently being investigated by the state government.
HIMACHAL LAND SCANDAL-2
In February 2010, the BJP government in Himachal Pradesh permitted the Kumud Bhushan Educational Society, headed by Prashant Bhushan, to buy tea-estate land at Kandwari near Palampur in Kangra district to set up an educational institution on condition that it would be built within two years of purchase of the land. The clearance was given when there was a total ban on the sale of tea gardens in the state to non-agriculturists. The Congress government ordered a probe into the sale in March 2013 when it came to power. This is what the investigations revealed:
Permission was granted to purchase 122 kanal (15.25 acres) of tea estate land to start an educational institute within two years. However, no school or college came up. Instead, an institute called “Shambhawana” was set up, which conducted occasional seminars and workshops. It was not affiliated to any university or board. DIG AP Singh, head of the vigilance bureau, wrote to the state government that there was a clear violation of rules and the property should be confiscated. The report said the educational institution required only 22 kanal (2.75 acres) of land, but the society purchased 122 kanal.
STAMP DUTY EVASION CASE IN ALLAHABAD
Prashant’s father, Shanti Bhushan bought a house in the tony Civil Lines area of Allahabad for a paltry advance and then paid the remaining amount many years later. The property had been grossly undervalued during the sale. As a result stamp duty of Rs 45,000 was paid for real estate worth about Rs 20 crore. The Assistant of Stamp Duty in Allahabad, Dr KP Pandey, said Bhushan has been found guilty of evading stamp duty and the property and related taxes had been grossly under-valued. Shanti Bhushan and his three children were slapped a notice for alleged stamp duty evasion in 2011. A fine to the tune of Rs 1.3 crore was slapped on Bhushan, his two sons Jayant and Prashant and daughter Shefali.
NOIDA FARM HOUSE CASE
By declaring themselves as agriculturists by submitting a project report on the farming they intended to do, Shanti Bhushan and Prashant’s brother, Jayant, became owners of 10,000 sq m farmland plots in Noida. What was not mentioned was the manner in which the Mayawati government allotted 10,000 sq m land to Bhushan senior and another plot of the same dimension to his son Jayant. There was also a question of conflict of interest, since Jayant appeared against Mayawati in the Noida Statue Park case. This land was allotted at a quarter of the prevailing market rate.
DOCTORED CD CASE
An audio CD surfaced in 2011, in which Shanti Bhushan claimed that son Prashant could manage (fix) any case for just Rs 4 to 5 crore. He was purportedly speaking to a leading politician. However, Shanti Bhushan denied such a conversation took place. But after a few days, he agreed that he had met with the politician and had telephoned him. Prashant and Shanti Bhushan claimed that the CD was doctored and submitted a private lab report supporting their assertion. However, the expert who conducted the tests revealed that he had just listened to the audio without conducting tests to come to that premise. The report was submitted in nine hours. Later, verification reports of the government and Delhi Police indicated that the CD was genuine.
CONFLICT OF INTEREST
When a PIL was filed in the Allahabad High Court against a builder, Shanti Bhushan insisted on appearing in the matter. However, the petitioner said in court that he did not want Bhushan to represent him as he had a vested interest in the matter. Shanti Bhushan then requested the court that he be appointed as amicus curiae in the case. The court turned this down saying that as he was an interested party he could not be appointed.
ARUNDHATI ROY CASE
The Supreme Court suo moto issued contempt notice in 2002 against Prashant Bhushan, Medha Patkar and Arundhati Roy for blocking the road leading to the apex court and hurling abuse on the court and judges. However, the court accepted the apology of Prashant Bhushan and Medha Patkar through their counsels, Ram Jethmalani and Shanti Bhushan.
Arundhati Roy was sent to jail as she refused to apologise. Another contempt proceeding involving Prashant is pending in the Supreme Court.
BURHAN WANI CONTROVERSY
Prashant Bhushan added further fuel to the recent Kashmir controversy over the killing of Hizbul Mujahideen commander Burhan Wani. The lawyer stated that most people suspected that Wani was killed by the security forces in a fake encounter. This was the line being pushed by separatist groups in the valley.
Lead picture: This tony civil lines property in Civil Lines area of Allahabad was bought by Shanti Bhushan, Prashant’s father, for a paltry amount