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By Atul Chandra in Lucknow

In a disgraceful first, the residence of a serving Allahabad High Court judge, Justice SN Shukla, also known as Narayan Shukla, was raided by the CBI in Lucknow on December 6 for allegedly taking a bribe from a private medical college. The medical college scam first surfaced in 2017 and a case was registered by the CBI against Justice Shukla; former judge of Orissa High Court Justice IM Quddusi; owner of Prasad Institute of Medical Sciences (PIMS) BP Yadav; socialite Bhawna Pandey; hawala operator Ramdev Saraswat; and businessman Biswanath Agarwala. The residences of Justice Quddusi, who served at the Orissa High Court over 2004-2010, and another accused were also raided.

This was the second time that Justice Shukla’s residence at Lawrence Terrace in Lucknow was searched by the CBI. The premises of Yadav and his son, Palash, at Lucknow’s Eldeco Greens were also searched. The earlier searches were carried out in September 2017 and Justice Quddusi was arrested along with his alleged friend, Pandey, Saraswat and Agarwala.

Both the judges are facing prosecution for allowing the Lucknow-based PIMS to admit students without having proper infrastructure and faculty in lieu of monetary gain. Justice Shukla, who is alleged to have extended the deadline for admissions in contravention of rules, is the prime accused in the case. Incriminating documents related to investment and financial transaction are said to have been recovered during the searches.

Action against Justice Shukla was delayed because in 1991, the Supreme Court had ruled that before filing a case against any sitting judge of a High Court, the investigating agency must show convincing evidence to the chief justice of India (CJI).

Justice Ranjan Gogoi, who retired as the CJI in November, gave permission for Justice Shukla’s prosecution about four months back, making it the first such case in the country in nearly three decades.

As is the rule in the case of High Court judges, earlier a three-judge in-house inquiry committee was formed by then CJI Dipak Misra to investigate the charges against Justice Shukla following a complaint of judicial misconduct from Raghvendra Singh, UP’s advocate-general.

The committee included Justice Indira Banerjee, the then chief justice of Madras High Court; Justice SK Agnihotri, the chief justice of Sikkim High Court; and Justice PK Jaiswal of the Madhya Pradesh High Court.

In January 2018, this panel found that the irregularities committed by Justice Shukla were serious enough to warrant his prosecution. Accordingly, Justice Misra wrote to the president seeking his removal.

He later asked Justice Shukla, who is due to retire in July 2020, to either resign or seek voluntary retirement. Justice Shukla refused to oblige. The CJI then asked the chief justice of the Allahabad High Court not to assign any judicial work to him. Justice Shukla then proceeded on long leave.

The case gathered momentum in May 2019 when CJI Gogoi turned down Justice Shukla’s request for reallocation of judicial work to him. In June, Justice Gogoi wrote to the prime minister for starting parliamentary proceedings for Justice Shukla’s removal.

Meanwhile, BP Yadav, a retired engineer, started his medical college in 2016. A website describing it as one of UP’s best colleges can still be found on Google. In the same year, the Medical Council of India (MCI) barred PIMS, along with 45 other medical colleges, from admitting students to its MBBS programme.

In 2017, the health ministry also banned PIMS from admitting students. As PIMS had already admitted 61 students by then, Yadav filed a writ petition in the Supreme Court challenging the MCI ban. He was allegedly assured by some middlemen that they would be able to get the Supreme Court order changed.

Justice Quddusi reportedly succumbed to the bait and promised to bail out not just PIMS but a few other medical colleges as well. He is said to have roped in Pandey and Agarwala. Agarwala is alleged to have claimed that he enjoyed close contacts with influential people and would be able to help. Subsequently, Yadav and others conspired to withdraw the PIMS petition.

About Shukla, the CBI said in its FIR: “…Shri Narayan Shukla…abused his official position and entered into a criminal conspiracy and obtained illegal gratification in order to obtain pecuniary advantage for BP Yadav and Palash Yadav of Prasad Education Trust.”

Unravelling the conspiracy, the probe agency’s FIR said that after withdrawing the petition filed in the Supreme Court, Yadav filed another writ petition in the Allahabad High Court on August 24, 2017. It was heard by a division bench, which included Justice Shukla, and an order favouring the petitioner and overruling the apex court ban was passed.

The FIR stated: “Justice Quddusi and BP Yadav of Prasad Trust met Justice Shri Narayan Shukla at his Lucknow residence on the morning of August 25, 2017 and passed on the illegal gratification.”

The MCI challenged Justice Shukla’s order in the Supreme Court. A bench comprising the then chief justice of India and two other judges disposed of the High Court petition as the apex court was still hearing the matter.

After this setback, the CBI FIR said, Yadav asked Justice Quddusi to help him get the bribe money back. He also roped in Delhi-based Pandey for the job.

The CBI is said to have recovered about Rs 2 crore of the bribe money. Of this, Rs 1 crore was seized from Agarwala’s premises soon after he got the money from the hawala operator in Delhi’s Chandni Chowk. Another Rs 90 lakh was recovered later.

The case gained traction as it singed the higher echelons of the judiciary after the Prasad Education Trust challenged the government’s ban on admissions. In August 2017, a bench headed by CJI Misra ordered the central government to review its order debarring medical colleges which were found to have sub-standard facilities.

The government gave an opportunity to Prasad Institute to present its case but refused to revoke its order till 2018-19. It also asked the MCI to cash its bank guarantee of Rs 2 crore.

What makes this case intriguing is that two Supreme Court luminaries—CJI Misra and Justice J Chelameswar—took opposing stands on the setting up of a Constitution bench in this matter. On behalf of the Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms, a petition was filed by social activist Kamini Jaiswal seeking a probe by a special investigation team (SIT) headed by a retired chief justice into this matter.

Jaiswal argued in the petition that an SIT probe was needed as the case pertained to corruption in the higher judiciary. Justice Chelameswar then admitted the petition and ordered the setting up of a Constitution bench comprising the five most senior judges.

The petitioners also sought that CJI Misra should not be on the bench as he was part of an earlier bench which dealt with the Prasad Education Trust case. Justice Chelameswar left this point to the Constitution bench to decide.

Reportedly, just as he was about to pass an order, Justice Misra listed the matter in another court.

Citing Article 145 (3), Justice Chelameswar observed that a Constitution bench without the CJI was competent to hear the plea for a SIT probe, even though as per law and practice, it is the administrative function of the CJI to set up a Constitution bench. CJI Dipak Misra formed a seven-judge bench to decide the order passed by Justice Chelameswar’s bench. Two of the judges recused themselves from the bench and the remaining judges annulled Justice Chelameswar’s order.

With the CBI now lodging an FIR against Justice Shukla, the investigation, one hopes, will expose the rot in the higher judiciary.

Lead pic: Justice SN Shukla (left) and Justice IM Quddusi are facing prosecution for allowing Prasad Institute of Medical Sciences to admit students, violating rules for monetary gain

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