Justice-for-sale sting


  • Letters
  • Monday, 02 Feb 2004

India Diary with Coomil Kapoor

”PRESIDENT, Chief Justice arrest warrants leave Supreme Court aghast.” “Sting shows justice is on sale; SC shocked as magistrate issues warrant against Kalam for Rs40,000.” 

Those screaming banner headlines in newspapers last week yet again focused on the hydra-headed monster called corruption, this time in the hallowed precincts of the Indian judiciary. 

An intrepid television journalist master-minded the sting operation in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, following reports that some businessmen in the city were freely abusing the judicial system to harass their business rivals by filing false complaints and procuring arrest warrants against them after bribing concerned authorities. 

Posing as a Delhi-based businessman, Vijay Shekhar, the TV journalist in question, approached three local lawyers, including the president of the Ahmedabad Criminal Court Bar Association, Harish Bhawniwala, and lodged a complaint about alleged cheating and fraud against the President of India, the Chief Justice Khare, the Supreme Court judge, Justice B.P. Singh, and senior Supreme Court counsel R.K. Jain. 

However, instead of mentioning their official designations, the complainant merely listed their official addresses in the capital. 

For instance, though the name of the president was correctly mentioned as Abdul Pakir Jainulabidil – his last name, Kalam, was omitted – the petition did not reveal he was head of state.  

Instead, his postal address, 1 Raisina Hills, New Delhi, was correctly given. 

President Kalam

In the case of the other dignitaries too a similar ploy was employed. The petitioner's advocates took Rs40,000 (RM3,280) from him and were able to procure the bailable warrants against all the four accused named in the complaint. 

That the petitioner had quietly videotaped the entire process of lodging the complaint and handing over Rs40,000 to his advocates for procuring the bailable warrants against the high dignitaries became public when the 24-hour news TV channel he was working for showed the entire footage prominently during peak viewing hours.  

Further, to drive home the point of judicial corruption, the petitioner approached the Supreme Court to personally hand over the entire footage of his sting operation. 

A visibly angry Chief Justice Khare, taking a stern note of the shocking incident, wondered aloud in open court, “What is happening in Gujarat? By giving Rs40,000 you can get a judicial order? If this is the stare of affairs, only God knows what will happen to the country.”  

He ordered the Registrar-General of the Gujarat High Court to seize and produce before it the very next day all records pertaining to the case in the Ahmedabad court which had led to the issue of bailable warrants against him and three other high dignitaries, including a brother judge of the Supreme Court. 

A day later, all 28 judges of the Gujarat High Court met to take stock of the situation and decided to suspend metropolitan magistrate M.S. Brahmbhatt, who had issued the said warrants against the President of India, the SC Chief Justice and two others. 

Also, following the orders of the Supreme Court, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) registered a case against the three Ahmedabad lawyers who had struck the deal with the TV journalist for securing the arrest warrants against the high dignitaries for Rs40,000.  

The CBI had registered a case of criminal conspiracy to bribe a functionary of the state. 

On Thursday, as word of the suspension of the metropolitan magistrate spread, angry lawyers in Ahmedabad assaulted television news cameramen and broke their equipment.  

“They have maligned the image of the court and we will ensure they never enter the premises,” the protesting lawyers said.  

They argued that their colleagues had been set up by the TV channel and that the magistrate had been needlessly dragged into the controversy in order for the channel to improve its viewership ratings. 

Meanwhile, the petitioner's advocate, Bhawaniwala, offered his side of the story. 

He said that two other advocates hired by the TV journalist approached him with a complaint and “introduced to me the complainant who claimed to be a local businessman who had been cheated by some unknown traders of Delhi who had taken the money but had failed to supply the promised goods. However, nowhere did they tell me that the accused were the President of India and the Chief Justice of India.” 

If the justice-for-sale sting operation did not make the kind of waves it was expected to by the TV channel that master-minded it, it may be because stories about corruption no longer cause a ripple in a country where corruption has become rampant.  

From the lowly peon in a remote courthouse to high judicial personages, there are reports galore of judicial corruption as there are of administrative, political and even academic corruption and wrongdoing.  

Truly, Indians seemed to have internalised corruption to such an extent that it had now become a part of their everyday life. 

A few years ago, in a similar incident, a court in a sub-divisional town in Gujarat issued a non-bailable warrant of arrest against the then Chief Justice of India.  

Despite the public outcry at the time, there was no improvement in the quality and conduct of the lower judiciary.  

Why, even the higher judiciary often behaves in a manner, which leaves much to be desired.  

Early last year, to cite but only a lone instance, a group of Karnataka High Court judges, no less, were caught cavorting with semi-naked women, including a woman advocate, in a suburban guesthouse-cum-club, but no harm visited their lordships and the matter was quietly hushed up. 

Most shockingly, the newspapers which reported their scandalous doings were slapped with contempt of court notices for, hold your breath, having lowered the majesty of justice. 

Observers were unanimous that unless the judiciary's power of contempt is clearly defined, judges will continue to be unaccountable. 

Given that there are rotten eggs in all walks of society, the present dispensation under which even truth is no defence in a contempt of court case is highly weighted in favour of errant judges.  

The reason why the executive and the legislature have failed to curb the judiciary's unbridled power of contempt probably lay in their own low standing in the public vis a vis the latter.  

But the way things are moving, time is not far when ordinary people will lose all faith in the judiciary as well. 

Issuing of arrest warrants against the President of India and the Chief Justice of India was not an act meant to raise the stature of the judiciary in the public eye, was it?  

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