In a setback for RJD chief Lalu Prasad, the Supreme Court on Monday restored the conspiracy charges against him in cases related to the fodder scam. It also ruled that he would stand fresh trial in other cases linked to the alleged embezzlement of over Rs 900 crore in the scam when he was chief minister of Bihar.
Lalu has already been convicted in one case linked to the scam but the Jharkhand High Court had quashed conspiracy charges against him and other accused — former Bihar chief minister Jagannath Mishra and ex-bureaucrat Sajal Chakraborthy — in related cases on the ground that the offences listed arose from the same conspiracy.
While delivering its ruling, the High Court had applied Article 20(2) of the Constitution, which says that no person shall be prosecuted and punished for the same offence more than once.
On Monday, allowing the CBI’s appeal against the High Court ruling, an apex court division bench of Justices Arun Mishra and Amitava Roy said that although there was “one general conspiracy”, the “offences are distinct for different periods”.
“No doubt about it that the general conspiracy had been hatched as alleged for the period 1988 to 1996 but defalcations (misappropriation of funds) are from different treasuries for different financial years by exceeding the amount of each year which was allocated for the Animal Husbandry Department for each of the district…” the bench said.
“The amount involved is different, fake vouchers, fake allotment letters, fake supply orders had been prepared with the help of different sets of accused persons. Though there is one general conspiracy, offences are distinct for different periods,” it said.
“The Constitution bars double punishment for the same offence. The conviction for such offence does not bar for subsequent trial and conviction for another offence and it does not matter even if some ingredients of these two offences are common…,” the bench said.
“Each defalcation would constitute an independent offence. Thus, by no stretch, it can be held to be in violation of Article 20(2) of the Constitution or Section 300 of CrPC. Separate trials in such cases is the very intendment of law. There is no room to raise such a grievance…,” the bench said.
“The modus operandi being the same would not make it a single offence when the offences are separate. Commission of offence pursuant to a conspiracy has to be punished. If conspiracy is furthered into several distinct offences, there have to be separate trials,” it said.
“There may be a situation where in furtherance of general conspiracy, offences take place in various parts of India and several persons are killed at different times. Each trial has to be separately held and the accused to be punished separately for the offence committed in furtherance of conspiracy. In case there is only one trial for such conspiracy for separate offences, it would enable the accused person to go scotfree and commit number of offences which is not the intendment of law,” the bench said.
The apex court also expressed its disappointment over the Jharkhand High Court delivering a “contradictory” judgment in the matter of another accused R K Rana in the case. The bench wondered how the High Court, which had quashed proceedings against Lalu, Mishra and Chakraborthy on the ground that they had been convicted in one of the fodder scam cases refused to apply the same rule to Rana’s case.
“The court ought to have been careful while dealing with such matters and consistency is the hallmark of the court due to which people have faith in the system and it is not open to the court to take a different view in the same matter with reference to different accused persons in the same facts and same case,” the bench said.
“Such inconsistent decision-making ought to have been avoided at all costs so as to ensure credibility of the system. The impugned orders are palpably illegal, faulty and contrary to the basic principles of law… Interference had been made at the advanced stage of the case which was wholly unwarranted and uncalled for. Let now amends be made by expediting the trial without any further hindrance from any quarter,” it said.
The scam refers to 55 cases of alleged large-scale embezzlement of government treasury funds given to non-existent companies for purchase and supply of cattle fodder in Bihar in the 1990s. Lalu was chief minister of Bihar from 1990-1997. In October 2013, he was sentenced to five years in jail and a fine of Rs 25 lakh for his role in one case related to the scam by a CBI court.