A split verdict by the Punjab and Haryana High Court Thursday provided temporary relief to senior Congress leader Bhupinder Singh Hooda as the Haryana government was restrained from publishing the Dhingra Commission report on alleged irregularities in the grant of land-use licences during the rule of the former chief minister.
The division bench of Justices Ajay Kumar Mittal and Anupinder Singh Grewal also stayed any action on the Dhingra Commission findings due to procedural lapses by the panel in not providing Hooda a reasonable opportunity of hearing on the allegations against him.
The judges, however, upheld the government’s decision-making in constituting the Commission and said the “charge of malafide” by Hooda against the government and Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar had “not been brought home” or proven.
In view of the difference of opinion between the judges over the operative portion of the judgment, the matter was referred to the Chief Justice for appropriate orders.
The Dhingra Commission was formed in May 2015 to look into the grant of licences for development of commercial colonies in four villages in Gurgaon Sector 83, including the land deal between Robert Vadra’s Sky Light Hospitality and DLF Universal Ltd. The report was submitted to the government in August 2016. But due to the pendency of the litigation against it, the report had not been made public till date.
The two judges differed over the question of future of the Commission and its report after concluding that the Section 8B of Commissions of Inquiry Act, 1952 — the provision providing for the reasonable opportunity of hearing to a person likely to be prejudicially affected in the report — was not followed properly by the Commission when it asked Hooda to appear before it.
Justice Mittal held the report to be “non est” (does not exist) and ordered that it not be published. At the same time, he said the Commission was open “to proceed further from the stage when notice under Section 8B of the Act was required to be issued and submit fresh report in accordance with law”.
Justice Grewal did not agree with this part of the verdict and ruled: “As the tenure of the Commission has come to an end, it has submitted the report and ceased to exist, only a fresh Commission can be appointed under the Act. In such circumstances, it would be in the interest of justice if the respondent is granted liberty to appoint a Commission of Inquiry on the same subject matter.”
Hel also quashed the report saying it is “not sustainable” and “shall not be published as it cannot be read against the petitioner and no action on the basis thereof be taken against the petitioner”.
In a concurring decision in the 116-page judgment, the division bench said that “objective material” was available with the state government for appointment of Commission and there was “application of mind” in decision on the appointment and in setting out its terms of reference. Objection regarding subsequent change in terms of reference was also rejected by the bench.
“Where there are allegations regarding allotment of land and grant of change of land use during his (a Chief Minister’s) tenure, there cannot be any issue that it is not a definite matter of public importance. The cleanliness of public life in which the public should be vitally interested, must be a definite matter of public importance,” the division bench said.
On the question of malafide against Hooda, the division bench said, “Up to this stage, there is no question of legal proof of the allegations against the petitioner as in a court of law. The only question is: Do those allegations, if honestly believed, constitute a definite matter of public importance? We are unable to say that they do not.”
On the initial lack of approval from the Council of Minister regarding the decision to constitute the Commission of Inquiry, the bench said only reports of the Commission appointed in pursuance of the resolution passed by the state legislature are required to be placed before the Council.
“In the instant case, both the departments of General Administration and Administration of Justice were held by the Chief Minister and therefore, under the Business Rules read with the Schedules to the Allocation Rules, only the Chief Minister was empowered and competent to refer a matter and appoint Commission of Inquiry,” the bench said.
Both the judges, after perusing the report placed in a sealed cover, found that “it touches and opines on the conduct of the petitioner and affects the reputation thereof. In such circumstances, it was essential to have issued the notice under Section 8B of the Act which has not been done as the notice which was issued did not fulfill the conditions essentially required thereunder”.