Former Punjab minister and Congress leader Navjot Singh Sidhu, who is currently in Patiala jail after he was sentenced by the Supreme Court in a 34-year-old case of road rage, has refused to appear as a witness in a harassment case filed against his party colleague and former minister Bharat Bhushan Ashu.
A Ludhiana court has, however, rejected Sidhu’s plea to be allowed not to appear — in an order, the court said: “If Sidhu can visit PGI (Chandigarh) for his treatment without any Z-plus security, then he can also appear as a witness in the court.” The next date of hearing is on Monday, September 26.
Ashu too is in Patiala jail in connection with a corruption case. What is the case against Ashu, why has Sidhu been called to the witness stand, and why has he refused?
Case against Ashu
The case against the former MLA from Ludhiana West was filed in a Ludhiana court by a Punjab Police DSP named Balwinder Singh Sekhon in January 2020, alleging harassment and criminal intimidation. Sekhon was the inquiry officer in the alleged change of land use (CLU) scam of Ludhiana. The inquiry was ordered by Sidhu when he was Punjab local bodies minister in 2018 in the government of Chief Minister Capt. Amarinder Singh.
Sekhon, a PPS officer, was dismissed from service in August 2021. Capt. Amarinder, who was forced to resign as chief minister by the Congress leadership in September 2021, joined the BJP last week.
The inquiry began in July 2018, and its report was submitted to Sidhu’s office in February 2019. According to Sekhon, the inquiry indicted Ashu, who was then a state minister, along with a Congress leader named Kamaljit Karwal, and some officials of Ludhiana Municipal Corporation. They were accused of helping a private builder get a CLU certificate on the basis of forged documents for a residential flats project named Grand Manor Homes worth over Rs 70 crore.
Sekhon alleged that Ashu had called and threatened him during the inquiry, tried to use his political influence to derail the probe, and asked him not to prepare an adverse report. According to Sekhon, when he refused, Ashu allegedly threatened him with dire consequences over the phone. Audio recordings of purported conversations between Ashu and Sekhon were circulated, in which the former was purportedly heard threatening the officer.
Sekhon was suspended and then dismissed after Ashu complained that the officer had sent him “abusive text messages”. Sekhon moved court against Ashu in January 2020, seeking an FIR against him under IPC Sections 353 (assault or criminal force to deter public servant from discharge of duty), 186 (obstructing public servant in discharge of public functions), and 506 (criminal intimidation).
This is the case in which Sidhu has now been summoned as a witness.
The “missing” case file
The original file of the CLU inquiry report submitted by Sekhon to Sidhu’s office, has gone “missing” from the department of local bodies, the Ludhiana trial court has been informed. According to statements of local bodies officials recorded by the court, “the file was sent to the office of the minister on 10-4-2019” but “was never received back”.
In his statement recorded in court on March 7, 2022, A Venu Prasad, then Punjab principal secretary, local government, said: “It is correct that an inquiry was marked by the local bodies minister to complainant Balwinder Singh Sekhon when he was on deputation with Municipal Corporation, Ludhiana… DSP had submitted that report to Advisor, Local Bodies Minister. In this regard, local government minister had passed an order for necessary action… The file was marked to Special Secretary, local government and also to the minister with a note… The original file of inquiry was sent to local government minister through me on 10.04.2019… It is correct that this file was never received back..”
Sidhu was summoned as a witness after Sekhon told the court that he has a photocopy of the inquiry report, and Sidhu must now prove its authenticity. Sekhon pleaded that Sidhu should be summoned because it was he who had entrusted him (Sekhon) with the inquiry, and the file of the report “was never received back” from his office.
“The file is a crucial evidence which cannot be proved in the absence of the witness…and to take the matter to its logical end, Sidhu must be summoned,” counsel for Sekhon told the court.
Navjot Singh Sidhu’s refusal
After the Patiala central jail informed the court that Sidhu had “refused” to appear as a witness, the court issued bailable warrants against the jail superintendent for failing to produce Sidhu in court.
In two applications submitted through his counsel, Sidhu said he should not be summoned, because of “security reasons” and “threat to his life”. He also submitted that he cannot be summoned to prove the authenticity of a file when he is no longer a minister or related to the Punjab government in any manner or official capacity. He submitted that “no FIR was ever lodged regarding the missing file” but if the file was indeed missing, then “legal proceedings should be initiated against the complainant (Sekhon) for possessing a photocopy of an official file”. A photocopy is not “admissible evidence”, he said.
The court, however, rejected both his applications, and ordered that “his (Sidhu’s) presence was necessary in order to view the matter from a correct perspective”, and that it was the responsibility of Patiala Police to provide necessary security while he is brought to the court in case there is indeed a threat to his life.
Ironically, Sidhu, in response to questions put to him in Vidhan Sabha by then Opposition AAP and SAD, had declared, “Mantri ho ya santri, sabko thokunga… (Be it a minister or anyone else, I won’t spare any one).”
Fresh plea, dismissed again
Sidhu moved a revision petition in the sessions court challenging the rejection of his two earlier applications, and pleaded that he should not be called, or that his statement be recorded via video-conferencing. The court has dismissed this petition, in which Sidhu had again pleaded that he “apprehends an attack on himself” and “threat to his life from several sides”, and that he anyway “cannot prove the photocopy of a file which is reportedly lost”.
The court said on September 19 that “security threat argument is devoid of any merit because if he can visit PGI for his treatment without any Z+ security cover, then he can also appear in court…”
Also, the court said, “…In such circumstances when the entire original inquiry file had been destroyed and reconstructed thereafter, the evidence of the revisionist who was the then local bodies minister with Government of Punjab and who had entrusted the inquiry to the complainant and had allegedly received the inquiry report, is a necessary witness to prove the documents pertaining to said inquiry.