The Madras High Court on Tuesday dismissed an appeal by former union minister P Chidambaram’s wife Nalini against a single judge’s order rejecting her plea challenging the Enforcement Directorate (ED) summons in the Saradha chit fund scam case.
Section 50 (2) of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) gave sufficient ammunition to an authority to summon any person whose attendance was considered necessary for the investigation, a bench of justices M M Sundresh and Anand Venkatesh said. It also rejected the appellant’s contention that women cannot be called for investigation out of their place of residence under the CrPC Section 160, saying she was not entitled to invoke the section.
In her appeal, Nalini, a senior lawyer, has challenged the April 24 order of Justice S M Subramaniam rejecting her petition against the ED’s summons, asking her to appear as a witness in its money laundering probe in the Saradha chit fund scam case. The bench said the special enactment specifically deals with the power, authority and procedure for issuance of summons under Section 50 of the PMLA and therefore, there was no requirement to read the provision to Section 160 of the CrPC into Section 50 of the act.
Referring to a judgment of the Gujarat High Court, it said in as much as there was no conflict between Section 52 of the PMLA and Section 160 of the CrpC, it was not mandatory in all the cases that a woman shall never be called whatever be her involvement and status. Thus, it was for the assistant director of the Enforcement Directorate to exercise power in a given case of the PMLA either to call a person or an authorized agent.
Since a definition of the word person would include a woman, it is certainly open to the authority to take a call either to summon her physically or otherwise through an agent. Besides, she did not choose to challenge the summons earlier and had rightly appeared through her authorized agent. Issues have been raised only when the assistant director, ED, Kolkata, had asked her to appear in person.
The impugned notice was issued on finding certain new facts and contradiction in the statements given, which could not be satisfactorily explained by the authorized agent. Also, it noted that Nalini was rendering a professional service (as a lawyer) by traveling extensively throughout the country. While doing so, the question of gender did not stand in any way. However, for appearing before an authority, which is mandated by law, she seeks protective discrimination as a woman, the judges said.
“A legal profession stands apart on its own. In the discharge of a professional duty, there is no difference between a man and woman. The summons was issued to the appellant in her discharge and capacity as a professional and not otherwise,” the order said. Holding that at this stage the court was unable to see any demon in the summons issued, the bench said there was no need to speculate. The court gave liberty to the ED to issue fresh summons to Nalini Chidambaram requiring her appearance in person.
The ED had issued the first summons on September 7, 2016, asking Nalini to appear before it in its Kolkata office. It subsequently issued a fresh summons after the single judge’s order. She was allegedly paid a legal fee of Rs 1 crore by the Saradha group for her appearances in court and the Company Law Board over a television channel purchase deal. She had moved the high court challenging the summons on the ground that women cannot be called for investigation out of their place of residence under the CrPC section 160.
But, Justice Subramaniam had rejected her contention, saying such exemptions were not mandatory and are subject to facts and circumstances of a case, following which she filed the appeal.
In the appeal, she contended that if the trend of summoning and calling advocates who have been engaged by their clients for rendering professional services was not nipped in the bud, it may lead to “disastrous consequences”.