For almost an hour Tuesday morning, CBI’s former interim Director M Nageswara Rao and Additional Legal Advisor S Bhasuran stood silently, heads bowed, in Court Hall 1. At the end of the hearing around 11.45 am, Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi told them “now go and sit in the corner till the court rises”.
Sentenced for contempt of court over disregarding the Supreme Court order against the transfer of the officer probing the Muzaffarpur shelter home abuse case, Rao and Bhasuran headed back to the visitor’s gallery. All eyes followed them as they took the two corner seats next to the main entrance.
“It’s my fault. I will pay the fine for him too,” Rao said of Bhasuran because the bench, comprising the CJI and Justices L Nageswara Rao and Sanjiv Khanna, had also slapped a penalty of Rs 1 lakh each. It did not accept their unconditional apology, pointing out that their affidavit to the court also sought to defend their action.
As the court rose for lunch around 1 pm, CBI officers and lawyers crowded around Rao and Bhasuran, some inquiring, others trying to shake hands, and still others, especially the Telugu-speaking lawyers, trying to strike conversation. Rao obliged all.
A lawyer walked in with what appeared to be energy-bars and Rao and Bhasuran had a quick bite. Another carried biscuits and namkeen, but Rao did not take them. At this point, the officer in charge of court security showed up and told the lawyer to remove the snacks, saying these were not allowed in court.
A CBI officer asked them if they needed any medicine. “Any medicine that you need to take, Sir?” he asked. Rao said, “No” and then turned to a lawyer and asked about two portraits in the Court Hall. “Harilal J Kania (1st Chief Justice of India) and Bijan Kumar Mukherjea (4th Chief Justice of India),” a journalist told him.
Inquiries for tea followed. Rao declined politely, saying “tea and everything else is prohibited, only water is allowed”. More water bottles arrived, but Rao returned them, saying he will have to go to the toilet if he has more water.
Another lawyer told him that industrialist Anil Ambani too was in the Supreme Court in connection with a contempt matter. “Civil or criminal,” Rao asked. “Civil,” the lawyer said. “So, it’s season of contempt,” Rao said.
Silence returned to the gallery as court proceedings resumed post lunch.
Around 3.30 pm, the duo moved to the front of the court on a word from Attorney General K K Venugopal who had just finished his submission in another matter.
Venugopal told the bench that the officers were really sorry and wanted to apologise. The CJI wasn’t impressed: “We said sit till the rising of the court. We are yet to rise. Do you want us to say till rising tomorrow?”.
At this, Venugopal said: “They thought your Lordships’ hearts would melt.” The CJI promptly replied: “We will not be able to discharge our functions effectively if our hearts start melting.” Turning to the officers, the CJI said “both of you are sentenced. Do you understand? Sit wherever you are supposed to sit.”
The court rose around 3.50 pm but the officers refused to leave without clear instructions from the bench. They finally left around 4.15 pm after the court master returned with instructions.
Before the sentencing, Venugopal tried his best to save the day for Rao and Bhasuran. He asked the court to take a sympathetic approach since “the catena of events would show that they were all a little muddle-headed, not very clear”.
The CJI was not convinced. “Would the heavens have fallen if the relieving order (of the officer transferred) was accepted one day later and Supreme Court taken into confidence?”. On the question of punishment, the bench said it could sentence Rao to jail up to 30 days.
“I don’t think any of us had any occasion to exercise our contempt powers, but there has to be a first occasion… Speaking for myself, I don’t think the dignity of the court should be maintained by contempt, but this is blatant,” the CJI said before delivering the sentence.