The chief minister of Andhra Pradesh, Jagan Mohan Reddy, in a letter to the Chief Justice of India (CJI) on October 6, has made serious allegations of interference in the course of administration of justice by Justice N V Ramana, the senior-most judge after the CJI and the next in line for the post. Justice Ramana, according to Reddy, is close to the former CM of Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu, and has been influencing the sittings of the high court judges of Andhra Pradesh — including the allocation of cases important to the Telugu Desam Party — to a few chosen judges. He has referred to questionable land deals by Naidu in Amaravati before it was declared the site for the new capital of the state and has also alluded to the allotment of land to the two daughters of Justice Ramana. On October 10, the principal advisor to the CM released the aforesaid letter to the media. As a result, what was between the chief minister and the CJI has come into public domain. Although the CJI has so far not reacted, some state bar associations have passed resolutions against Reddy, describing his letter as a blatant attempt to tarnish the fair name of Justice Ramana, and an attempt to overawe the judiciary.
The Supreme Court Bar Association has also passed a resolution condemning Reddy’s action in placing the letter in the public domain. It has stated that such actions by constitutional functionaries are opposed to conventions and have a serious impact on the independence of the judiciary. However, the resolution by the SC Bar is not unanimous, as its president Dushyant Dave has not endorsed it. Dave is reported to have expressed the view that so far no one knows about the truthfulness or otherwise of the allegations, and that truth will emerge only once there is an enquiry into the allegations. Till then, according to Dave, any resolution is premature and would tantamount to pre-empting the enquiry. He goes on to say that if after the enquiry the allegations are found to be false, the SC must initiate contempt proceedings against Reddy.
Last month, a bench of the Supreme Court headed by Justice Ramana delivered a judgment in which he passed directions, including a request to the chief justices of the high courts to head special benches to immediately hear criminal cases against MPs and MLAs, which are pending for decades. It also directed that the hearings should proceed on a day-to-day basis.
It is being said in some circles that the Andhra CM, who is under a scanner with more than 30 cases of corruption pending against him, is irked by this judgment, and that his allegations are highly motivated. It is also being said that Justice Ramana has been caught in the crossfire between the present and the former chief ministers of the state, and the judiciary has been unnecessarily dragged into an unseemly controversy.
While the timing and the propriety of the CM releasing the letter to the press are certainly questionable, the letter cannot be swept under the carpet. Howsoever unwarranted the allegations may appear to be, it cannot be ignored that they have been made by one constitutional functionary against another. What is at stake is not only the prestige, independence and the reputation of the honourable judge, but also the high office of the chief minister of Andhra Pradesh. The truth must come out, howsoever bitter it may appear to be. It is often said that sunlight is the best disinfectant. Justice Ramana is reported to have said at a book launch function for Justice (Retd.) R Bhanumati that judges are self-restrained from speaking in their own defence, and, hence, they are being construed as soft targets. He may be right but in the current age, allegations do fly thick and fast, and the only way to clear the air is to subject oneself to an enquiry. Those who hold high constitutional offices, specially judges, should also be ready to bear the cross if the circumstances so demand. The ball is in the CJI’s court. It is for him to take a call whether to hold an in-house enquiry or to get the allegations examined through some retired judges of the Supreme Court or to hold no enquiry at all.
Recently, senior advocate and social activist Prashant Bhushan was held guilty of contempt of court over two tweets posted by him. In one, he had commented on the CJI riding a Harley Davidson motorbike without a helmet and a mask during lockdown, and in the other, he had stated that when history would be written about how democracy was destroyed without a formal emergency, the conduct of the last four CJIs would be particularly marked. The Supreme Court held that the tweets could shake the confidence of the people in the judiciary. If in the wisdom of the Supreme Court, the two tweets of Bhushan were so offensive that they merited conviction and punishment, what Reddy has said about Justice Ramana is far more serious and direct. If the allegations are found to be false, frivolous and motivated, they certainly would call for initiation of contempt proceedings against him. But then, there has to be a prima-facie enquiry first. Let no one get a feeling that when it comes to its own, the Supreme Court is reluctant to act, and let Bhushan also not get the feeling that he was a soft target.
This article first appeared in the print edition on October 26, 2020 under the title “Truth must come out”. The writer is a former judge of the Delhi High Court
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