“This is quite unfair,” Sibal, appearing for the Chhattisgarh government, said responding to the law officer’s remarks.
The central anti-money laundering agency had moved the top court seeking transfer of a PMLA case related to the ‘Nagrik Apurti Nigam’ (NAN) or the Public Distribution System (PDS) scam outside the state. Few senior state bureaucrats are also accused in the case.
When Sibal was mentioning the case for listing before an appropriate bench, the solicitor general intervened saying, “First of all, I cannot choose the bench. Or I cannot avoid the bench. I am saying this with some degree of seriousness…”
The plea of ED was earlier delisted from the cause list by a bench comprising then CJI U U Lalit, since retired, and justices Ajay Rastogi and S Ravindra Bhat due to the paucity of time with the then CJI.
The matter was then posted before a bench comprising justices M R Shah and Hima Kohli.
The Chhattisgarh government had told the bench headed by Justice Shah not to proceed with the matter as it needed to be heard by a three-judge bench and then it came to be mentioned before the CJI’s bench by Sibal.
“I have only this forum. I have no other forum. Even if it is not listed in Court number 5 (before a bench headed by Justice Shah). I have no difficulty. My worry is larger. This is happening too frequently. If one order is not to the liking in a political matter, you gather NGOs. Speeches are made to malign the entire institution saying I don’t trust the institution. One wrong order, articles are written,” the law officer said.
At the outset, the CJI told Sibal that he has already passed orders on Thursday assigning the matter to the bench presided over by Justice Rastogi.
“I just followed an objective criteria, to assign (the case) to the next senior most judge available,” the CJI said, adding that the matter would be assigned to a bench headed by Justice Rastogi.
The bench said that if the matter was to be listed before a bench including the CJI, Justice Rastogi and Justice Bhat then sitting of three benches will be disturbed as they are part of separate benches.
“If it was listed by the former Chief Justice before Court No.5 then the matter will be listed there.. If there is no order (to this effect) then, my order will stand,” he said, adding that the matter will be heard by the senior most judge available in the court.
The CJI told the solicitor general that there was one “good practice” which is that when a senior judge retires, the matter goes to the next available senior judge of the bench.
“I have absolutely no issue. I started by saying, I can’t choose a bench or avoid a bench,” SG said.
“Some benches will be maligned,” SG said.
“Justice Hima Kohli was on that bench. Did we malign? We just said hold it over,” Sibal retorted.
Earlier hearings in the case had created a flutter when the ED had referred to the WhatsApp chat of an alleged close aide to the chief minister to say that a judge had met the CM two days before bail was granted to some of the accused in the NAN scam case.
Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel never met any high court judge, the Chhattisgarh government had replied.
“We took instructions. The chief minister never met any high court judge,” Sibal had told the court.
Alleging “collusion” between the accused and “highly placed persons”, the ED had told the bench that 72 out 170 witnesses have turned hostile. It is impossible to have a free and fair trial in the case if it is held in the state, the anti-money laundering agency had said.
Besides seeking transfer of the PMLA case outside Chhattisgarh, the ED has sought cancellation of anticipatory bail granted to some high-profile accused in the money laundering case.
It had recently submitted a sealed cover report containing some objectionable WhatsApp messages, indicating the alleged involvement of the constitutional functionaries, to the bench.
The ED had alleged that some high constitutional functionaries of the state along with members of the SIT were “weakening” the case with the connivance of the accused, which included two senior IAS officers.
Prior to this, the Chhattisgarh High Court had granted anticipatory bail to IAS officers Anil Tuteja and Alok Shukla in the money laundering case related to the Chhattisgarh Civil Supply Corporation scam.
In 2019, the ED had lodged an Enforcement Case Information Report (ECIR) under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, which was based on the FIR and charge sheet filed by the Chhattisgarh Police’s economic offences wing (EOW) and the anti-corruption bureau (ACB) in the civil supply scam.
The alleged scam came to light in February 2015, when a BJP government under Raman Singh was at the helm.
The ACB conducted raids on the offices of NAN, the agency entrusted with the task of effective functioning of the Public Distribution System (PDS), and seized unaccounted cash totalling Rs 3.64 crore.
The FIR alleged wide-scale corrupt practices in the procurement and transportation of rice and other food grains which involved officials and others related to the state Civil Supplies Corporation, Raipur.
The central probe agency has alleged that the accused officers “time and again” evaded the proceedings established by law and have been successfully able to thwart an impartial investigation and trial due to their political clout. PTI SJK ZMN