Kalikho Pul’s Suicide Note Scandal and the Supreme Court
On Tuesday, 11 February, Shubanso Pul, son of former Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Kalikho Pul, was found dead in his apartment in Brighton in the United Kingdom in “suspicious circumstances”.
Pul, a Congress rebel who became chief minister of the northeastern state on 19 February 2016, was only in power till July 2016 before he was forced to step down thanks to a Supreme Court verdict.
When he committed suicide a month later, aged 47, he left behind a 60-page note which contained some explosive revelations, and led to a major controversy at the highest court in the country.
What Did Kalikho Pul’s ‘Suicide Note’ Say?
Kalikho Pul’s note, written in Hindi, alleged that there was serious corruption at the highest levels of the Indian judiciary, and that favourable judgments could be ‘bought’ by paying large bribes.
As an example of this, Pul pointed to the decision of the apex court dated 13 July 2016 (with the leading judgment by former CJI JS Khehar) that unseated him and restored the Congress government in the state of Nabam Tuki, whom he had ousted with the help of the BJP and other rebel MLAs.
On page 12 of the note, Pul alleged:
Later in the note he wrote that he “lost faith in the courts” after this verdict, as he had always known that MLAs of Arunachal Pradesh and the Congress could be bought, but he had never thought this would be the case for judges of the Supreme Court. He went on to say on page 38:
According to Pul, the attempts to solicit bribes came from the very top – Justice Khehar’s younger son allegedly contracted his associates and asked for Rs 49 crore, while the brother of Justice Dipak Misra (who would succeed Khehar as CJI) asked him for Rs 37 crore. No evidence or documents were attached for these claims with the note, and in fact, Justice Khehar has no son by the name provided in the note.
The day before the judgment was to be delivered, he claimed he was told that if he paid an advance of Rs 9 crore, the judgment would be delayed by a month and he could pay the remaining amount after the judgment was delivered in his favour.
Pul even alleged that after the judgment was delivered, one Ram Avtar Sharma contacted him and said he could get the judgment changed, for a fee of Rs 31 crore.
But the shocking allegations didn’t end with Pul’s own case. He also claimed that there had been several instances of corruption involving judges and politicians that he was aware of and had even, in some cases, been party to. These included claims that:
- Justice HL Dattu was allegedly paid Rs 28 crore in 2012 to stay an order by the Gauhati High Court ordering an inquiry against Tuki over a corruption case.
- Justice Altamas Kabir’s relative allegedly asked for money regarding a PDS scam case involving some Arunachal contractors. The judgment eventually went in favour of the contractors, despite strong objections from the Centre and the Food Corporation of India.
- In 2008, Pul claimed that he followed the directions of former CM Dorjee Khandu and paid Rs 37 crore to the Congress treasurer. In 2009, again at Khandu’s say so, he claimed to have provided money to former President Pranab Mukherjee after he, as Union Finance Minister, cleared and advance loan of Rs 200 crore to Arunachal Pradesh.
It should be noted that no evidence was referred to in the note for any of these transactions.
What Happened After the Note Became Public?
It took several months for the note to become public. Rumours initially floated about the note, but it was only after reports from The Quint and The Wire, which published redacted segments of the note amid silence from the national media houses, that the allegations made in the note became public in February 2017.
In the weeks that followed, Dangwimsai Pul, Kalikho Pul’s eldest wife (and the mother of the now deceased Shubanso) gave a press conference in which she asked for a CBI probe into the allegations in the note. She wrote a letter to Justices Jasti Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi and MB Lokur asking them to order an FIR for a probe into the senior functionaries named in Pul’s note.
This lacuna in the law has continued to be a problem, even when it came to the sexual harassment allegations against former CJI Ranjan Gogoi.
This letter was originally sent to the ‘administrative side’ of the court, where it would be decided on an administrative process rather than on the ‘judicial side’, ie as a case before the court. This could have meant the letter would have been forwarded to the next senior judge not mentioned in the note (Justice Chelameswar) by the registry, following a Supreme Court decision in the K Veeraswami case, which said administrative permission for an investigation into criminal proceedings could be given in a case where the CJI themself is named, by the next senior judge.
However, the letter was surprisingly converted into a “letter petition” – a way in which PILs can be instituted at the top court – and then listed before a bench of Justices Adarsh Goel and UU Lalit. This meant the case had been transferred to the ‘judicial side’, where assignment of cases rests with the sitting Chief Justice alone as ‘Master of the Roster’.
This development was criticised by senior advocate Dushyant Dave and others among the bar at the time, and as Alok Prasanna Kumar explained on The Quint here, there were further missteps in the way the case was handled by the court and to some extent by petitioners who took up the case.
The net result was that Dangwimsai Pul eventually withdrew the letter petition after a great deal of confusion. The case was closed, no investigation was conducted, and we never learnt whether there was any substance to his disturbing allegations.
The whole situation was best summed up by Kumar in his piece for The Quint, where he wrote:
“The public is no wiser about the truth or otherwise of Pul’s allegations, and the Supreme Court has not helped itself with the bumbling, incompetent way it handled the matter. All the same, the credibility of the institution has been damaged and the Supreme Court has no one but itself to blame.”
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