Is the Government Doing a Volte Face on Corrupt Judges?

Protectionist attitude towards former CJI Balakrishnan betrays cowardice, or possibly something worse.

3 min read
A view of the Supreme Court of India. (Photo: Reuters)
  • Did an ex-Chief Justice of India accumulate benaami properties?
  • IT Deparment gives a clean chit, but why not a CBI probe?
  • Is the government afraid of judicial wrath?
  • The government’s U-turn on corrupt judges raises suspicion.

Has the drubbing the government received at the hands of the Supreme Court over the NJAC (National Judicial Appointments Commission) Bill pushed it into a state of timidity? Or, is it playing safe because there are too many skeletons in the closet?

If Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi’s submissions before the Supreme Court in former CJI KG Balakrishnan’s case are anything to go by, either of the above assumptions appear quite plausible.  Contesting NGO Common Cause’s plea for a CBI investigation into accusations of holding disproportionate assets and benami properties, Rohatgi urged the Supreme Court to not proceed any further.

Stating that a probe by the Income Tax Department showed that neither did Balakrishnan commit any wrongdoings, nor did he help his kin in amassing illegal wealth, Rohatgi contended that a CBI investigation was uncalled for, and the matter should be treated as closed. He also took the “floodgates” argument, contending that a CBI investigation would set a bad precedent and make judges vulnerable to a flurry of wild and motivated allegations.

The Case against KG Balakrishnan

In 2012, Common Cause, which works to promote and maintain integrity and accountability in public office, approached the Supreme Court with a PIL, alleging that it has enough evidence to show that Balakrishnan had abused his authority as CJI and covertly helped some of his family members in acquiring properties illegally. Common Cause contended that the properties were deliberately undervalued. It had also assailed Balakrishnan’s steady refusal to disclose his IT returns. 

In May 2012, the Supreme Court directed the competent authorities to conduct a probe into the allegations. However, in 2013, the Congress-led UPA government told the court that an investigation by the CBDT (Central Board of Direct Taxes) had disclosed no illegalities, and that it was against making a Presidential Reference for removing Balakrishnan from the post of NHRC (National Human Rights Commission) chairperson, to which he was appointed after his retirement.

Thus, the present government’s stance is only a continuance of that of its predecessor. However, because it had so vehemently called for stern action against corrupt judges, and during the NJAC hearings, launched a no-holds-barred attack against tainted members of the judiciary, this comes as a big surprise.

The Collegium and Corrupt Judges in the Past

In 2003, serious allegations of corruption were levelled at Shamit Mukherjee, who was then a sitting judge of the Delhi High Court. Allegedly, Mukherjee had shown undue favours to a real estate developer who was a party to a case he was hearing. And the favour was paid for by a Rs 300-crore bribe, as well as other “benefits” such as expensive wines and services of high-class escorts.

Facing immense pressure from the Bar and campaigners for judicial accountability, Mukherjee resigned. But that did not stop the Delhi High Court from directing a CBI investigation as well as his prosecution under the Prevention of Corruption Act.

Then in 2009 there was the case of Justice PD Dinakaran, who was accused of illegally grabbing government land while he was on the Bench of the Karnataka High Court. At that time, the judges of the Supreme Court had been quite lenient, letting him off with just a transfer to the Sikkim High Court. However, his elevation to the apex court was reconsidered, and finally declined by the then collegium.

In 2011, Dinakaran finally resigned when an enquiry held by a committee of two Supreme Court judges found that the allegations were not unfounded, and were on the verge of recommending his prosecution and impeachment.

On January 19 next year, the Supreme Court is due to take up Balakrishnan’s case again, and examine if any further action is required to be taken. Having faced a barrage of criticism over its NJAC judgement – for refusing to open up the judiciary to more scrutiny and accountability, the least the apex court can do is not to accept this government’s contentions, and direct appropriate action.

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