Why are we so frightened of the judiciary? Why don’t we want to know what happened in the mysterious Justice R.Reghupathi case? Did the Madras High Court judge receive a phone call from a union minister or not? Here is the strange story of a judge insisting in open court that he had been called up by a Union Minister requesting him to grant bail to two accused in a mark-sheet forgery case. A week later when the accusation by the judge has snowballed into a major controversy, Justice R. Reghupathi, son of a respected freedom fighter, withdraws his allegation.
Withdraws? Withdrawal of a charge as serious as this and, that too, against a Union Minister? Is such an act of submission expected of a proud High Court judge, sworn to the Constitution and under oath to be the fairest of them all? Yet, this happens. Long after the judge had removed himself from hearing the case, he woke up one fine morning to the revelation of a new and completely different truth – he hadn’t received any phone call at all.
By then, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley had gone on record saying that nobody was a king or a rajah (alluding to the much maligned Union Telecom Minister of Spectrum notoriety , A. Raja) that he enjoyed the right to bully the judiciary. A Raja’s name was publicly mentioned by AIADMK supremo, J.Jayalalitha. Her political emissary in Delhi, Maitreyan asserted as much in the Rajya Sabha. Newspapers reported that the Kalaignar (Karunanidhi) himself had demanded to know the whole truth from Raja.
Raja whom the Prime Minister never wanted as part of his Cabinet in the first place was ducking for cover. He sent word through his aides that he was being unfairly made the fall guy. He reiterated he hadn’t made that astonishing phone call. Subsequently, he overcame his initial reluctance and stepped out to tell the intrusive television channels he hadn’t dialled Justice R. Reghupathi’s number.
Why did then Justice Reghupathi say what he had said in full public view in the first place? Obviously, he was agitated. He was so furious that he wanted the secret out. He wanted the world to know that a Union Minister had dared to humiliate him. Then why did he withdraw his charge and retract despite the insult the retraction heaped upon him? Obviously, the powers-that-be in Chennai and Delhi wanted him to shut up. Reghupathi knew that his future was more secure if he kept his mouth shut and forgot about the strange affair of the telephone.
Interestingly, when he was interviewed by journalists in Delhi, Chief Justice of India, K.G.Balakrishnan said that it was up to Justice Reghupathi to reveal the minister’s same. Speaking to CNN-IBN, Justice Balakrishnan did not take any name but did denounce the minister who had made that call. There was strong disapproval in his voice. It seemed as though the highest judiciary in the country was seriously peeved.
Ninety six hours later, after the demand for the minister’s resignation had gathered volume, the Chief Justice of India said that the judge had never received any call. There appeared to be little further explanation. It was as though the perturbed judiciary had suddenly been lulled into quiet submission. Gone were the days of intense and healthy confrontation between the judiciary and the executive. Here lay the bruised and battered example of compliance and of surrender.
Justifying the retraction, the chief justice said that the fault was actually that of the advocate appearing on behalf of the accused. It was he who had brought out his mobile phone and had requested the judge to talk to the Union Miniser who was reportedly interested in the case. Chief Justice Balakrishnan argued that the politician had not actually spoken to the judge. So, the phone call had only been suggested. It didn’t actually happen.
The explanation raises two questions which haven’t been answered. How does a High Court judge fail to distinguish between an actual phone call and a mere insinuation or the suggestion of a phone call? The judge had given clear indication from day one that he had felt threatened or, at least, pushed. If the phone call hadn’t happened, he shouldn’t have lost his composure and raised the issue in open court. Secondly and more importantly, why doesn’t anybody suggest any strong action against the offending lawyer who handed over the mobile phone to the judge?
Karunanidhi’s blue-eyed boy and DMK’s Dalit face, A.Raja was all along suspected to be the one who had made that unconstitutional and irresponsible telephone call. He comes from the same Perambalur district from where the two accused, the third year MBBS student of a Pudducherry private medical college, S. Kiruba Sridhar and his doctor father, C Krishnamurthy also hailed. The father-son duo was involved in the mark-sheet forgery case and had sought anticipatory bail in Madras High Court. Raja’s aides admitted that the minister knew the family.
There is no way of denying that an effort was made to influence a verdict by somebody wielding enormous political clout. The judiciary possibly retraced its steps fearing a backlash from the political establishment. For those of us rooting for undiluted independence of the Indian judiciary, the Reghupathi episode is worse than a setback – it is hell of a compromise.