Nagpur: Chief Justice of India Sharad Arvind Bobde used to have a close relationship with the Shetkari Sanghatana, a farmers’ group whose current president Anil Ghanawat is on the Supreme Court-appointed committee to mediate between the government and farmers protesting against three new farm laws. Tens of thousands of farmers, especially from Punjab and Haryana, have been camping on the borders outside Delhi in protest for several weeks now, insisting that the government repeal the laws.
While there is nothing to suggest any kind of direct conflict of interest on the CJI’s part, the composition of the committee has raised questions about the basis on which the names were selected.
The farmers’ unions have refused to negotiate with the committee, alleging that all its members have been open supporters of the three contentious laws.
The Supreme Court had named Bhupinder Singh Mann, president of the Bhartiya Kisan Union, Anil Ghanawat, president of the Shetkari Sanghatana, Pramod Kumar Joshi, former director of the International Food Policy Research Institute in South Asia, and agriculture economist Ashok Gulati on this committee.
In the face of criticisms over the committee’s composition, CJI Bobde’s bench took the view that a person’s prior remarks or views on the farm laws couldn’t be factor for disqualification, a stand that lawyers say flies in the face of established common law conflict of interest principles.
“In my view , the chief justice’s constitution of the committee fails two elementary tests of conflict of interest,” says Jai Anant Dehadrai, a Supreme Court advocate. “The prior views of the members suggests both actual and apparent bias, and would ideally render them disqualified to serve on any committee involved in the determination of whether the laws are constitutional or not. It is surprising to me that the Chief Justice would permit such a thing. Perhaps he was unaware till much later.”
Mann stepped down in the face of allegations by farmers that the panel’s composition was rigged in favour of the laws but the others remain.
Bobde’s background as a lawyer
In the 1980s, Justice Bobde, as a young lawyer, was closely involved with the Sanghatana and was also friends with its founder Sharad Joshi, who often stayed in his house in Nagpur.
“Sometime between 1983 to 1986, the then ruling Congress government had slapped the National Security Act on some of our leaders including Sharad Joshi and Jivanrao Chandak after a protest. Our senior leaders were lodged in Nagpur jail. Ram Jethmalani came to Nagpur and appeared for our leaders in the high court and stayed at Sharad Bobde’s residence in Nagpur. Since then, the Bobde family got connected with the Shetkari Sanghatana. His (Sharad Bobde’s) father was also extremely sensitive towards the farmers’ cause, and he had filed a Public Interest Litigation over the issue of cotton farmers. I was party to that case,” Nagpur-based agriculture activist and former member of Sharad Joshi’s Shetkari Sanghatana Vijay Jawandhia told The Wire.
The Bobde family’s “inclination towards the Shetkari Sanghatana continued to grow after that,” he said. “When the Sanghatana began filing insolvency petitions, Ram Jethmalani helped us as a consultant, and Sharad Bobde provided all the help in the Vidarbha region. His residence in Nagpur had almost become home to Shetkari Sanghatana leaders then. He did not charge a single penny for this work. He worked with us almost like an activist,” says Jawandhia, who was president of the Maharashtra unit of the Sanghatana around 1986-87 and convenor and president of the All India Kisan Coordination Committee around 1982.
The current chief minister of Maharashtra, Uddhav Thackeray, and the former one, Devendra Fadnavis, had both remarked on CJI Bobde’s commitment to farmers while felicitating him on his ascension.
From 1993, the Sanghatana, which was an informal organisation with no constitution or formal members, began splitting into various factions. People like Jawandhia, Chandrakant Wankhede, Raju Shetty, Sadabhau Khot and Gajanan Ahmedabadkar walked out of the Sanghatana. Some of them formed their own groups and some like Jawandhia chose to remain independent.
Jawandhia had severe differences with Sharad Joshi over the introduction of free-market policies. Joshi was always pro-market and wanted to end the minimum support price; Ghanawat, who is on the Supreme Court Committee, continues to follow that policy, he says. Jawandhia left but still calls himself a member of the Shetkari Sanghatana and continues to work as an activist in the agricultural sector.
“We had organised a felicitation programme for V.P. Singh in Nagpur when he was the prime minister and this programme’s president was Sharad Bobde,” Jawandhia recollected. Prime Minister V.P. Singh had stayed in Nagpur that night and had dinner at the Bobde house.
“Sharad Joshi would stay with me whenever he used to visit Nagpur but I distanced myself from the Shetkari Sanghatana in 1993 when he supported the free market. After that, he would stay at Sharad Bobde’s house whenever he would visit Nagpur. Even I had personal relations with Mr Bobde. I can still call him my friend,” Jawandhia claimed.
When asked if he remembers any association between Sharad Bobde and Anil Ghanawat during those days, Jawandhia said that he knew Ghanawat only as a local worker of the Shetkari Sanghatana around 1993.
Bobde eventually ended his association with Sanghatana
A former office-bearer of Sharad Joshi’s other organisation Swatantra Bharat Paksha from Nagpur, who spoke to The Wire but requested anonymity, claimed that Bobde disassociated himself from the Shetkari Sanghatana when he became a judge.
“He never worked with Ghanawat,” he said, a point reiterated by Ghanawat himself.
“Sharad Joshi had close relationships with almost all prominent personalities in India,” Anil Ghanawat told The Wire. “I had no idea about it (Justice Bobde’s connection with the Shetkari Sanghatana). I got to know that there is a person named Sharad Bobde when he became the chief justice of India. I became a full-time member of the Shetkari Sanghatana in 1995. I had never heard his name and it was never discussed in our organisation as well and I don’t even have his phone number.”
Gajanan Ahmedabadkar, former vice-president of the Maharashtra unit of the Sanghatana, also confirmed Bobde’s active involvement with Sharad Joshi.
“It’s true that Sharad Bobde was associated with the Shetkari Sanghatana. His father was also close to the Sanghatana,” said Ahmedabadkar, who left the Shetkari Sanghatana in 2004 along with Raju Shetty to form the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana.
When asked if he remembers Ghanawat working along with Bobde, he said, “No. Anil Ghanawat emerged in the Sanghatana very late when all prominent people had left the Sanghatana. Bobde’s association ended when Sharad Joshi died and the Sanghatana became somewhat irrelevant. Sharad Bobde’s contribution was that he used to fight in the cases that were slapped on Shetakari Sanghatana’s activists. His role ended when Sanghatana lost its relevance.”
But Ghanawat’s inclusion raises eyebrows
However, Ahmedabadkar made it a point to note that Ghanawat found a place in the Supreme Court-appointed committee because he was in support of the three contentious farm laws and heads a farm group.
Jawandhia also says that he was “astounded” when this committee was formed and both the farmers’ representatives were open supporters of the free market.
“This committee can’t be pro-farmers. Why is P. Sainath not on this committee? Because this government cannot tolerate him. But again it’s all a guess. I think Ghanwat and the Shetkari Sanghatana’s stand on this entire issue is political opportunism. Sharad Joshi had drafted a National Agriculture Policy for V.P. Singh when he was the prime minister. Singh did not bother about it but Joshi published it on January 25, 1991, as an ‘official policy’ to push the point. This policy clearly recommended state interventions but the moment the Narasimha Rao government came to power, Joshi became a supporter of a free economy. What could be bigger political opportunism than this? It shows that his policy changed with the ruling party. Sharad Joshi was a bureaucrat before joining the farmers’ movement, and eventually, the bureaucrat in him got the better of the agriculture activist and it was a reason why the farmers’ movement got distracted,” Jawandhia added.
When asked if he sees a conflict of interest in the presence of Ghanawat in this committee and the CJI’s association with Ghanawat’s outfit in the past, Jawandhia said, “Sharad Bobde had taken a very good stand initially during the hearing of this case and had asked some tough questions to the government. I was relieved to hear his comments initially about keeping these laws in abeyance but now look at the members. I am puzzled as to why they appointed such people on this committee. I am not at all happy with this committee and the CJI could have done better. People with dissenting voices should have found a place on this committee. But I am giving him (CJI) the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the government was not ready to accept dissenters and that’s why such a committee was formed.”
A questionnaire was sent to the Chief Justice of India via the Supreme Court secretary general on his earlier association with the Shetkari Sanghatana but no response has come so far. The story will be updated once it is received.
Pavan Dahat is a Maharashtra-based freelance journalist. He has written for The Hindu, Huffington Post and Frontline.