New Delhi: A retired chief justice of the Meghalaya high court, Justice Uma Nath Singh, has courted yet another controversy. This time it is because the Nagaland government, in an unprecedented move, has petitioned the Supreme Court that his powers as the Lokayukta under the Nagaland Lokayukta Act be stripped as he had made “unjust and arbitrary” personal demands.
In January 2016, on the eve of his retirement, Singh courted controversy as the Meghalaya chief justice by asking the Centre to continue providing Z-category security to its chief justice and Y-category to other judges of the court even after their retirement, citing security threats. The order was jointly issued with Justice T.N. Kumar Singh in response to a petition filed by the registrar general of the high court. Justice T.N. Kumar Singh was also to retire soon.
Though the state government didn’t appeal against it, a private citizen did at the Supreme Court. Thereafter, the order was reportedly overturned.
Soon after this, the Arvind Kejriwal government announced that Justice Singh would be the chairman of a state human rights commission it was setting up then.
However, in February 2019, he was appointed the first Lokayukta of Nagaland. This fulfilled a longstanding demand of civil society groups like ACAUT (Against Corruption and Unabated Taxation) to address alleged rampant corruption within the state machinery.
However, on August 20, the Nagaland government sought a directive from the apex court against the ombudsman, citing “unjust and arbitrary” personal demands as the reason.
According to news reports, the Nagaland government told the court that Justice Singh sought permission to take up arbitration work in the Synery Ispat Pvt Ltd vs Barabara Elizabeth Simoes case in spite of rules that strictly prohibit a Lokayukta from taking up any other work than those mandated by his position under the Act.
State advocate-general K.N. Balagopal told the three-judge bench led by Chief Justice S.A. Bobde that Singh wrote a letter to the state government this May stating that he would work online from Delhi, and when he was informed personally that such a request couldn’t be accepted as it would need an amendment to the statute, he “engineered” a letter from the state chief secretary’s office to that effect without the incumbent’s knowledge on June 6.
“As the chief secretary withdrew the purported letter and ordered an inquiry as to how the permission letter came into existence, the Lokayukta wreaked vengeance by harassing ‘honest officers’ by issuing indiscriminate notices,” a Times of India report quoted Balagopal as informing the Supreme Court.
The report also said that the state government said that Justice Singh demanded that the Kohima commissioner of police be present at the airport to receive and see him off every time, besides seeking army deployment for his protection. Justice Singh, as the Lokayukta, gets Y-plus security and that would be against the protocol.
Balagopal also reportedly said that he demanded the chief minister’s old bungalow as his residence, and wanted his photograph to be displayed on government websites along with that of the governor and state chief minister.
According to a Bar and Bench report, Balagopal also told the court that he had asked the inspector general of police at Dimapur to buy two pairs of shoes and send them to his residence at Kohima. “The IGP was told to take pictures of the shoes and send them by WhatsApp for the Lokayukta’s approval,” the report quoted the advocate general as saying.
Prior to joining the Meghalaya high court, Justice Singh was a judge in the Allahabad high court. He was transferred to Allahabad from the Punjab and Haryana high court after repeated conflicts between him and the members of that High Court Bar Association. “The first episode was the unusual order passed by Justice Uma Nath wherein he had directed the Central Bureau of Investigation to send advocate Tahar Singh to mental asylum declaring him a lunatic. The bar had gone one an indefinite strike after the order,” an Indian Express report said in June 2009.
The report cited another incident, a verbal altercation, between Justice Singh and a Punjab high court lawyer after which the lawyer gave a written complaint to the president of the Bar Association, who in turn, had reported the matter to the chief justice.
The Nagaland advocate general, seeking an apex court directive to divest him of all powers, suggested handing it over to the Upa-Lokayukta.
The three-judge bench, comprising Justices A.S. Bopanna and V. Ramasubramanian aside from the CJI, asked Justice Singh to respond within two weeks.