New Delhi: The Indian constitution guarantees equality of citizens but it is nearly impossible for someone to file a legal complaint against a high court or Supreme Court judge. The only option an aggrieved person has, then, is to write letters. A lot of letters. And hope that they will be taken note of.
The woman who alleged sexual harassment and victimisation at the hands of Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi had to go to the media before she was able to trigger any process at all. Even then, she found no remedy. But as Arup Banerji of Allahabad has discovered, getting the system to act on a simple complaint of trespass and illegal possession of property when the accused person is a judge is not easy either.
In July, the Supreme Court collegium recommended the appointment of 16 permanent judges to the Allahabad high court. They initially were considering a list of 20 names, but left out four names saying that the decision on these were “deferred.”
The four who didn’t make the cut for elevation were Justices Rahul Chaturvedi, Irshad Ali, Neeraj Tiwari and Virendra Kumar-II. The collegium, headed by CJI Gogoi, does not disclose the reasons for its decisions.
But in the case of at least one of these judges, Justice Chaturvedi, his involvement in a property dispute over a bungalow he is occupying in Allahabad – allegedly illegally – may have cast a shadow over his nomination. Or so the owners of the property would like to believe.
The property is on Elgin Road, in the affluent Civil Lines area of Allahabad. The area is popular with government and court officials as it is close to the courts and other important offices. But property is in short supply here and expensive to own.
Elgin Road and the two Chaturvedis
Justice Rahul Chaturvedi practiced as an advocate in the Allahabad high court until he was appointed as an additional judge in the same court in September 2017. He is due to retire in 2024 at the age of 62.
Since 2017, and while serving as an additional judge in the Allahabad high court, Chaturvedi had his own home and office elsewhere in Allahabad and was assigned an official judge’s residence as well.
But a family living on Elgin Road has been alleging for years that Chaturvedi is illegally occupying their Civil Lines bungalow, on 14B, Elgin Road, since 2013. Rahul Chaturvedi came to occupy this property via another Chaturvedi, an elderly advocate with whom he shared his last name.
In 2011, an elderly lawyer in the Allahabad high court, one J.N. Chaturvedi, died. This man had apparently been living in this bungalow on Elgin Road since the 1970s. The house was apparently owned by an elderly doctor, Bibhu Das Banerji.
Both the senior Chaturvedi and the senior Banerji died in 2011 and 2012 respectively. Chaturvedi was apparently unmarried and didn’t leave behind any children. Banerji had two sons, Arup and Anup. Arup and his family now live in a house nearby, also on Elgin Road; the Banerjis own other houses in the area too. Anup Banerji is a lieutenant general in the Indian army and DG, Medical Services.
Sometime after J.N. Chaturvedi’s death, Arup Banerji says that Rahul Chaturvedi, who was then only an advocate in Allahabad, began frequenting the house on Elgin Road where the older Chaturvedi used to live. Soon the Banerjis realised that Rahul had set up what seemed to be his practice there.
“He is a trespasser. How can he occupy this house? He is not giving any documents to prove his occupation of the house. Our complaints are not being entertained,” says Arup, a doctor and son of Bibhu Das Banerji. He says that he and his siblings are now the legal heirs of the 14B, Elgin Road bungalow.
The Wire has sent detailed queries on these allegations to Justice Chaturvedi and to the registrar general of the Allahabad high court, but has not received any reply. Whether his defence is adverse possession or some other claim is not known, though as a judge one presumes he has a measure of how the law operates in cases like these.
Banerji says they had approached Chaturvedi while he was still an advocate, to vacate their house. They claimed he made a “gentleman’s promise” that he would leave once he became a judge. “But then he became a judge and we saw him renovating the house. That was when we realised he was here to stay,” says Arup.
While Chaturvedi, now a judge, stays in his official residence, the Banerjis say that he houses his work staff including his guards, in the Elgin Road bungalow. The bungalow bears a signboard for both J.N. Chaturvedi and now a new one for “Justice Rahul Chaturvedi.”
The Banerjis have written to every possible authority, and multiple times, starting with the CJI, the chief justice of the Allahabad high court, the president of India, the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the law minister of India and so on. The Wire has seen some of this correspondence.
In a letter sent in August to the CJI, the prime minister and president of India along with other top officials, the Banerjis have described Justice Chaturvedi as a “trespasser and house grabber” and demanded action against him. They say they can submit a phone recording they have with Chaturvedi where he says he would vacate the property on becoming a judge. They also say that he had once told the police the same thing.
They recently got a reply from the office of the president of India with the subject: “Complaint against Justice Rahul Chaturvedi (additional judge).”
The letter has been sent to the chief secretary of the Uttar Pradesh government and says that “Action taken on the petition may please be communicated” to them. They are hopeful that the state government will order an investigation into this property dispute and alleged corruption.
“We are asking for an investigation into this. Even if we are making false claims, there still has to be an inquiry,” says Ishita Banerji, Arup’s wife.
Arup and his family are glad Rahul Chaturvedi was not confirmed as a permanent judge. They hope this development will also have some impact on their case: “Our only aim is to get our house back,” says Arup.
On August 29, 2019, the Union law ministry wrote to the PPS of chief justice of the Allahabad high court enclosing Arup Chatterji’s complaint that his “ancestral property in Allahabad… has been illegally occupied” by Justice Chaturvedi and requesting that the complaint “be placed before Hon’ble Chief Justice of Allahabad High Court for appropriate action as deemed fit”.
Banerjis go to court
Bibhu Das Banerj started legal proceedings to evict J.N. Chaturvedi in 2005 but the case has been dragging on inconclusively in a small causes court. This year, Arup Banerji filed an application to make Rahul Chaturvedi also a party to the case. The court has not ruled on that yet.
In March this year, Justice Manoj Kumar Gupta of the Allahabad high court directed a trial court to hear their case against J.N. Chaturvedi “expeditiously.”
The Banerjis say that J.N. Chaturvedi had occupied their Elgin Road property as a tenant and was to pay a meagre rent of Rs 142.50 per month. According to their eviction suit, he failed to pay this amount, from August 1975 to November 2004. The total amount by 2005 was still a small one – Rs 50,160 – and they had sent him several notices to pay up but he apparently never did. Nor did he vacate the house. Chaturvedi allegedly also sublet the house and took rent from that sub-lessor.
J.N. Chaturvedi tried to buy the house in 1975, but that didn’t work out. After some adjustments following the failed sale, he had to only pay Rs 10,160 as arrears on rent. Due to other technicalities, this was further reduced to about Rs 5,130.
J.N. Chaturvedi denied most of these averments in a reply he submitted to the court in 2005.
This year, the Banerjis filed an application in court to include Rahul Chaturvedi in the same case against J.N. Chaturvedi: “Rahul Chaturvedi opened the lock of the chamber of the late J.N. Chaturvedi situated in the portion of the disputed house behind the back of the plaintiffs without their knowledge,” says their application.
The application says that although Rahul Chaturvedi is occupying their property after J.N. Chaturvedi’s death, he has “not claimed or posed himself” as the deceased’s heir and thus the state of Uttar Pradesh has now been made defendant in the case in J.N.’s place after his death.
Rahul Chaturvedi has, however, allegedly claimed to the Banerjis that he is the deceased’s nephew. The Banerjis also cite another document which Bibhu Das Banerji had filed with the state government after J.N. Chaturvedi’s death in 2011, saying that the property was not to be allocated to anyone else.
How did the collegium pick 16 and “defer” four?
This year, the collegium of the Allahabad high court had unanimously recommended 20 additional judges of the same court be made permanent judges. The Supreme Court collegium took up the matter. This cohort included Justice Rahul Chaturvedi.
In their order of July 30, the Supreme Court collegium said they have assessed the “merit and suitability” of the 20 judges who were recommended by the Allahabad high court’s collegium. They examined material placed on record “including certain complaints received against” some of them and then decided that only 16 of them were “suitable for being appointed as permanent judges,” with Justice Rahul Chaturvedi being one of those who were excluded.
The four who were not found suitable have had their recommendations “deferred” and the collegium says it will resolve this in some time. For this, they are waiting for some additional information from the chief justice of Allahabad the high court.
The collegium’s process is extensive: They also took note of the views of the chief minister and governor of Uttar Pradesh, and of colleagues who know about the Allahabad high court’s functioning. They also evaluated judgments written by the 20 who were recommended. The Supreme Court collegium was also aware of “certain unconfirmed inputs touching upon conduct/behavior” of some of the 20 but ignored them as they “do not find substance,” thus clearing 16 names and deferring four.
How hard it is to file a case against a judge?
As long as Rahul Chaturvedi was a lawyer, the Banerjis may have been able to file an FIR against him but now that he is a judge, the chief justice of the Allahabad high court or the Chief Justice of India has to give permission to file an FIR (This is because of what is called an ‘in-house procedure’ adopted by the Supreme Court in 1999 which dictates how there can be any inquiries against sitting judges).
An ordinary citizen cannot on her own initiate criminal action against a sitting judge. Although Indian law says in principle that people are to be treated equally before the law and everyone deserves a fair trial, various frameworks have been built that prevent a person from filing a police complaint against a judge. By the in-house procedure, the chief justice of a high court or the Chief Justice of India, has to give permission for an FIR to be filed against a sitting judge.
The Banerjis tried to file a police complaint in the past, but that never became an FIR. They say they kept relying on Chaturvedi’s word, that he would vacate and the intimations they had given him about vacating.
This challenge of filing a case against a judge was on full display in April when The Wire, and other media outlets, broke the story of a woman who used to work in the office of the current Chief Justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi. She alleged he had sexually harassed her last year and then harassed other members of her family, ultimately resulting in her losing her job. The victim requested a formal inquiry, but the Supreme Court did not allow it.
However, in another recent case, CJI Gogoi has allowed the CBI to lodge an FIR against a sitting judge of the Allahabad high court, Justice S.N. Shukla. Shukla is accused of corruption in the approval of medical colleges. This is apparently the first time in 28 years that an FIR has been lodged against a sitting judge since 1976.
The early demands to file an FIR against Shukla resulted in a cascading chain of events that even led to the call for the impeachment of the previous Chief Justice of India, Dipak Misra in 2018.