New Delhi: Expressing “deep anguish” over the filing of a contempt petition against Prashant Bhushan in the Supreme Court, over 100 activists, academics and former civil servants have in a joint statement called it “a clear attempt to intimidate and silence one of the leading advocates in the country.”
On February 6, the apex court issued a contempt notice to the activist and lawyer for his tweets allegedly criticising the court over the appointment of M. Nageswara Rao as interim Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) director.
The plea against Bhushan was filed by the attorney general and Centre.
The statement notes that Bhushan was through his tweets only demanding greater transparency in the process of appointment of the CBI chief.
Incidentally, a petition raising similar doubts over Rao’s appointment was filed in the apex court in end-January. The plea challenged the government’s decision on the grounds that it was “illegal as he was unilaterally appointed by the government, bypassing the selection committee.”
The plea further claimed the order was in violation of the Delhi Special Police Establishment Act.
The Modi government had last October appointed Rao as the interim CBI director. This was done without the approval of the high-powered selection committee. The decision was thus overturned by the Supreme Court in January.
Writing for The Wire, Amrita Johri notes that the court at the time held that the “government had no powers to appoint the CBI director unilaterally, without following the procedure laid down by law which requires the selection to be on the basis of the recommendations of the high powered selection committee”.
Mere two days after the judgment, however, the DoPT issued an order again appointing Rao as interim CBI director. The order stated that this was done “as per the earlier arrangement” and did not indicate that it had been approved by the selection committee.
Johri further notes:
“The post of the director is crucial – being the head of the organisation, he/she supervises all the work in the CBI and is responsible for the constitution of investigating teams for probing cases. To prevent the government from exercising undue control over the CBI by influencing the selection of the Director, the current composition of the selection committee was laid down.”
The lack of transparency and the government’s bypassing of protocol in Rao’s appointment was also raised by Congress leader Mallikarjun Kharge in a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“The Government seemed to have made up its mind on appointing an Interim Director and hence this was never placed before the selection committee in the 10th Jan 2019 meeting. This appointment of an Interim Director is illegal and against section 4A(1) and 4A(3) of the DSPE Act.”
Later, on February 1, attorney general K. K. Venugopal during a hearing in the case handed over relevant meetings on the decision on interim CBI director to the bench. The statement notes that when Bhushan demanded a copy of the same, he was denied “with the AG claiming that the minutes were confidential.”
This then led the activist-lawyer to raise concern over social media which subsequently brought on the contempt petition.
I have just confirmed personally from the Leader of Opposition Mr Kharge that no discussion or decision in HPC meet was taken re appt of Nageswara Rao as interim Director CBI.The govt appears to have misled the court and perhaps submitted fabricated minutes of the HPC meeting! https://t.co/MbEC5YLjkD
— Prashant Bhushan (@pbhushan1) February 1, 2019
Noting that “Transparency is a pre-requisite to instil public confidence and faith in democratic institutions,” the statement raises concerns over the attempt to “misconstrue doubts raised about the veracity of material handed over in a sealed cover by the government as contempt of court.”
The signatories have noted that “expressing an apprehension that the government might be misleading the apex court” is, unfortunately “being alleged to be contempt of court.”