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Law

Carpets, Bedsheets, Towels and Intrigue: The Story of Justice V. Ramaswami's Impeachment

The incident of a judge facing 'trial' over reported excesses holds lessons that resonate in the present time.

The place of justice is a hallowed place, and therefore not only the Bench, but also the foot space and precincts and purpose thereof ought to be preserved without scandal and corruption.”

Francis Bacon

 

Rabi Ray was the Speaker of the ninth Lok Sabha which witnessed the V.P. Singh government born out of an unimaginable alliance between the Left and the Right to oust the Centre. 

In 1991, as the Lok Sabha faced premature dissolution on the fall of the Chandrashekhar government, 108 MPs cutting across party lines submitted an impeachment motion (pages 1, 2, 3, 4) against Justice V. Ramaswami, citing 14 charges.

Ray was under intense pressure to scuttle it. It is rumoured that a senior leader of the Congress who had been contemplating retirement from electoral politics, one Narasimha Rao, had led a delegation in March 1991 to Ray to adopt a soft approach towards the judge. Rao pleaded that Ramaswami had acted with great firmness against the terrorists who were plaguing the Punjab. 

The fact that this south Indian judge had many an admirer would be evident to any political novice, and Ray was a veteran – the delegation included P. Shiv Shankar, a known Rao-baiter.

Ray, however, was not moved and on the last day of the House, constituted an inquiry committee comprising Justices P.B. Sawant of Supreme Court, P.D. Desai who was then chief justice of the Bombay high court and O. Chinnappa Reddy who was a retired judge of the Supreme Court.  

This is the story of that impeachment.

Young Veeraswami Ramaswami, as a student of the Hindu High School in Srivilliputhur could not have imagined the infamy that posterity would have in store for him. He sought out law as a career and graduated from the Madras Law College. On January 31, 1971, after a stint at the bar, Ramaswami was elevated as a permanent judge of the Madras high court.

V. Ramaswami married Sarojini, the daughter of K. Veeraswami, who retired as chief justice of Madras high court and has a constitution bench judgment to his name on whether a judge could be prosecuted under the Prevention of Corruption Act.

 The seat of the scandal was however north of the Vindhyas. 

Also read: Retirement of Tainted Judge a Reminder of How the Executive Failed the Judiciary

It was in India’s first planned township beautifully crafted by Le Corbusier. When V.R. was sworn in as chief justice of the Punjab and Haryana high court on November 12, 1987, he was conscious that his judicial career was on the right track. He knew that someday he might even sit in India’s highest court. What he perhaps was not aware of was that his stint in Chandigarh would prove fatal.

When on October 6, 1989, V.R. was sworn in as a Supreme Court judge, he must have thought that Chandigarh was behind him.  He could not have been more wrong. In the middle of 1990, several papers carried reports about his lavish track record. 

During his stay in Chandigarh, the justice had spent a huge amount allegedly on “renovation” of his official residence and other personal expenses. Stories emerged about:

  • Purchase of furniture, furnishings and other articles in excess of and wholly disproportionate to the requirements of the official residence. For example, eight air conditioners were purchased for Rs 1,39,432. Innumerable number of quilts, mattresses, bed sheets, bed covers, pillow covers and blankets at Rs 28,785. As many as 96 towels and napkins at the cost of Rs 11,000. Bed and bath linen at Rs 39,785. A dining table at Rs 45,795. A sofa set was bought for Rs 58,909. A three-seater with a centre table, for Rs 58,509. Another three-seater with six sofa chairs and a teak wood centre table, for Rs 59,430.  Two sofa sets, for Rs 48,919. Another for Rs 14,051. Four dressing tables and stools for Rs 15,092, study tables for Rs 7,175, study chairs for Rs 4,750, four easy chairs for Rs 5,828. Three Godrej almirahs for Rs 3,019, 2,959 and 3,571 respectively.  Wall to wall carpeting for various rooms was procured for Rs 1,52,465. As many as 229 curtains were stitched for Rs 76,425.  Kitchenware at Rs 25,047. And then, 18 suitcases and brief cases were also purchased.
  • Claiming expenses of Rs 76,150 for a Madras telephone.
  • Spending Rs 9.10 lakh on phone calls at Rs 39,000 per month.
  • Taking Chandigarh cars to Madras while on vacation. An assistant registrar had to go by air to bring back the cars.
  • Ordering 25 silver maces at exorbitant rates.

Things came to such a pass that even the conservative Supreme Court Bar Association was prompted into passing a resolution, calling for V.R.’s impeachment and requesting the chief justice not to assign any work to the judge.

The matter was mentioned more than once in the Chief Justice of India’s court. On May Day, 1990, editor of the magazine The Lawyers, the indomitable Indira Jaising, forwarded to the CJI the April 1990 issue of her monthly magazine which contained the exposé on V.R. It had published the full text of the audit report of the Chandigarh administration and that was scandalous enough.

Thereafter, a galaxy of senior advocates, the attorney general, Soli Sorabjee, Parasaran, Venugopal and Dr Chitale met the CJIe, to request him to act.

Also read: The Only Time the Opposition Pulled Off a Motion Against a Sitting Judge

On July 20, 1990, Chief Justice Sabyasachi Mukherjee took the unprecedented step of reading out a ‘Statement to the Bar of the Supreme Court’ at the end of judicial work. It referred to Jaising’s article and entreaties by doyens of the Bar only to express, “Legally and constitutionally the Chief Justice of India, as such, has no right or authority to inquire into the conduct of a sitting Judge of the Supreme Court”. 

Chief Justice of India Sabyasachi Mukherjee

He concluded by saying that on July 18, 1990 he had advised Ramaswami to “desist from discharging judicial functions so long as the investigations continued and his name was cleared on this aspect.”

V.R. applied for six weeks’ leave with effect from July 23, 1990.

The Chief Justice of India constituted an internal inquiry committee headed by Justice BC Ray with Justices Jaggannath Shetty and Venkatachaliah as members. Right from when the scandal broke, V.R. tried to give the impression “of being a judge who was being prosecuted”.  He told the committee that two or three judges of the Punjab and Haryana high court were plotting against him.

His lawyer Kapil Sibal would later go on to allege before the Lok Sabha that a particular member of the high court staff was behind the whole “conspiracy”.

A massive heart attack in London on September 25, 1990, tragically ensured that after H.J. Kania, Sabyasachi Mukherjee was India’s second chief justice to die in harness. The B.C. Ray Committee gave a clean chit to V.R. and Mukherjee’s successor, Chief Justice Ranganath Mishra, who would go on the serve as a Rajya Sabha member from the Congress party, attempted to restore judicial duties to V.R. 

Also read: The Supreme Court and the Need for Judicial Discipline

The bar erupted in outrage. Nani Palkhivala observed, “There is danger in allowing the bar to pass judgement on a judge. But what is the option before the bar? There is no machinery to bring errant judges to book”.

Meanwhile, India’s politics had just witnessed a tectonic shift. Rajiv Gandhi, who had brought Rabi Ray’s speakership to a premature end, tragically did not live to see a new speaker. His assassination in Sreeperambudur in the midst of a general election to constitute a new Lok Sabha, witnessed a skewed result

The states which went to elections before May 21, 1991, the day of Rajiv’s assassination, had not been too kind to the Congress. In contrast, the states, primarily in south India, that did go to polls after the tragedy witnessed an outpouring of sympathy for the slain leader’s party. Kerala which had polls before and after the event bears testimony to this phenomenon.  

Resultantly, Congress, with a heavy south Indian contingent of MPs, formed a minority government under India’s first south Indian prime minister, Pamulaparthi Venkata Narasimha Rao also known as “PV”. Remember this was that same about-to-retire politician, whose plea to go soft on the south Indian judge had been crushed by Speaker Ray.

Narasimha Rao’s government was of the view that with the birth of the 10th Lok Sabha, the impeachment motion of the 108 members of the 9th Lok Sabha had lapsed. It refused to take steps to operationalise the inquiry committee.

P.V. Narasimha Rao. Credit: PTI

P.V. Narasimha Rao. Credit: PTI

Finally, it took the sub-committee on judicial accountability led by the indefatigable Hardev Singh to institute a petition seeking directions to the Rao government to enable the inquiry committee to function and to restrain V.R. from performing judicial functions. The Supreme Court Bar Association also joined in with its petition.

Also read: How the Judiciary Defied the Government to Uphold Constitutional Values During the Emergency

Finally, a constitution bench in Sub-Committee on Judicial Accountability v. Union of India held that the inquiry committee would survive the dissolution of the Lok Sabha. The government had no choice but to operationalise the committee again.

Ramaswami was leaving nothing to chance. He picked a young lawyer, Jagdish Khehar, to defend him in the inquiry.  This young lawyer would one day go on to be the Chief Justice of India. Khehar was led by Ranjit Kumar who would go on to be India’s Solicitor General. As the committee’s proceedings reached finality, by a letter dated May 10, 1992, to his brother Justice Sawant, V.R. sought a copy of the report to explore avenues of seeking “redress in Court of Law”.  

On May 15, 1992, the secretary of the committee informed V.R. that the committee would abide by the decision of the court as the matter was before the constitution bench.

V.R’s wife Sarojini promptly filed an Article 32 petition seeking a direction that a copy of the report be supplied and the committee be restrained from forwarding the report to parliament. When the writ petition came up for hearing on July, 21, 1992, Sarojini’s counsel Kapil Sibal was told by the court that V.R. had not been impleaded as a party despite the fact that the wife’s rights flowed through him. Would the husband be bound by the adjudication of his wife’s case?

On the next day, i.e. July 21, 1992, Sibal’s advocate on record, Rajit Kumar, filed RV’s undertaking that he indeed would be bound.

On August 27, 1992, the constitution bench of Justices J.S. Verma, Kasliwal, K. Ramaswamy, Reddy and Agrawal, ruled that V.R. was indeed entitled to a copy of the report and have his response to the same considered by parliament. As the Speaker had not been impleaded, no directions against him could be passed. The inquiry committee was “requested” to withhold its report “for a reasonable time,” so that VR’s response would also be available.  

V.R. had dug in his heels and he was ready to fight street to street like the Battle of Berlin.

The PB Sawant Inquiry Committee concluded that V.R. was “guilty of wilful and gross misuse of office, purposeful and persistent negligence in the discharge of duties, intentional and habitual extravagance at the cost of the exchequer, moral turpitude by using public funds for private purposes in diverse ways and reckless disregard of statutory rules and brings disrepute to the high office and dishonour to the institution of the judiciary and undermines the faith and confidence which the public reposes in the administration of justice.”

The stage was set for parliament to sit in judgment. There was no precedent. On May 15, 1970, 199 Lok Sabha MPs led by Samyukta Socialist Party leader S.M. Joshi had petitioned Speaker G.S. Dhillon against Justice J.C. Shah. Chief Justice Hidyatullah had reached out to Speaker Dhillon and convinced him to squash it.

Also read: The Ones That Didn’t Make It to NYT: The Valiant Bar and Bench During Indira’s Emergency

When the removal motion was taken up in the Lok Sabha on May 10, 1993. The levels of excitement to witness a historic first were unprecedented. The visitors’ gallery was packed to capacity with those who had managed to obtain the coveted passes to the “distinguished visitors’ gallery”. Nalini Chidambaram, wife of P. Chidambaram, and Kiran Chaudhary, daughter-in-law of Haryana Chief Minister Bansi Lal, were among the lucky few.

V.R. was ably defended by the noted Kapil Sibal who held the floor of the Lok Sabha for five hours. Sibal was the only lawyer to have addressed the parliament in that capacity. It is not clear whether the other lawyers of Team Ramaswamy, J.S. Khehar and Ranjit Kumar were also present in parliament. Years later, Sibal would enter the same chamber, this time in 2004 as an elected member representing the Chandni Chowk parliamentary constituency.

When the lawyer’s submissions were over, Speaker Shivraj Patil asked those sitting in the visitors’ gallery to remove themselves.  Now the time had come for the legislators to judge!

The conclusion was foregone when opposition parties issued whips to their MPs and the Congress chose to leave it to the “conscience” of its members. Brahma Chellaney says that the decision was officially reversed at Prime Minister Rao’s instance.

When the motion was finally put to vote, there were 196 votes in favour of impeachment. While there was no vote against the motion, 205 members, mostly Congress’s south Indian MPs abstained. As the requisite two-third majority eluded the motion, it fell and V.R. survived the day to walk into the sunset of his retirement on Valentine’s Day, 1994.

Many contemporary commentators felt that Team V.R. had been successful in tapping the latent parochial instincts of the Members of the Lok Sabha by converting the issue from one of judicial corruption to one of north-south divide and victimisation of a South Indian justice by north Indian vested interests.

Justice Sawant, who had headed the committee, commented,The system to remove the judges is impractical, cumbersome and heavily dependent on politicians.” According to Prashant Bhushan, the system had “undoubtedly failed and has been shown to be completely outdated and ineffective. An entirely new machinery is urgently required to restore accountability of the judiciary.”

Also read: SC Starts Contempt Proceedings Against Prashant Bhushan, Twitter for Unspecified Tweets

Journalist Manoj Mitta was of the opinion that V.R. was a “Congress(I) appointed judge and his removal could have undermined the party’s credibility. Especially as Rajiv Gandhi had sent him as chief justice to Chandigarh to tackle terrorist cases. Besides (sic), his son is a Congress (I) MLA in Tamil Nadu. And the lawyer who argued his case in the Lok Sabha, Kapil Sibal, is also a Congress (I) member.

It was rumoured that V.R. had given his word that he would resign if the motion was not carried. However, tasting parliamentary success, he went back on his word. Though he wanted to again sit on the bench as if the storm was only in a tea cup, Chief Justice Venkatachlaiah would have none of it. He refused to allot work to him and he had to stay at home, drawing his salary till he retired a year later.

Some may see the irony in fact that on retirement, V.R. went back to his house in Madras. The house was named Coin House

V.R. was appointed head of Tamil Nadu Law Commission by Chief Minister Jayalalithaa and it was rumoured that, given the expertise that life’s experience had given him, he advised the resident of Poes Garden on her disproportionate assets case. V.R.’s son Sanjay, who had married the sister of film actress Sridevi, was a Congress MLA from Sivakasi who shifted his allegiance to Amma when she became sympathetic towards his father.

V.R. was not one to go down quietly. In the 1999 elections, he contested from the Sivakasi constituency as an All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam candidate and lost to the charismatic Vaiko. 

Sanjoy Ghose is a labour lawyer in Delhi.