New Delhi: Justice N.V. Ramana was sworn in as the chief justice of India (CJI) on Saturday and will now head the very court where a case seeking his disqualification as a high court judge was heard – and dismissed – eight years ago.
The proceedings of the case – decided by Justices Aftab Alam and Ranjana Prakash Desai of the Supreme Court in February 2013 – were marked by the absence of any prognostication that its protagonist would, within eight years, become CJI. Perhaps that was the reason the judges let out a secret, which their fraternity normally tends to safeguard in the name of the confidentiality of the Supreme Court collegium’s functioning.
The petitioners in the case – M. Manohar Reddy and M.V. Narasimha Reddy – had challenged Justice N.V. Ramana’s continuation as a judge of the Andhra Pradesh high court. During the hearing on December 8, 2012, the bench reminded the late Ram Jethmalani, counsel for the petitioners, that the individual against whom he was now appearing had been made a high court judge in 2000 at Jethmalani’s own urging when he was law minister despite the Supreme Court collegium initially opposing his name. “Please tell us what we should do,” the bench asked:
“In this particular case, the collegium had twice rejected the name of this particular judge. Not on this ground but on grounds of his eligibility for the post, age and other factors. But it was at the instance of the then Union Law Minister that his appointment was made.” (emphasis added)
Unfazed, Jethmalani responded by saying that if some wrong had been done, it could be undone too.
What the petition against Justice Ramana was about
The petitioners had come to the Supreme Court to challenge the continuation of Justice Ramana as a judge of the Andhra Pradesh high court on the ground that a criminal case had been pending against him when the high court’s collegium cleared his name in 1999 and the government appointed him in 2000.
On February 13, 1981, several students of Nagarjuna University in Guntur indulged in rioting and damage to public property, which included a bus, and caused injuries to passengers. On the same day, an FIR was registered at the Mangalagiri police station against the purported ringleaders of the violence. The FIR named Nuthalapati Venkata Ramana as Accused No. 4.
The petitioners, who were high court advocates, filed their petition under Article 32 of the constitution, seeking a writ in the nature of quo warranto, quashing Justice Ramana’s appointment as a judge.
The ground cited was that the consultation process leading to his appointment as judge was vitiated as both the high court and the Supreme Court collegiums as well as the Central government had failed to consider an essential fact: that at the time of his appointment, a criminal trial was pending in which Justice N.V. Ramana was not only an accused but a proclaimed offender .
The petitioners also sought a writ in the nature of mandamus commanding the Bar Council of Andhra Pradesh to cancel Ramana’s enrolment as an advocate since he had “concealed” the criminal proceedings and, in the relevant column of the application for enrolment, had stated, falsely, that there was no pending proceeding against him.
N.V. Ramana’s name was recommended for appointment as a judge of the high court on November 14, 1998 by the chief justice of the Andhra Pradesh high court with the other two collegium members concurring. The high court’s recommendation was received in the Supreme Court on February 15, 1999. Ramana, who was 41 and had completed over 15 years of legal practice, was the additional advocate general of Andhra Pradesh at the time. He was appointed as a judge one year and four months later, on June 19, 2000 – after the “consultative process” between the Supreme Court collegium and Jethmalani’s law ministry was over – and assumed office on June 27, 2000.
The apex court’s findings
At the outset, the Supreme Court noted that a criminal case (No.229/83 later re-numbered as CC No.75/87 and then CC No.167/91) was undeniably pending at the time of Ramana’s appointment as a judge of the high court – a fact that the Intelligence Bureau, whose report the order quotes, failed to unearth when it said “nothing adverse… has come to notice”.
Though the criminal case was pending at the time of Justice Ramana’s appointment, G.E. Vahanvati, who was attorney general in 2012, told the court that the removal of a judge in office was an issue directly related to the independence of the judiciary and that the constitution did not envisage any mode for a judge’s removal other than impeachment by parliament.
Shanti Bhushan, who, along with Jethmalani, was representing the petitioners, disagreed, arguing that the court must not be seen as protecting someone wrongly appointed as a high court judge. He said that the faith, trust and confidence of the people in the courts and its judges was as much necessary to support the independence of judiciary as the guarantees under the constitution.
The Alam-Desai bench eventually dismissed the petition in a reasoned order that went into the minutiae of the case that the petitioners claimed had rendered Justice Ramana’s judgeship untenable.
At the time of the 1981 incident, Ramana had been a student of Nagarjuna University. The students complained of inadequate public transport facilities for commuting from their homes to the university as only a few buses plying between Guntur and Vijayawada stopped at the university. They demanded that more buses should stop at the university. Some of the students launched an agitation.
On February 13, 1981, a group of about 30 students put up road blocks on the GNT road, opposite the university, stopping all vehicles on the road. A state bus became the target of the agitating students. The driver was pulled down and the door to the driver’s seat was damaged. Some students pelted stones on the bus and smashed its windscreen and glass windows with iron rods. One of the passengers on the bus also received some injuries. A policeman prevented an attempt to set the bus on fire. The FIR registered after the incident was against unknown persons and the accused were described as “Nagarjuna university students”.
According to the charge sheet, submitted in the court of the munsif magistrate, Mangalagiri, on October 19, 1983, the driver and the conductor of the bus, in their statements under Section 161 of the Cr.P.C., (apart from some other witnesses) identified and named five persons as the student-leaders who were leading the agitation on that fateful day. The charge sheet cited five persons as accused and N.V. Ramana figured among them at No.4. All the accused were shown as absconders.
However, the Alam-Desai bench found that
“The charge sheet… does not disclose what steps were taken by the investigating officer to secure the presence of the accused. There is no mention that the investigating officer ever tried to obtain from the court warrants of arrest or processes under sections 82 and 83 of the Cr.P.C. for apprehending the accused. They were simply shown as absconders without observing the procedure sanctioned by law before an accused can be called an absconder.”
The Alam-Desai bench, however also observed that Ramana had been “repeatedly called – a little loosely and rather uncharitably – an “absconder” and a “proclaimed offender” in a case of robbery and burning down of a bus”, although the criminal case in question had no element of robbery or bus burning. Moreover, the trial court, by its judgment and order dated July 4, 1988, had found accused No.1 not guilty of the offences alleged against him, and acquitted him of the charges of rioting. While acquitting him, the trial judge noted that the prosecution witnesses were not able to identify the accused. The bus conductor denied having identified the accused in his statement under Section 161 Cr.P.C.
‘No record of warrants’
The Supreme Court bench also found that while the trial court had ordered the issuing of non-bailable warrants against Ramana and the other three accused, the warrants were not on record and it was not known whether any warrants had even been issued. From May 1987 to August 1991, the trial court passed orders on about 24 dates directing for issuance of non-bailable warrants of arrest against the accused, but no compliance was noted against any order, excepting the one passed on August 30, 1991. However, no warrants, even of that date, were on the file, the bench noted.
On November 5, 2001, the examination-in-chief of the bus driver (PW1) and of the conductor (PW2) were recorded. In their depositions, neither PW1 nor PW2 named anyone as accused and both of them said that they did not know the leaders of the group of students that had attacked the bus. On the same day, the assistant public prosecutor made an application to the effect that the other witnesses mentioned in the charge-sheet were passengers in the bus and their whereabouts were not known in view of the passage of time. Accordingly, he prayed that the evidence of the prosecution might be closed. On December 11, 2001, the state government decided to withdraw the prosecution against the accused. On December 26, 2001, the sessions judge gave the trial judge permission to declare the case as ‘long pending’, and on January 31, 2002, the assistant public prosecutor moved an application under Section 321 of the Cr.P.C. seeking permission to withdraw the case in the interest of justice. The trial judge granted permission to the prosecution to withdraw the case, and all the accused were discharged the same day.
The Alam-Desai bench found that during the entire period, no summons in the ordinary course were served on the four accused. “There is nothing on the record to show that any attempt, let alone any serious attempt, was made to serve the summons or the non-bailable warrants on any of the accused persons”, the bench noted, adding:
“From the record of the case in which we have discussed in detail above, we find it very difficult to hold that Respondent No.3 [i.e. Justice Ramana] was even aware that in some record buried in the courts at Mangalagiri he was named as an accused and he was required to appear in the court in connection with that case.”
Ramana ‘unaware of pendency of case’
The bench also noted that Ramana was the additional advocate general of Andhra Pradesh at the time of his elevation as a judge. “If the case would have been within his knowledge, it was unimaginable that he would not have attended to it and got it concluded one way or the other,” it said.
The bench referred to the detailed enquiry made by the chief justice of the AP high court. His report dated February 7, 2012, which was submitted to the then CJI, S.H. Kapadia, stated: “It does appear that Justice Ramana was unaware of the pendency of the criminal case. I say this from the record of the case, which speaks for itself, and the contents which need not be repeated. I also say this for another reason. In my opinion, Justice Ramana was truly unaware of the criminal case against him and he deserves to be believed when he says so.”
Since Justice Ramana was unaware of the pending case against him, the bench concluded that he could not be accused of suppressing material facts. When counsel for the petitioners argued that the police had submitted their charge sheet against Ramana, and hence, the state government must be deemed to be aware of the fact, the bench reasoned that the state government is not a monolith and it does not function as a single person. Simply because a charge sheet was submitted by the state police, no conscious knowledge of the fact can be attributed to the state government, the bench suggested.
“From all the attending circumstances, it is clear beyond doubt that not only respondent No.3 [i.e. Justice Ramana] himself but practically no one was aware of the pendency of the case in which he was named as an accused”, the bench concluded. Thus, it reasoned:
“To fault the consultative process for not taking into account a fact that was not known at that time would put an impossible burden on the constitutional authorities engaged in the consultative process and would introduce a dangerous element of uncertainty in the appointments.”
While the bench did not find anything odd in the fact that the case against Ramana was closed in 2002 – within two years of his appointment as judge of the high court – it saw the petition filed 10 years after the closure of the case as a ruse to malign Justice Ramana. Finding the petition without merit and wanting in bona fides, the bench dismissed it with costs.
Lawyers may still debate whether the Alam-Desai bench was correct in dismissing the petition against Justice Ramana in 2013. But the answer to the question which the bench itself prompts us to ask – Why did the Supreme Court collegium reject Justice Ramana’s name twice for elevation to the high court? – remains elusive.
Given that the collegium had opposed Justice Ramana’s elevation as a high court judge not once but twice, as admitted by the Alam-Desai bench in 2013, this opaque institution’s functioning will not help to restore people’s confidence in the functioning of the Supreme Court under a new CJI.
In the context of the less-than-transparent clean chit which the outgoing CJI, S. A. Bobde, gave to Justice Ramana – after an ‘in-house inquiry’ found the allegations made by Andhra Pradesh chief minister Jagan Mohan Reddy to be “baseless” – the litigation which attended his ascent to the higher judiciary is not just of academic interest.