NEW DELHI: The Centre Monday opposed in Delhi High Court an appeal against a single judge order, asking National Herald publisher AJL to vacate its premises, saying the firm "clandestinely" transferred its majority shares to Young India in which Congress chief Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia Gandhi are shareholders.
A bench of Chief Justice Rajendra Menon and Justice V K Rao were told by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta that the land was allocated to AJL on lease for printing press and this "dominant purpose" was stopped several years back.
The bench was hearing arguments on AJL's appeal against the single judge's December 21, 2018 decision which had dismissed its plea challenging the Centre's order to vacate its premises.
It asked the publisher to vacate the ITO premises within two weeks after which eviction proceedings under the Public Premises (Eviction of Unauthorised Occupants) Act, 1971, would be initiated.
AJL has also sought a stay on the single judge order.
The court will hear further arguments in the matter on February 1.
Mehta, representing the Centre, said, "The National Herald newspaper stopped publication in 2008 and employees were offered voluntary retirement scheme. In 2010-11, clandestinely this property worth thousand crores was transferred to Young India (YI). When the team went for inspection to see whether the purpose was going on, nothing was found."
Senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi, appearing for AJL, argued that the first inspection notice was given on September 6, 2016 and the allegation of not doing press activity at the premises was made for the first time on June 8, 2018.
He added that the concept of press is not hard structure press and the digital version of the newspaper was started on November 14, 2016.
Challenging the single judge order, the senior counsel said it ought to have issued formal notice and asked the Centre to place their say formally by way of a counter/reply affidavit rather than taking documents across the bar and then proceedings to 'in limine' (at the start) dismiss the writ petition.
"In doing so, the single judge has displayed an unwarranted haste, uncalled for in the facts and circumstances of the present case," said the appeal, filed through advocates Sunil Fernandes and Priyansha Indra Sharma.
During the hearing, The Solicitor General also argued that by taking note of certain dates, the court "will find the calculated clandestine design to transfer shares to YI."
The single judge had earlier said in its order that by transfer of AJL's 99 per cent shares to YI, the beneficial interest of AJL's property worth Rs 413.40 crore stands "clandestinely" transferred to YI.
It is pertinent to mention that the Centre had contended before the court that transfer of 99 per cent stake in AJL to YI, when the latter bought the former's Rs 90 crore debt for a consideration of Rs 50 lakh, led to a "virtual" sale of the Herald building at ITO.
The single judge had dismissed AJL's plea challenging the Centre's order by holding that the publisher has not provided any instance to support the serious allegations of mala fide levelled against the ruling dispensation.
The Centre had ended its 56-year-old lease and asked AJL to vacate the premises, saying no printing or publishing activity was going on.
In its order, the single judge had said that AJL has been "hijacked" by Young Indian (YI), in which Congress chief Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia Gandhi are shareholders.
The Centre and Land and Development Office (L&DO) had said in its order that no press has functioned on the premises for at least 10 years and it was being used only for commercial purposes in violation of the lease deed.
AJL had denied the allegations in the petition filed in the high court.
It had said the government kept silent till April 2018, when it again sent a notice for inspection and said it was coming to check breaches mentioned in notice of October 10, 2016.
The L&DO had ended the lease - entered into with AJL on August 2, 1962 and made perpetual on January 10, 1967 - asking the company to hand over the possession by November 15.
The L&DO's order had also said failure to hand over possession would lead to initiation of proceedings under the Public Premises Act.
In its plea, AJL has also said the digital versions of English newspaper National Herald, Hindi's Navjivan and Urdu's Qaumi Awaz have commenced from 2016-17.
The weekly newspaper 'National Herald on Sunday' resumed on September 24, 2017, and the place of publication was the ITO premises, AJL said, adding that the Hindi weekly newspaper Sunday Navjivan was being published since October last year from the same premises.