For the second time in less than two decades, the country has an opportunity to uphold the integrity of the judiciary and probity in public life, thanks to Justice P D Dinakaran, Chief Justice of Karnataka High Court, and the allegations of corruption and judicial misdemeanour against him. The first time was the impeachment motion against Justice V Ramaswami of the Supreme Court for financial delinquency as Chief Justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court. It was defeated by subversion of parliamentary procedures for extraneous political reasons.
It is worthwhile recalling the Ramaswami case to put the Dinakaran issue in perspective. What happened in the case of Justice Ramaswami, coincidentally also a former judge of the Madras High Court like Dinakaran, reveals the tortuous process for bringing delinquent judges to book, a sort of closing of ranks among some members of the higher judiciary that can overshadow judicial propriety and judicial accountability.
A few months after Ramaswami’s elevation to the Supreme Court in October 1989, the bar, media and a section of parliamentarians raised a stink about reports of huge and extraordinary expenditure and ‘misappropriation of goods’ by him during his two-year tenure as Chief Justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court.
In July 1990, then Chief Justice of India Sabyasachi Mukherji asked Ramaswami not to discharge any judicial function, and to go on leave till his name was cleared by an investigation. He set up a three-member committee of brother judges to advise on whether the allegations would render it embarrassing to his functioning as a judge of the Supreme Court. Ranganath Misra, who took over as CJI after Mukherji’s untimely death, ended the leave five months later, after the Ray-led committee submitted its report in November that year. But the issue refused to die down.
On February 27, 1991 108 members of the Lok Sabha belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Left and the National Front served a notice of motion for Ramaswami. But the Congress under Rajiv Gandhi, then supporting the Chandrashekhar government from outside, came out to bat for Ramaswami. A delegation of Congress MPs led by P V Narasimha Rao met Speaker Rabi Ray, and Rajiv Gandhi himself pleaded with the Speaker not to admit the impeachment motion as Ramaswami, handpicked by Rajiv Gandhi, had agreed to head the Punjab and Haryana High Court when no judge from outside the state had been willing.
Ignoring the entreaties, Ray admitted the notice and set up a committee to enquire into the charges. A couple of days later, the Congress withdrew support to the Chandrashekhar government and the Lok Sabha was dissolved. The caretaker government refused to notify the constitution of the committee on the plea that the notice had lapsed and the constitution of the committee voided with the dissolution of the Lok Sabha.
By then, in Tamil Nadu, the AIADMK and the state unit of the Congress were projecting the issue as a witch-hunt of a Tamil judge, a campaign soon to snowball into a south Indian judge versus north Indian vested interests bogey.
Even as the political scenario changed with the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, and the Congress returned to power with Narasimha Rao as prime minister, a dedicated group of advocates of the Supreme Court under the banner of the committee on judicial accountability moved the Supreme Court, which in October 1991 held that the motion for Ramaswami’s removal had not lapsed and that the committee should be deemed to have been properly constituted.
The committee formulated a 14-point chargesheet. It found unanimously that Ramaswami’s actions were ‘such as to bring dishonour and disrepute to the Judiciary’. Refusing to answer the charges, Ramaswami questioned its jurisdiction and credibility. He also tried, unsuccessfully, to create legal obstructions by moving the Supreme Court through proxies.
But it was almost a year before the report and the impeachment motion was taken up for discussion in Parliament. The opposition parties favoured impeachment. But the Congress was hopelessly divided. Most of the party’s southern MPs wanted the motion defeated. A north-south divide seemed to be in the making.
Finally on May 10, when the motion did come up for discussion in the Lok Sabha, Shivraj Patil took the unprecedented step of permitting Ramaswami’s counsel Kapil Sibal to address the House immediately after CPI(M) leader Somnath Chatterjee moved the motion. Sibal held forth for six hours, in essence arguing that it was ridiculous to remove a judge of the Supreme Court for the purchase of a ‘few carpets or suitcases’. But opposition stalwarts like George Fernandes and Somnath Chatterjee tore into Sibal’s defence. As the debate was winding down, Narasimha Rao sent word to MPs belonging to the Congress and its allies to abstain. After the division, when the votes were counted, it read: Ayes -196, Nays-0, abstentions-205.
Article 124 (4) of the Constitution says a judge of the Supreme Court or a High Court can be removed by the president only if a motion is adopted by each house of Parliament with a majority of two-thirds of the members present and voting, and an absolute majority of the total membership. The motion for removal of Ramaswami failed both these criteria. The motion had been defeated in the Lok Sabha without even a single vote being cast against it.
The entire saga showed that the political process involved in the impeachment of a judge can be subverted by extraneous considerations. In the case of Ramaswami, it was ‘Tamil honour in its totality is at stake’, and the resultant threat of a split in the ruling party on south India-north India lines. In the case of Dinakaran the Dalit card could come into play. Already, a section of the Madras High Court bar has tried to play this card. And even Tamil Nadu chief minister M Karunanidhi has made an oblique reference to Brahmin-Shudra divide when he juxtaposed the alleged land grabs by AIADMK general secretary J Jayalalithaa and Dinakaran.
Interestingly, Ramaswami’s father-in-law of K Veeraswami, former Chief Justice of Madras High Court, had the dubious distinction of being the first high court judge to come under CBI investigation. His son Sanjay Ramaswami was an AIADMK MLA during 1991-96. Ramaswami himself was the AIADMK candidate in Sivakasi constituency for the 1999 Lok Sabha elections. That his defeat by MDMK’s Vaiko put an end to his political ambitions is another matter.
(The author is a senior journalist based in Chennai. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)