Error, illegality and perversity all could be pointed out in the impugned trial court order.” This one sentence in the judgment of Justice G Jayachandran [at para 52] in Maran brothers’ infamous telephone fraud case shames the trial court which had, by an unconscionable order, discharged the buccaneers. The High Court did not merely reverse the order of discharge. Not just at para 52, at para 79 too, Justice Jayachandran termed the discharge order by the trial judge as “perverse”. According to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, the word “perverse” means “turned away from what is right or good: corrupt”.
A strong indictment indeed by judicial standards. Why did the High Court indict the trial court in such strong terms? The CBI had averred in its petition to High Court that the trial judge “has acted in this case in a pre-decided manner and with the sole intention to discharge”. Justice Jayachandran noted CBI’s averment [para 28] and found [paras 77-79] that the trial judge perversely cited parts of the evidence that helped the discharge and ignored the parts that would not — impliedly accepting the CBI argument of premeditated intention to discharge the accused. The Marans, by their political, media and financial might, and by prevaricating to courts through highly paid lawyers, have been dodging the law for a decade. Justice Jayachandran has saved not only the prosecution against the Marans, but the credibility of the judiciary itself. Seeing the Marans’ game endlessly to delay the course of justice, the judge also directed that the trial be completed in 12 months. One honest judge has thus stopped the fraudsters escape in their tracks.
Marans lied to the public,Supreme Court and trial court
Now look at how the trial court destroyed a case that had the potential to convict the powerful Maran brothers and how the High Court saved it. In June 2011, citing the CBI’s initial probe, The New Indian Express exposed the Marans’ secret telephone exchange with 300-plus high speed lines buried in the name of the Chief General Manager of BSNL Chennai at the palatial Boat Club home of the brothers — all the lines being found connected to Sun TV network a couple of kilometres away by a secret, private, underground cable and used for its show business. TNIE said that the CBI, which had asked for permission to probe the fraud in June 2007, was not given the go ahead. Reacting to TNIE’s expose, Dayanidhi Maran lied that he had only one BSNL number 24371500, and no other, at his home.
Terming TNIE’s story of 323 lines as false, Maran, like P Chidambaram did, threatened to sue the paper. When TNIE challenged him saying, “Welcome Mr Maran,” he ran away. As the UPA was in power, the CBI probe was not given the green light. This writer had to move the Supreme Court to force the CBI to act. In the third quarter of 2013, the CBI registered an FIR and began to probe. The CBI probe found that besides the 323 lines at the Boat Club residence of the Marans, there were 441 more telephone lines again secretly and fraudulently connected to the Gopalapuram home, taking the secret telephone exchange lines to 764. On media reports that the CBI might seek his custody, Dayanidhi Maran approached the Supreme Court like most powerful suspects do. The Marans told the same lie to the Supreme Court, which they had told the public in 2011 — that they had only one line, not 323 or 764. They also lied that the loss to the exchequer was only Rs 1.73 crore. Believing the glib arguments of highly paid counsel, the Supreme Court denied the CBI custodial interrogation of Maran. Maran also lied to the Supreme Court that the CBI had woken up after a long time. The truth is that the CBI sought permission to register a case in 2007, which was granted after six years. That too under pressure from the Supreme Court. The CBI completed the probe and filed the chargesheet in December 2016. In the trial court Maran repeated the same lie, that he had only one line, not 764. In his perverse order, the trial judge accepted that lie without looking at the evidence that disproved it.
But High Court caught them
But the High Court exposed Maran’s lie of only one phone connection and slighted the trial court for accepting that lie. Justice Jayachandran found from the very evidence produced by the CBI, which the trial court had turned a blind eye to, that the Marans were lying. Justice Jayachandran wrote [para 53] that the trial court had wrongly concluded that Dayanidhi Maran had obtained only one phone connection adding that the evidence tendered by the CBI showed there were several connections with add-on benefits given to “Marans and their business establishment illegally”. The judge noted [para 82] that the Marans had obtained 764 telephone connections and used them for business. He found that “by procuring high-end equipments and engaging private operators to lay exclusively lease line to premises of Sun TV”, the fraudulently procured lines had been diverted for commercial exploitation.
To accomplish and suppress the fraud, the Marans had conspired with BSNL officials to commit a whole series of offences — breach trust, fabrication of documents, use the forged document as genuine and falsification of accounts. Maran lied to the public first in 2011 that he had only one line, but TNIE exposed him. He lied so to the Supreme Court through expensive lawyers in 2015 and got advance bail. He again lied to the trial court, which was more than willing to believe him. He got the discharge and laughed at the CBI. But one honest judge, Justice Jayachandran has stopped him in his tracks, forcing the fraudsters to face the law.
Loss not D1.73 crore, but several hundred crores
Another lie the Marans told the Supreme Court to get advance bail was that the loss to BSNL was just Rs 1.73 crore. This was a complete lie – in fact a fraudulent claim. The amount of Rs 1.73 crore was just installation charges of the 764 high-speed lines. That did not include user charges of 441 of the lines from 2004 to 2007 and of the 323 lines in 2006-07. The CBI in its original proposal for probe had estimated the loss at Rs 440 crore on just the 323 lines, that too for only six months. The charge for high-speed line per unit of call was 70 paise at that time. On that basis the CBI had originally estimated 630 crore units resulting in a loss of Rs 440 crore. But since the 764 illegal lines were kept out of the system as if they were for the own use of BSNL, the CBI was unable to get the exact user data. The Marans had committed theft of huge capacity of BSNL and it was not just stealing units of calls.
The 760 connections were put to commercial use by Sun TV. In para 74, the High Court noted the evidence tendered by the CBI that the illegal connections were used by Sun TV for its popular commercial programmes, like “Pepsi Ungal Choice”, “Mirinda Comedy Time”, “Talk to your popular artist” and other such catchy programmes and got huge revenue from advertisements at little cost. The cost of installation of Rs 1.73 crore mentioned in the chargesheet is peanuts as compared to the unaccounted user charges on the 764 stolen lines — which must be several hundreds of crores.
The Economic Times [22.1.2015] wrote that even after nearly three years of probe, the CBI was unable to calculate the total loss to the exchequer on the hundreds of high-speed broadband lines allegedly set up by BSNL officials at Maran’s home to “benefit Sun TV network owned by his brother Kalanithi”. The truth being this, the clever lawyers of the Maran brothers told the Supreme Court in 2015 that it was just a civil dispute and as law-abiding citizens, they were willing to pay up the amount. A judge of the Supreme Court even suggested why not the BSNL accept the offer and close the matter. But the very same Supreme Court in a judgment dated 24.2.2014 — just a year before — had confirmed the conviction of a small time government servant for accepting a bribe of Rs 265 — yes just rupees two hundred and sixty-five. Additionally, the court also enhanced the fine of Rs 5,000 on him to Rs 50,000, when the man, who had already undergone 45 days jail term, had retired and was 76 then. Yet, the judge suggested why not the Marans be let off on payment of Rs 1.73 crore! Hopefully, the CBI will get the details of the user charges from the national gateway and other records and tell the court the real loot by the use of the stolen exchange of 764 lines and not allow the Marans to underplay their fraud by saying that the loss was only Rs 1.73 crore.
Only presumption: “Marans have committed offence”
Now, with the resounding order of Justice Jayachandran who has brought into the open the CBI evidence and admonished the trial court, the Marans’ game of lying has been put an end to. When the trial court, by the perverse order discharged the Marans, Dayanidhi Maran proclaimed, “I have stated from day one, these allegations [of fraudulent telephone exchange at his home] are politically motivated and foisted falsely, out of jealousy and business rivalry against my brother to defame me and my family and my party. Now I stand vindicated, It is unfortunate that lies were spread and liars were made to look like heroes, and I was made to look like a villain.” The spurious victory is gone and the trial judge order, which the Marans proclaimed as victory, has been junked, forcing them to face trial.
A counsel told Justice Jayachandran that Dayanidhi Maran who took the broadband facility to every nook and corner was being haunted by the CBI for political reasons. To this shallow logic, the judge responded that his doing so did not mean Maran “could claim the privilege of unlimited use of that facility for him, for his brother and his business free of costs” adding that, in a democratic country, the judicial system cannot “tolerate and entertain such a thought”. He concluded that considering the CBI chargesheet and documents, the “only opinion any judicial mind could form is that, there are grounds to presume all the 7 accused have committed offence and not otherwise”. Now will begin the trial for a daring offence committed over a decade ago.
(The author iswell-known commentator on political and economic affairs)