The appointment of a retired Chief Justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court Vijender Jain as the Chairman of the Haryana Human Rights Commission has sparked off an acrimonious debate on possible corruption in the judiciary, as well as allegations that the Punjab Police may have sought to frame judges on fabricated corruption charges.

Justice Jain's appointment last week--resisted by sections of the Bar--coincided with the leak of a letter by Justice Tirath Singh Thakur, a sitting judge of the Supreme Court, attacking his predecessor on the High Court for seeking the transfer of another judge on the basis of “suspect material”given to him by the Punjab Vigilance Bureau. Justice Thakur's letter also raises questions about the possibility of the Punjab police having fabricating evidence against judges inimical to it.

The January 11, 2009, letter sent by Justice Thakur to then-Chief Justice of India alleges that Sumedh Singh Saini, then Director of Vigilance and now Punjab’s Director General of Police fabricated evidence against nine judges of the High Court in 2008. The letter was aired by Chandigarh-based television station Day and Night on Monday.

From 17th, April 2008, the Punjab vigilance Bureau had placed the telephones of two individuals under surveillance for “the purpose of detection of organized crime and reasons of security of the state.” The tapping was spread over three months, “during which matters concerning the High Court and the subordinate judiciary came to light.” The Vigilance Bureau then compiled two reports, both of which were given to Justice Jain.

The conversations appeared to refer to the to manipulation of the High Court registry to place cases before favourable judges, fixing the appointment of judges and malpractices in the subordinate judiciary.

Mr Saini's report was given by the then Punjab Advocate General HS Mattewal to Justice Jain, who forwarded it to the Chief Justice of India in August 2008. On the basis of this report, Justice Jain had recommended the transfer of two judges, one of them being former High Court judge Mehtab Singh Gill. Justice Gill, now retired, was also a member of the three judge High Court collegium, headed by Justice Jain, that decides on appointment of new judges. Since Justice Jain retired soon after, the CJI asked Justice Thakur to enquire into the matter.

Justice Thakur’s nine page letter questionsMr Saini's motives for conducting the exercise. It states that Justice Gill had directed a “CBI investigation against Mr Saini in a case of custodial killing”, in which Mr Mattewal appears for the state government to challenge Justice Gill’s orders in the Supreme court.

The judge's letter also questions the “nature of organised crime” that necessitated the phone tapping as it was discovered during enquiry, noting that this was “not available from record.” He notes that “no followup action was taken against any one for organized criminal activity or for threatening the security of the state.”

“If the telephone conversations were recorded by the Vigilance Bureau, reports based on the same should have been submitted to the next higher officer in the chain of command and not to the Advocate General of Punjab, who does not figure in the administrative hierarchy,” the letter states.

During the course of his enquiry, Justice Thakur also found that the then DGP NPS Aulakh too had no idea about the Vigilance Bureau investigation. He also summoned the Chief Secretary RI Singh who also told him that he had not received any such report from the Vigilance Bureau. But four days later Mr Singh told Justice Thakur that on enquiring from the VB Chief, he had been given the “Top Secret’ reports.

Justice Thakur found this suspicious and his letter says, “Vigilance Bureau did not submit any report to the Chief secretary till as late as September 2008 regarding what had been discovered by it and the fact that it was only when the chief secretary mentioned the matter to Director Vigilance that a report was submitted to him, makes the entire process suspect.” He also discovered that some CDs of the conversations are not on High court records.

When asked about Justice Thakur’s exoneration of Justice Gill, and indictment of the VB, Justice Jain told the Hindu, “Whatever I did was to protect the judiciary from being tarnished. I did not want the dignity of a fellow judge to be lowered by responding to allegations and thought that it would be better to ask for his transfer instead.” Was he aware of the VB phone tapping exercise ? “No, I do not know. I never allowed anyone to tap the phone of a judge. Afcourse, sometimes one has to take action in the larger interest of the institution and that I have done,” he said.

Justice Gill, on the other hand believes that one of the reasons for recommending his transfer was, because he had been opposing the selection of some candidates that Justice Jain wanted to elevate to the bench. “I had acute differences with Justice Jain on the selection of some candidates to the bench, and I and the other judge 1 on the collegium were both opposing Justice Jain’s choices,” he told The Hindu.

Incidentally, just before he retired, the Punjab Governor SF Rodrigues has also opposed the elevation of six district and sessions judges to the High Court recommended by Justice Jain, because of the opposition from the other two judges on the collegiums namely Justice Gill and Justice JS Khehar. The Governor’s opposition stemmed from the view that it would not be appropriate to push the appointments in these circumstances and particularly, when Justice Jain was retiring soon and that it would be proper for the next incumbent, Justice Thakur, to take a decision.

Allegations of corruption and misdemeanours have rocked the Punjab and Haryana High Court with regularity in the last few years. In August 2008 the cash for judge scandal erupted when Rs 15 lakh cash was wrongly delivered at the Chandigarh residence of a high court judge. The matter led to the prosecution of Justice Nirmal Yadav (retd) for who the money was allegedly mean for. In April 2004, 25 sitting judges of the high court went on mass leave protesting against then, Chief Justice B K Roy’s move to seek an explanation from two judges, Justice Vinay Mittal and Varinder Singh, who had allegedly applied for membership to a private golf course, Forest Hill Resort Club. The club was later demolished on the orders of the high court.

And, in 2002 three judges were allegedly found to have taken favours from disgraced chairman of the Punjab Public Service Commission. Following an enquiry conducted by Justice AB Saharya work was temporarily withdrawn from the three judges. While one of the judges was exonerated, another was let off with a warning. The third judge was asked to go on leave, after which he retired.