The Supreme Court on Friday declined to stay at this stage the Bombay High Court's remarks in its judgment against Union Minister and former Maharashtra Chief Minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh, in the case relating to the allotment of 20 acres of government land to filmmaker Subhash Ghai's institute.
A Bench, however, issued notice to the respondents, including the five petitioners before the High Court, on whose pleas the High Court passed the order on February 9, quashing the allotment and asking Mr. Ghai to return the land. The High Court had held that Mr. Deshmukh had committed an act of serious impropriety, misusing the office of Chief Minister and extending undue favours to Mr. Ghai, showing a keen interest in the entire project. This, it said, constituted political patronage by the Chief Minister; this was unusual.
When senior counsel K.K. Venugopal, appearing for Mr. Deshmukh, insisted on a stay, senior counsel Ram Jethmalani, holding a brief for five of the respondents (the petitioners in the High Court), strongly opposed the plea, arguing that since their substance formed an integral part of the judgment, the remarks should remain.
Declining to stay the observations, Justice Dattu told Mr. Venugopal: “Sorry, no stay. We will hear the matter.” The Bench issued notice to the respondents, including the Maharashtra government, the Maharashtra Film, Stage and Cultural Development Corporation (MFSCDC) and Ghai's Mukta Arts. The land was allotted to Ghai's institute, Whistling Woods, pursuant to a May 30, 2004 joint venture agreement signed between Mukta Arts and the MFSCDC. Mr. Venugopal contended that as Chief Minister, Mr. Deshmukh was not responsible for the land allotment; he was only a witness to an agreement between the two parties, and as a blessing, he put his signature on the agreement. To this, Justice Dattu told counsel: “It is strange. We have not come across any such thing. Blessing is [done] only through hand, [and] not by putting one's signature. The State government is not supporting you.”
Mr. Venugopal replied that the mere affixing of a signature on an agreement would never mean that Mr. Deshmukh was party to an illegal decision; the court could not hold him responsible for an act done in good faith. Justice Dattu countered: “What is the message you [Mr. Deshmukh] are giving by putting your signature on the agreement. Even if there are loopholes in the agreement, all are cured because of the signature.”
Tracing the sequence of events, Mr. Jethmalani said eight lakh square feet of land was allotted to the institute for Rs. 3 crore. While the petitioners before the High Court put the value at Rs.100 crore, the Comptroller and Auditor-General estimated it at Rs. 30 crore.