Amaravati land scam case | Supreme Court stays Andhra Pradesh High Court gag order to media

A view of Supreme Court of India, in New Delhi. | Photo Credit: Sushil Kumar Verma
Krishnadas Rajagopal NEW DELHI 25 November 2020 17:31 IST
Updated: 25 November 2020 20:19 IST

Some named in FIR include relatives of a sitting Supreme Court judge

The Supreme Court on Wednesday stayed an interim direction of the Andhra Pradesh High Court to gag the media from reporting on an FIR registered on the alleged “illegal purchase” of land in Amaravati.

A three-judge Bench, led by Justice Ashok Bhushan, gave four weeks to former State Additional Advocate General and first respondent, Dammalapati Srinivas, to file his response. Mr. Srinivas is named in the FIR. Others named include the relatives of a sitting Supreme Court judge.

The FIR shows offences under the Prevention of Corruption Act, criminal breach of trust and cheating under the Indian Penal Code. The allegations include abuse of official positions in the State, sharing of privileged information and causing loss to the public exchequer during the previous Telegu Desam Party regime.


Order follows FIR registration

The High Court passed the gag order within hours of the registration of the FIR on September 15. It stayed the investigation and barred the State from taking any coercive action against the persons named in the FIR.

The order was based on a writ petition filed by Mr. Srinivas. The Jaganmohan Reddy government had appealed to the Supreme Court.

The Bench issued notice and posted the appeal for hearing in the last week of January 2021. The apex court did not, however, serve notice on Mr. Reddy, who is arraigned as the fifth respondent in the State appeal, noting the High Court had not done so earlier. Meanwhile, the High Court was asked not to pass any final orders in the case.

Senior advocate Rajeev Dhavan, for the Andhra government, dismissed notions that the FIR was a product of “regime revenge”. He said such arguments made by senior advocates Harish Salve and Mukul Rohatgi, for Mr. Srinivas, was merely “rhetorical”.

“Do they mean that a subsequent government can never investigate its predecessor’s activities? If a criminal case has been registered, the answer is simple, the case has to be investigated... The FIR is detailed. Do advocate generals get immunity no matter what crime they commit?" he said.

Request for CBI probe

In fact, Mr. Dhavan said, the State had made a request on March 23 to the Centre to initiate a CBI investigation into the case. The September 15 stay order looked as if the High Court was dealing with a plea for “anticipatory bail”.

“How can they stay an investigation which was in its nascent stage? Malafide against the State has to be proved through material evidence... Here he [Srinivas] had merely said the police and the State were acting like the Gestapo to get the stay order from the High Court”, Mr. Dhavan submitted.

He objected to the gag on the media. “An FIR is a public document”, he stated. He called the September 15 order “draconian”.

Mr. Rohatgi countered that “news had appeared before and after the hearing [in the High Court]”. He submitted, “The case concerns transactions associated to land which was already in the public domain. The idea behind the FIR was only to scandalise. On the other hand, there is a flurry of criminal cases against the Chief Minister. He [Reddy] has got no relief, even from the Supreme Court. My client had appeared against the CM in many cases. This FIR reeks of malafide”.

He referred to how “secret enquiries were made from the Income Tax Department” to get details. “Was that not worse than the Gestapo?” he observed. The stay order was passed as the High Court was sensitive to the possibility that a person’s reputation could be marred easily.

Mr. Salve said efforts to unearth alleged irregularities against the previous regime began soon after Mr. Reddy came to power. He said the unfolding of events leading to the registration of FIR had displayed the “arrogance of power”. Mr. Srinivas was being “targetted” for his professional appearances in court as a lawyer against Mr. Reddy.