Supreme Court ticks off commission probing Jayalalithaa’s death

It was hearing plea by Apollo Hospitals accusing Arumughaswamy panel of bias

October 26, 2021 05:39 pm | Updated October 27, 2021 01:34 am IST - NEW DELHI

A view of the Supreme Court of India. File

A view of the Supreme Court of India. File

The Supreme Court on Tuesday wondered whether the trajectory followed by Justice (retired) A. Arumughaswamy Commission of Inquiry into the death of former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa is redolent of “virtually becoming a judge of his own cause” or an “umpire playing the game himself”.

The oral remarks made by a Bench of Justices Abdul S. Nazeer and Krishna Murari were in reaction to submissions made by Apollo Hospitals, represented by senior advocate Aryama Sundaram and advocate Rohini Musa, accusing the Commission of Inquiry (CoI) of bias, violation of the principles of natural justice and conducting the fact-finding exercise outside its jurisdiction.

Reputation ‘blighted overnight’

Mr. Sundaram said the reputation of the premier Chennai hospital, where Ms. Jayalalithaa breathed her last in 2016 , was “blighted overnight” by the CoI who took a tangent which was ‘unbelievable’. The senior lawyer said the path followed by the Commission was straight out of the fairy tale Alice in Wonderland .

Mr. Sundaram submitted that the CoI had even got about to ask for the medical records concerning the hospitalisation of another former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister, M.G. Ramachandran, 37 years ago and his shifting to the Brooklyn hospital in the U.S. The CoI had written to Apollo chairperson, Dr. Prathap C. Reddy, for the information.

Also read: Jayalalithaa death | 4 more witnesses to be examined, will complete work and place report in Assembly, panel tells Supreme Court

“How will one centre get the medical records from another centre where the patient was referred to?” Justice Murari asked.

“How will Dr. Reddy gets the documents of a U.S. hospital? What they did was out of a Robert Ludlum novel,” Mr. Sundaram said.

Senior advocate Dushyant Dave, for Tamil Nadu which wants the Commission to finish its work and submit its report, retorted sarcastically that John Grisham would be a better choice of author.

“Grisham is more straight-forward. Ludlum is better, considering the intricacies involved,” Mr. Sundaram shot back.

Mr. Sundaram clarified that he was not seeking to arrest the inquiry into the circumstances leading to the former Chief Minister’s death.

“Please do not stop the inquiry, but do appoint someone else with very strict guidelines. They should have a competent medical board to assist them… I am not here to thwart the inquiry,” Mr. Sundaram submitted on record.

The proceedings before the CoI were stayed by the Supreme Court in April 2019 on the basis of a plea by the Apollo Hospitals that the inquiry panel’s functioning was “replete with bias”.

“Parties who had criticised her while she was living, now express sadness after her death,” Mr. Sundaram said.

He said the CoI was supposed to be a fact-finding body and not a “fault-finding body”.

Legal question

Justice Nazeer then asked a legal question about the hospital approaching the court at this stage. The judge said the CoI reports are usually placed before the Legislative Assembly.

“Bias is a ground for me to come to court at any time of the inquiry. If my reputation is affected, anytime. There are three grounds on which I can come. They are bias, natural justice and jurisdiction… Can I have a reasonable feeling of non-bias here?” Mr. Sundaram replied.

The Apollo Hospitals had submitted that the Commission, instead of conducting an impartial probe, had filed a pleading alleging “criminal intent” on the part of the hospital and its doctors.

Justice Nazeer asked whether the process of the CoI was adversarial or not.

“Can the Commission participate as a litigant?” Justice Nazeer asked. Mr. Sundaram replied that the process was not supposed to be adversarial.

Mr. Sundaram had previously argued that the Justice Arumughaswamy Commission was filing applications “on its own behalf before itself” alleging that the hospital had shown negligence in the treatment of Jayalalithaa.

Expert views on medical terms

“The CoI has to only extract the facts… This Commission goes about saying how this or the other treatment could have prolonged the CM’s life — now is this a medical fact-finding body? The CoI may be proficient in law but how does the CoI give expert views on medical terms which can be hardly pronounced… I have no faith in the Commission and everything it has done has to be called off,” Mr. Sundaram submitted.

In an earlier hearing, the CoI, represented by senior advocate Ranjit Kumar, had informed the court that it had only four more witnesses left to be examined and should be allowed to complete its work and place its fact-finding report before the Assembly.

The State had appointed the inquiry commission headed by Justice Arumughaswamy, a retired Madras High Court judge, on September 25, 2017. The Commission’s reference was to examine the circumstances which led to the hospitalisation of Jayalalithaa on September 22, 2016 and the nature of treatment given to determine the cause of hospitalisation.

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