T.N. Minister Senthilbalaji’s arrest: SC refuses plea to transfer case to itself after Madras HC’s split verdict

Published - July 04, 2023 08:17 pm IST

The Supreme Court on July 4 did not entertain a plea by the Enforcement Directorate to decide by itself the question of custody of Tamil Nadu Minister V. Senthilbalaji in a money-laundering case linked to the cash-for-jobs scam following a split verdict by the Madras High Court.

A Bench of Justices Surya Kant and Dipankar Datta, instead, requested the Madras High Court Chief Justice to expeditiously constitute a larger Bench to hear the case.

The hearing in the Supreme Court came within hours of the High Court delivering the split verdict on July 4.

Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, for the central agency, urged the Bench to authoritatively decide the “neat questions of law” as to whether a habeas corpus petition would stand after a judicial order of remand and if the time spent by Senthilbalaji under medical treatment in a private hospital should be excluded from the period of custody allowed to the ED.

“He is an influential person. Every day that passes increases the risk of tampering of evidence in the case. The damage would be irreversible,” Mehta stressed vehemently.

Appearing for Senthilbalaji, senior advocate Kapil Sibal and advocate Amit Anand Tiwari objected to Mehta’s suggestion to transfer the case to the Supreme Court.

“How can you bypass the High Court? How can this request even be entertained? A three-judge Bench has to be constituted. They have to decide first,” he submitted.

Agreeing with Sibal, the Supreme Court asked the High Court Chief Justice “to place the matter before a larger Bench at the earliest and further to request the assigned Bench to decide the case as early as possible”.

The Bench adjourned the case to July 24, noting that the “pendency of the special leave petition will have no bearing on the proceedings before the High Court”. The Supreme Court on June 21 had left it entirely to the Madras High Court to decide whether Tamil Nadu Minister’s move to a private hospital had thwarted the central agency’s “right to remand” and interrogate him on the money-laundering charges.

The Enforcement Directorate (ED) had approached the Supreme Court against the Madras High Court’s decision to entertain the habeas corpus petition filed by Balaji’s wife the very next day after he was arrested and remanded to police custody on June 14.

The central agency had alleged that the High Court had allowed Balaji to be shifted to a private hospital, denying the ED its right to custodial interrogation. The Supreme Court had at the time explained that mere entertaining of the habeas corpus petition by the High Court did not mean that it had found the plea “maintainable”.

The Bench had noted in June that the High Court had already suggested that the ED could form its own specialist board of doctors to examine Balaji at the private hospital and see if he is fit for interrogation. On May 16, the Supreme Court paved the way for the investigation to continue against Balaji, who is accused of taking bribes in exchange for jobs in the Metro Transport Corporation (MTC).

The Supreme Court had set aside a Madras High Court order of October 31 last year, directing de novo or fresh investigation against the Minister. The apex court had directed the investigation to be wrapped up in two months.

The judgment, authored by Justice V. Ramasubramanian (since retired), had also given the green signal for initiation of proceedings by the Enforcement Directorate in related money laundering charges against the Minister. The judgment in May had eventually led to the eventual arrest of the Minister.

Amidst NCP split, Thackeray camp moves SC against Speaker for delaying disqualification hearings against Shinde

The Uddhav Thackeray camp in the Supreme Court on July 4 accused Maharashtra Assembly Speaker Rahul Narwekar of deliberately delaying disqualification proceedings against Chief Minister Eknath Shinde for defection.

The petition, filed in the top court amidst the ongoing churn in Maharashtra politics following Ajit Pawar’s split from NCP to join the Shinde Cabinet as Deputy Chief Minister, said Speakers should “rise above their political affiliations” while performing the duties of the office.

The Thackeray faction said Narwekar’s conduct has been in “brazen disregard” of his constitutional duties as a neutral arbiter under the Tenth Schedule (anti-defection law) of the Constitution.

“It is imperative for this court to direct the Speaker to decide the disqualification petitions filed by the petitioner against delinquent members of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly expeditiously and within a time-bound manner, or, alternatively, to decide the disqualification petitions itself,” a 406-page petition filed by Shiv Sena (UBT) leader Sunil Prabhu urged.

The Thackeray loyalists referred to the apex court’s own 2020 judgment in Keisham Meghachandra Singh v. Manipur Legislative Assembly, which had laid down that disqualification petitions under the Tenth Schedule should normally be decided within a period of three months from the date of their filing.

The petition said Narwekar’s inaction amounts to bias as it effectively permits Shinde’s illegal continuance in office when disqualification proceedings for defection are hanging over him. The Speaker’s conduct should be “perceptibly impartial” while exercising the powers of constitutional adjudication under the Tenth Schedule.

Prabhu, represented by advocates Amit Anand Tiwari and Nishant Patil, said the Supreme Court, in its May 11 judgment on the Thackeray-Shinde battle for control over Shiv Sena, had placed its trust in Narwekar to impartially hear and decide the anti-defection proceedings against the Shinde camp.

“The Speaker is the appropriate authority to adjudicate petitions for disqualification under the Tenth Schedule (anti-defection law)... The Speaker embodies propriety and impartiality and that it was therefore inappropriate to express distrust in the office of the Speaker,” the judgment had observed.

However, Prabhu said three months have passed since the judgment and Narwekar has not called for even a single hearing despite repeated representations to do so.

“It is settled law that the Speaker, while performing its functions under the Tenth Schedule, acts as a judicial tribunal, and is required to act in a fair and unbiased manner. The constitutional requirement of fairness enjoins upon the Speaker the obligation to decide the question of disqualification in an expeditious manner. Any unreasonable delay on the part of the Speaker in deciding the petitions for disqualification contributes to and perpetuates the constitutional sin of defection committed by the delinquent members,” the petition said.

Noting that the Speaker’s office under the Tenth Schedule was that of a judicial tribunal, the petition said Narwekar’s inertia was “an act of grave constitutional impropriety”.

Delhi court seeks response from minor victim, complainant on police’s cancellation report in case against Brij Bhushan Singh

A court here on July 4 sought a response from the “victim” and the complainant on the final report filed by Delhi Police seeking cancellation of a case against BJP MP and outgoing WFI chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh for alleged sexual harassment of a minor wrestler, the lawyer for the prosecution said.

Additional Sessions Judge Chhavi Kapoor issued notice to the victim and complainant during in-chamber proceedings and directed them to file their response to the police report by August 1, when the court will further hear the matter. “The judge issued notice and adjourned the matter,” special public prosecutor Atul Srivastava said.

Delhi police had on June 15 recommended dropping of POCSO charges against Singh but charged him with sexual harassment and stalking six women wrestlers.

The police had recommended the cancellation of the complaint filed by the minor wrestler against Singh, citing “no corroborative evidence”.

The police submitted a report based upon the statements of the complainant, who is the father of the minor, and the girl herself, a statement issued by Delhi Police had said. The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act (POCSO) entails a minimum imprisonment of three years, depending on what section the crime falls in.

However, the court may take a call on whether to accept the police’s closure report or direct further investigation.

The government had earlier assured the agitating wrestlers including Olympic medallists Bajrang Punia and Sakshi Malik and fellow Olympian Vinesh Phogat that the charge sheet would be filed by June 15, following which they had suspended their stir. They were demanding Singh’s arrest on allegations of sexual harassment of seven wrestlers, including the minor. Singh, who is a BJP MP, has denied all the charges.

After Joshimath, wide cracks in Uttarkashi village cause panic

Wide cracks have appeared in the roads and walls of several homes in Mastari village in Uttarkashi, nearly 300 km from Joshimath, which caught national attention earlier this year when thousands of people had to be evacuated to safer locations due to land subsidence.

The quick response team of the disaster management authority rushed to the village to inspect the cracks and asked people there to be alert. While land subsidence is an old problem in the village, rains last Saturday led to the widening of cracks at people’s homes, with water beginning to stream out of the crevices, causing panic among the villagers, Satyanarayan Semwal, the head of Mastari, said.

“Landslides are happening continuously in the village but the authorities are not paying as much attention to Mastari as it deserves,” Semwal said. The problem of land subsidence began in Mastari village after the earthquake of 1991, locals say. In 1997, geologists conducted a survey in the village and suggested that the villagers be moved out to a safer location besides recommending some other protective measures.

The cracks in the houses from the courtyards to the roads in Mastari became wider following heavy rains on July 1 night, he said. Semwal said cracks have appeared in the courtyard of Chandra Mohan’s house and in the walls of the houses of Khimanand, Shiv Narayan, Harish, Ramji, Jayaprakash, Sundar Lal, Shankar, Devi Prasad, Ramanand, Surendra, Baijnath, Mukesh, Balbir and Jai Singh.

He also said that the cracks are getting bigger and that water has started to stream out of them. District Disaster Management officer Devendra Patwal said three geological investigations have been conducted in the village. The villagers have not suffered any major loss, he said.

Meanwhile, a fresh crack has appeared near a house in Joshimath raising concern among people about the land-subsidence issue in the hill town aggravating during monsoon. The crack which is said to have been around six feet deep has been filled by locals but a team of PWD engineers is keeping an eye on the problem.

In January, 868 houses in Joshimath had developed cracks. Of these, 181 houses were declared unsafe by the district administration and their occupants were evacuated to safe locations within and outside the town. Sixty families in Joshimath are living in relief camps.

Modi govt compromised on basic rail safety issues: Congress after CRS report on Balasore tragedy

The Congress alleged on Tuesday that the Narendra Modi government has “thoroughly compromised” on basic issues of railway safety and claimed that a recent train tragedy in Odisha’s Balasore was a result of human error at the root of which was the failure of the management and the political leadership.

A high-level inquiry has found “wrong signalling” to be the main reason for the accident involving three trains in Balasore and flagged “lapses at multiple levels” in the signalling and telecommunication (S&T) department, but indicated that the tragedy could have been averted if past red flags were reported.

Reacting to the report, Congress general secretary Jairam Ramesh said, “This is what we have been saying all along. In the craze for inaugurating Vande Bharat trains, fixating on bullet trains and tinkering with specialised cadres, the Modi government has thoroughly compromised on basic issues of railway safety that don’t make for photo-ops and headlines. Clearly, the Balasore tragedy was human error at the root of which is management failure, which includes the political leadership. What will it take to bring the overall approach to the railways back on track?” Ramesh asked in a tweet.

At a press conference at the All India Congress Committee (AICC) headquarters here, party spokesperson Supriya Shrinate also hit out at the BJP-led Centre over the report and said it is the government’s responsibility to ensure that the passengers travelling by train reach their destinations safely.

“We would like to appeal that do not get into this business of hot food and new Vande Bharats. First ensure the safety of those travelling by train. It is the responsibility of the government to ensure that people reach their destinations safely and not just keep flagging off trains,” she said.

“All the lies of the government have fallen flat through this report,” she added.

Congress MP Manickam Tagore slammed the government over the report and wondered how Railway Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw could still hold on to his position when his “inaction killed hundreds of passengers who believed they won’t die before reaching home”.

The independent inquiry report submitted by the Commission of Railway Safety (CRS) to the Railway Board said notwithstanding the lapses in signalling work, remedial actions could have been taken by the S&T staff if the “repeated unusual behaviour” of switches connecting two parallel tracks was reported to them by the station manager of Bahanaga Bazar, the spot of the accident.

The report also suggested that the non-supply of the station-specific approved circuit diagram for the works to replace the electric lifting barrier at level-crossing gate number 94 at the Bahanaga Bazar station was a “wrong step that led to wrong wiring”. It said a team of field supervisors modified the wiring diagram and failed to replicate it.

PIL for re-classification of caste system dismissed by Supreme Court

The Supreme Court on Tuesday (July 4) junked a plea seeking directions to the Centre for re-classification of the caste system. A Bench comprising Chief justice D.Y. Chandrachud and Justice P.S. Narasimha dismissed the plea filed by an advocate and imposed a cost of ₹25,000 on the petitioner.

“This is abuse of the process of law. These kind of PILs must stop,” the Bench observed. The top court recorded in its order, “Invocation of Article 32 of the Constitution has been sought to direct the Centre to frame a policy for re-classification of caste system….This PIL is abuse of the process of court. We dismiss it and direct a payment of ₹25,000 cost to the Supreme Court Bar Association. The petitioner shall produce a receipt of the payment within two weeks,” the Bench said.

The top court was hearing a PIL filed by advocate Sachin Gupta seeking directions to the Centre for re-classification of caste system.

In Brief:

Food, fuel and fertiliser crisis is a big challenge for all the countries in the world surrounded by controversies, tensions and epidemics and there must be united efforts to deal with it, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on July 4, 2023. In his opening remarks at the virtual summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), Modi also said that some countries use cross-border terrorism as an instrument of their policy and the grouping must not hesitate to criticise them.

The BJP on July 4 appointed four State unit chiefs — Daggubati Purandeswari as Andhra Pradesh chief, G. Kishan Reddy as State president of party’s Telangana unit, Babulal Marandi as Jharkhand BJP chief and Sunil Jakhar as Punjab unit chief. In a statement, BJP national president J.P. Nadda also appointed Etela Rajender, MLA and ex-Minister of Telangana, as chairman of election management committee of Telangana BJP for the upcoming Assembly elections.

Evening Wrap will return tomorrow.

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