New Delhi

Jagdeep Chhokar

(Jagdeep Chhokar)

The media is agog with headlines: "Can't fast-track only MPs' cases, speed up system: Supreme Court"; "MPs are not special, can't fast-track criminal cases against them: SC"; "Apex court tells govt to fast-track criminal cases".

While hearing a PIL on August 01, 2014, on Pakistani prisoners who have been in Indian jails for years as their trials were not complete, the Chief Justice of India (CJI) is reported to have expressed his inability and expressed his anguish saying to Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi, "There is a demand that when MPs are involved, criminal trials should be fast-tracked. If you fast-track certain cases, it will be at the cost of other pending cases... What is important is the evolution of the criminal justice delivery system. Instead of being case-specific, evolve a system." He is reported to have added, "But, what is lacking is adequate infrastructure and manpower...I can only write letters to my chief justices of various high courts to fast-track cases. I can't constitute courts." The Bench is also reported to have recorded in its order the Attorney-General's assurance to take a comprehensive look into ways to evolve the criminal justice delivery system and come up with a proposal in four weeks.

It has also been pointed out most media reports that Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, had promised in his election campaign speeches that he will make Parliament criminal-free within one year by getting the Supreme Court to devise a mechanism to expedite pending criminal cases against elected MPs and other elected representatives within one year. He had also called it a tribute to Mahatma Gandhi and a step in the right direction to cleanse politics of criminality. Then, on June 11, 2014, he declared in the Rajya Sabha that there should be no space for criminals in Parliament, and sought the support of lawmakers to ask Supreme Court to complete trials of pending cases against MPs within a year. He said, "Such an initiative will help punish the guilty and remove the taint from those MPs who are falsely charged." While replying to the debate on the President's address to Parliament, he went on to ask the MPs present in the Rajya Sabha, "Would it not be better if the guilty are punished? Then every time you file an affidavit you don't have to put down a case that some NGO will highlight as a pending criminal investigation."

The observation of the CJI in the PIL, or what in legalese may be called obiter dictum, highlighted in almost all the headlines has been interpreted to mean a certain reluctance on the part of the Judiciary, as symbolised by the CJI, to give special attention to criminal cases pending against sitting MPs and MLAs. It has also been hinted, though not specifically mentioned, that this may be yet another manifestation of the on-going stand-off between the Judiciary and the Executive on the issue of appointment of judges.

However, what the almost entire media seems to have overlooked is a very important judgment of the Supreme Court delivered on March 10, 2014, by a Bench headed by Justice Lodha himself. The judgement was in Writ Petition (Civil) No. 536 of 2011 in a case called Public Interest Foundation and others vs Union of India and another. The last but one, and operative, paragraph of this judgment is worth reproducing in full:

"12. We, accordingly, direct that in relation to sitting MPs and MLAs who have charges framed against them for the offences which are specified in Section 8(1), 8(2) and 8(3) of the RP Act, the trial shall be concluded as speedily and expeditiously as may be possible and in no case later than one year from the date of the framing of charge(s). In such cases, as far as possible, the trial shall be conducted on a day-to-day basis. If for some extraordinary circumstances the concerned court is being not able to conclude the trial within one year from the date of framing of charge(s), such court would submit the report to the Chief Justice of the respective High Court indicating special reasons for not adhering to the above time limit and delay in conclusion of the trial. In such situation, the Chief Justice may issue appropriate directions to the concerned court extending the time for conclusion of the trial."

The next, and the last paragraph, says, "13. List the matter after six months."

The above judgment on March 10, and the Prime Minister's statements during the election campaign and in the Rajya Sabha on June 11, had raised hopes that the Parliament may actually become taint-free in about a year's time and the dark cloud of criminality that hangs over the highest forum of democracy in the largest democracy in the world can be removed. This apparent controversy puts a damper on those hopes.

It may be useful, with due respect, to remind the Honourable Supreme Court and the Honourable Chief Justice of India of the judgment delivered by the Honourable Court not too long ago. It may also be useful to respectfully inform them that the issue at hand does not seem to be unsurmountable and huge as there are only 53 sitting MPs "who have charges framed against them for the offences which are specified in Section 8(1), 8(2) and 8(3) of the RP Act" whose cases have to be decided within one year.

In view of the above, one hopes the cleaning the Parliament of criminality will be given priority and will not wait for the entire judicial system to be reformed in its entirety. In view of the above, one hopes the cleaning the Parliament of criminality will be given priority and will not wait for the entire judicial system to be reformed in its entirety.

Jagdeep S. Chhokar is a former Professor, Dean, and Director In-charge of Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and a founder-member of Association for Democratic Reforms. Views expressed are personal.

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