In his recently released autobiography, Justice For The Judge, Justice Ranjan Gogoi has revealed what went into the controversial decision of the Collegium to transfer Justice Vijaya K. Tahilramani, who was serving as the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court to the Meghalaya High Court.
Justice Tahilramani had requested the Collegium to reconsider its decision of August, 2019 and had resigned from judgeship the next month, when the Collegium refused her request.
Allegations Against Collegium
The episode led to a huge uproar. The Madras High Court Advocates' Association declared a one-day boycott of work.
It was reported in The Print that the transfer was on account of her opposition to the elevation of two lawyers as judges of the High Court, despite the special interest of some senior Judges.
The opposition and activists like Prashant Bhushan alleged that Justice Tahilramani was transferred to a smaller High Court because she upheld the conviction of 11 persons in the Bilkis Bano gang rape case from the Gujrat riots.
Senior Advocate Sanjay Hegde tweeted that the judiciary should stand by its own or it will not inspire citizens that it will stand by them, and that it will impact those who might consider a judicial career.
The Supreme Court, through its Secretary-General, had issued a statement, without naming Justice Tahilramani, that transfers are made after full and complete deliberations and that though it is not in the interest of the institution to disclose the reasons for transfer, if found necessary, the Collegium would have no hesitation in divulging them.
Justice Gogoi in his Autobiography
Justice Gogoi writes in his book about a complaint that was received by the office of the CJI from one Dr. K.R. Ramaswamy about Justice Tahilramani.
"The complaint contained allegations of illegal acquisition of immovable property in Chennai by Chief Justice Tahilramani. The complaint also mentioned a more than necessary official interaction with the law minister of Tamil Nadu and visits by the Chief Justice to Puducherry by making a detour while going to Madurai, and visiting unknown places using private vehicles while staying in the Raj Bhavan at Puducherry. Questionable exercise of administrative powers of the Chief Justice, including change of the judge in the sensational idol theft cases, was also part of the complaint.", as per Justice Gogoi.
Though the complaint was received after the resignation of Justice Tahilramani, Justice Gogoi writes, "the oral and discreet information received by me with regard to the judge, which had formed the basis of the decision to transfer her, found mention in the written complaint of Dr Ramaswamy."
Interestingly, Justice Markandey Katju had written an article for The Week in September 2019, titled "The truth about transfer of Madras HC chief justice Tahilramani", arguing that it is unfair to blame the Collegium for the transfer. He had written that Justice Tahilramani was hardly working, sitting for short hours and adjourning cases by passing interim orders instead of finally deciding them.
Justice Gogoi states that on his instructions, the IB investigated the allegations in the complaint and submitted an unsigned report dated 24 September, 2019 stating that prima facie there is truth in the allegations in the complaint.
Justice Gogoi states that on his instructions, the Secretary-General of the Supreme Court wrote to the Director of the CBI forwarding the complaint and the IB report with an instruction to inform at the earliest about the action initiated, to place the same before the CJI. The letter dated 26 September, 2019 of the Secretary-General has been reproduced in the book.
Justice Gogoi then states that until his retirement, the CBI Director did not inform him of any action taken in the matter.
When the request for CBI enquiry into the matter was reported in the media, there were reports about irregularities in the purchase of two flats in Chennai worth around four crores by Justice Tahilramani, and that this is mentioned in the IB report.
The fate of the CBI investigation into the IB report against Justice Tahilramani is not known. Till date, no apparent action has been taken by the CBI in the matter.
Judges Who Dealt With Bilkis Bano Case
The Bilkis Bano case is a batch of cases arising out of the 2002 Gujarat riots wherein the Supreme Court ordered an enquiry by the CBI and ordered the trial in Maharashtra instead of Gujarat. The CBI, after its investigation, charge-sheeted twelve men for rape and murder. The CBI also charged six police officers and two government doctors for criminal conspiracy, destroying evidence and for dereliction of duty.
In 2004, the then Chief Justice of Bombay High Court, Justice Dalveer Bhandari appointed a then Additional Sessions Judge U. D. Salvi to conduct the trial. Sessions Judge U. D. Salvi concluded the trial and passed a Judgment in January, 2008 convicting the twelve accused of murder and rape and sentencing them to life imprisonment. The trial court however acquitted the police officers and government doctors, except one police officer who was convicted for dereliction of duty and sentenced to 2 years of rigorous imprisonment.
What came before the Division Bench of Justice Tahilramani and Justice Mridula Bhatkar in the Bombay High Court were appeals filed by the accused who were convicted of rape and murder challenging their conviction, appeals filed by the CBI seeking enhancement of sentence awarded to three out of the twelve accused and the appeals filed by the CBI challenging acquittal of the six police officers (including that of the police officer who was convicted, but only on some of the charges) and the two doctors.
In May, 2017, the Division Bench headed by Justice Tahilramani passed its Judgment dismissing the appeals filed by the accused challenging their conviction, dismissing the appeals filed by the CBI seeking enhancement of punishment, and allowing the appeals of CBI challenging the acquittal of police officers and doctors, by convicting them for destroying evidence and dereliction of duty.
Hence, all that the Bench of Justice Tahilramani did differently from the trial court was to convict the police officers and medical officers under Sections 201 and 218 of IPC, while upholding their acquittal under Section 217. The Bench, however, sentenced them only to fine under for the offence Section 218 and to the period of imprisonment undergone by them along with fine, for the offence under Section 201.
Some of the convicted police officers and the two doctors filed appeals before the Supreme Court, which were dismissed in May, 2017 by a Bench of Justice S.A.Bobde (who was part of the collegium that passed the transfer order) and Justice L. Nageswara Rao.
Bilkis Bano had also approached the Supreme Court seeking enhanced compensation and disciplinary action against the police officers who were found guilty. In April, 2019, a Bench headed by the then Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi awarded compensation of Rupees Fifty Lakhs to Bilkis while issuing directions regarding disciplinary actions against police officers.
Justice Tahilramani was appointed the Chief Justice of Madras High Court in August, 2018, after she delivered the Judgment in the Bilkis Bano case in May, 2017.
Additional Sessions Judge U. D. Salvi, who sentenced twelve accused in the Bilkis Bano case for life, was elevated as a Judge of the Bombay High Court in February, 2009. After his retirement from the Bombay High Court, in February, 2013, Justice U. D. Salvi was appointed as a Judicial Member of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) by the then government. In December, 2017, upon the retirement of Justice Swatanter Kumar, Justice U. D. Salvi was appointed the acting Chairperson of the NGT by the present government. In February, 2018, Justice U. D. Salvi retired as the acting Chairperson of the NGT.
Chief Justice Dalveer Bhandari of the Bombay High Court, who appointed Judge U. D. Salvi to conduct the trial of the Bilkis Bano case, was elevated as a Judge of the Supreme Court in October, 2005. In April, 2012, Justice Dalveer Bhandari resigned as a Judge of the Supreme Court upon being nominated by the then government as the candidate to the post of Judge of the International Court of Justice and upon being elected to that post at the UN General Assembly. He continues in that post after being re-elected for a second term in November, 2017.
The fact that the CBI has not made any apparent progress in the case against Justice Tahilramani, despite an adverse IB report and the reports of similar nature received by the Chief Justice of India, militates against any possibility of Center's influence behind the decision to transfer Justice Tahilramani.
The fact that there is no allegation of any vindictive interference in the career of any other judge who has had some role to play in the conviction of the accused in the Bilkis Bano case, also indicates that a totally baseless and irresponsible allegation was made by the opposition and people like Prashant Bhushan against the judiciary.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. Verdictum does not assume any responsibility or liability for the contents of the article.