Even as the Supreme Court posed tough questions to the CBI, forcing the agency to withdraw its plea challenging the Calcutta high court’s decision to put four Narada scam chargesheeted TMC leaders under house-arrest, the bench questioned the “partial approach” of the bureau in arresting a set of persons named in the FIR while sparing another set of TMC leaders who have now defected to BJP.
At the same time, the court dampened the joy for TMC by strongly disapproving the dharnas by CM Mamata Banerjee, her law minister and others to protest the arrests on May 17. On the CBI’s selective approach, the bench of Justices Vineet Saran and B R Gavai asked, “Tell us, who is in a better position to influence the witnesses — those chargesheeted or those who are not? There are two sets of accused. One set chargesheeted, while the other is not. Which set is more likely to influence witnesses or tamper with evidence?”
Solicitor general Tushar Mehta strived hard to paint a grim picture of the law and order situation in Kolkata by narrating how the CM-led mob laid siege of the CBI office on May 17, dared them to arrest her and after six hours went out threatening the CBI officers of arrest, a threat which has been implemented by police by registering FIRs.
Arguing before the bench, the SG said when the CM was laying siege to the CBI office, that the trial court was gheraoed by the law minister and TMC supporters which prevented the public prosecutor from reaching the court. “The PP had to argue through video conferencing and the magistrate had to grant bail as cabinet ministers of the state with nearly 3,000 supporters virtually laid siege to the trial court,” Mehta said.
The bench put a preliminary objection to the CBI’s plea. “When a five-judge bench of the Calcutta HC is adjudicating the CBI’s plea against the grant of bail by trial court to the four chargesheeted persons, why should the Supreme Court interfere. It will be better for the Supreme Court to examine the issue, if necessary, after the HC renders a decision,” it said.
Justices Saran and Gavai were also critical that once the chargesheeted TMC leaders — Firhad Hakim, Subrata Mukherjee, Madan Mitra and Sovan Chatterjee — were granted bail by the trial court, could the HC have cancelled their bail without issuing them notice. On the CBI plea, a two-judge bench of the HC had taken up the issue but returned a split verdict — one enlarging them on bail and the other preferring house-arrest. Thereafter, the acting CJ of the HC referred the matter to a five-judge bench.
SG said that it is a case meriting transfer outside the state for free and fair investigation and trial. But, the bench said, “The HC had acted in an extraordinary manner. When the trial court was sieged of the matter, a special bench of the HC was assigned the appeal filed by the CBI and it took away the liberty of the accused persons even without issuing them notice,” it said, The SG said extraordinary circumstances prevailed at that point with the rule of law being breached by the actions of the CM and the law minister.
The bench said, “We make it clear that we do not approve or appreciate the dharnas led by the chief minister or the law minister. But, should the accused persons suffer incarceration just because the CM or the LM is taking law into their hands?” SG said they were taking law into their hands to help the accused escape the process of law, which mandated production of accused in the court and which was prevented by the TMC mob.
When SG said the SC must deal with the serious situation prevailing in the state, Justices Saran and Gavai said, “We do not support the actions of the chief minister or the law minister. You are free to take whatever action against them in accordance with law.”
The SG evaded the court’s question on the CBI’s selective approach in arresting some accused and sparing some others, while changing track to reiterate his request for transferring the matter outside West Bengal. The bench reiterated — “the larger issue projected by you about law and order situation etc can be taken up at other levels. The Constitution and the penal codes give ample power to the authorities to take action against those who violated law. But, the question is why should the SC interfere when a 5-J bench is dealing with the issue?”
SG relented and agreed to withdraw the CBI appeal from the SC after the bench said CBI and respondents would have the liberty to raise issues before the HC. The bench also clarified that the SC has not expressed any opinion on the merits of the case.
Throughout the hearing, the West Bengal government and accused persons, represented by senior advocates A M Singhvi, Vikas Singh, Sidharth Luthra and Kalyan Banerjee, attempted to interject. But, they were kept at bay by the bench which said they should speak only when invited and not before the CBI completed its arguments and answered the queries. The noted lawyers kept silent as the bench threatened to entertain the CBI appeal if any of them opened their mouths uninvited.