When the 46th Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi sacked two court masters, Manav Sharma and Tapan Kumar Chakraborty on February 14 for allegedly tampering with court orders in the sensitive Anil Ambani contempt case, the CJI exposed how hearing dates in a few trial courts can be allegedly manipulated without the judges being aware of what goes on. Ambani was held guilty of contempt of court and directed to pay Rs 453 crore to Ericsson India within four weeks or go to jail.
But that this took place in the highest court of the country showed the rot had reached a level which is difficult to fathom. Court masters in the apex court have the rank of assistant registrars and hold LLB degrees. They are tasked with carefully recording all the orders dictated in open court or in the judges’ chambers. They cannot add or subtract words to distort the original intent of the judges.
But this is exactly what Sharma and Chakraborty did – perhaps for a quid pro quo which cannot easily be proved because they will claim it was a mistake on their part. The duo manipulated an order dated January 7, 2019 which was uploaded on the official website of the Supreme Court dispensing with the personal appearance of industrialist Anil Ambani.
Not many may know it, but in the 1980s and 1990s, stenographers in the Bombay high court would laboriously type out the orders and judgments dictated in open court from their shorthand notebooks. This was an era when computers had not replaced typewriters in court rooms.
Sometimes, some stenographers would charge litigants money for a judgment which a litigant needed urgently to appeal against. This writer came across an instance in the late 1990s when a certain stenographer asked an HIV-infected woman who had been reinstated as a sweeper in the BMC for money to give her the judgment out-of-turn. The distraught woman was in tears because she did not have the money and without the certified copy of the judgment, she would not be reinstated in the BMC.
Also, when litigants won their cases, red-liveried court staff would surround them to ask for tips which was shocking. Litigants who frequently attended the court, knew whom to approach if they wanted some old court records by allegedly paying money to a few corrupt court staff. In the magistrates’ courts, next dates of hearings were given by the court staff and a suitable date could be obtained if a litigant knew whom to approach. Some of these corrupt court staff even asked money from those seeking bail to fetch their papers.
The second shocking incident this week which created a storm of sorts was when the CJI ordered a probe into the calls made by someone imitating him to Telangana high court chief justice T B Radhakrishnan and the acting chief justice of the Karnataka high court L Narayana Swamy asking for some lawyers to be elevated as judges. The CJI has now issued an advisory to the judges of all 24 high courts not to entertain calls in his name or from his office.
The office of the CJI had come to know of the incident during routine conversations with Justices Radhakrishnan and Swamy, following which the apex court’s registry lodged a complaint with the police. The calls were traced to the telephone exchange of the Supreme Court itself although the calls originated elsewhere.
While the names of the lawyers whom the callers wanted elevated as judges are not known, it is possible that those who were behind this crime wanted to discredit these lawyers to thwart their elevation as high court judges. It was only after former Supreme Court judge Jasti Chelameshwar boycotted collegium proceedings, forcing a former CJI to upload collegium decisions on the official website, that collegium proceedings became more transparent. Before that, some judges pushed for their own nominees to be elevated as high court judges and not infrequently there were trade-offs.
Another trigger for the press conference of January 12, 2018 was the medical colleges scam in which a retired senior judge of the Orissa high court, Ishrat Masroor Quddusi was arrested by the CBI in September 2017 for allegedly trying to help the UP-based Prasad Education Trust restart medical colleges banned from admitting students due to lack of facilities.
Quddusi knew the working of the Supreme Court registry and was accused of trying to bribe Supreme Court officials to assist the trust in vacating the ban imposed on admitting students. There is no doubt that opacity in allotment of cases to different benches can be manipulated which was what the four seniormost judges had alleged in their press conference.
The fact that CJI Ranjan Gogoi summarily sacked the two court masters proves he wants to streamline the administration of the apex court which was always opaque. The fact that former CJI Dipak Misra kept repeating ad nauseam that he was the “master of the roster” and his wisdom in allotting cases to different benches could not be questioned only resulted in a thwarted move to impeach him. That is why hopes were pinned on CJI Gogoi to make the supreme court registry transparent in case allotment. But these hopes were shattered.
The dictum that justice must be seen to be done is an aphorism which needs to be followed by the Supreme Court administration. Merely uploading orders on the official website is not enough. Litigants and lawyers need to know the mechanism followed when allotting different cases to different benches because much as we have faith in our judiciary, allotting of cases and the working of the registry needs to be streamlined.
Olav Albuquerque holds a PhD in law and is a journalist-cum-advocate of the Bombay high court.