Judges, like Caesar’s wife, must always be above suspicion. Tragically, this was not the case with former Madras High Court Chief Justice Vijaya Kamlesh Tahilramani.
Her financial transactions for purchase of two flats in Chennai, her alleged links with a Tamil Nadu minister which may have led her to dissolve a bench inquiring into idol thefts involving Tamil bigwigs, and her alleged partiality towards some senior lawyers prompted Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi to direct the CBI to take action “according to law” against the former judge—after she resigned.
These were a few reasons which prompted CJI Gogoi to transfer CJ Tahilramani from the 157-year-old Madras high court which has 32 district courts under it to the tiny six-year-old Meghalaya High Court.
This proves we should believe nothing we hear from lawyers. It was these same Tamil Nadu lawyers who went on a one-day strike to demand Tahilramani’s transfer be rescinded.
And the National Lawyers Campaign for Judicial Transparency which was thinking of taking up her case—which was very different from that of Karnan—did a double think after its President Mathews Nedumpara was warned there were corruption charges against CJ Tahilramani.
Apparently, the case of Karnan who called all and sundry in the judiciary “corrupt” was more suitable than Tahilramani who chose to maintain a deafening silence on her transfer and resignation.
When the collegium’s decision to transfer CJ Tahilramani from Madras to Meghalaya touched off a furore, the collegium announced it would be unwise to disclose the reasons for the transfer, but if found necessary, it would have no hesitation to “disclose the same.”
The CBI said the Intelligence Bureau had analyzed financial transactions of CJ Tahilramani to arrange Rs 3.18 crore to buy two newly-built flats at Lorraine Tower, Semmencherry/Thiruvedanthai village on the outskirts of Chennai. Of this amount, Rs 1.62 crore was paid through HDFC bank loans and the remaining Rs 1.52 crore was paid through her own funds in June-July 2019.”
The IB listed six bank accounts, three jointly held with her husband, one jointly held with her mother, one salary account, another of her son’s from which Rs 1.61 crore was credited to another bank account operated by Justice Tahilramani at Mahim in Mumbai.
An amount of Rs 18 lakh was paid into her account on July 8, 2019 from her joint account with her mother and the very next month, Rs 18 lakh was deposited back in the joint account through a cheque, according to IB sleuths.
The IB report also claimed a special bench headed by Justice R Mahadevan which was inquiring into idol thefts in Tamil Nadu involving two ministers was dissolved by CJ Tahilramani because an AIADMK minister allegedly wanted it.
The IB report hinted the AIADMK government and this minister sought to thwart the ongoing probe by the court-appointed retired IGP A G Ponn Manickavel who had taken action in several idol theft cases ignoring pressure from his top bosses to dilute the probe.
Manickavel had told a bench of Justice R. Mahadevan and Justice P D Audikesavalu that the Tamil Nadu government had refused to pay the salaries of even sanitary workers attached to the idol wing section of the CID to ensure two top ministers were not booked.
An inspector allegedly gave orders to his subordinates to block information about all idol thefts to Manickavel forcing him to initiate contempt action against the chief secretary of Tamil Nadu, Girija Vaidyanathan, DGP T K Rajendran and ADGP Abhay Kumar Singh.
Manickavel admitted he was unable to register even a single FIR for the last eight months because the Tamil Nadu government thwarted the probe. Law and order is a state subject and the police in all states are pressurized to protect corrupt ministers of the ruling party.
There is no doubt that by dissolving the bench headed by 56-year-old Justice Mahadevan, the two powerful AIADMK ministers who were accused by Manickavel of smuggling ancient idols overseas got a reprieve. And if the CBI allegations are true, then it appears that former chief Justice Tahilramani dissolved the bench allegedly due to her proximity with the AIADMK minister.
Until the 1990s in Tamil Nadu, it was impossible for lower caste lawyers to become high court judges until the DMK led by M Karunanidhi fought for them. But former Madras High Court
Chief Justice Markandey Katju has alleged it was the DMK which wanted him to approve their own lawyers as high court judges although these lawyers never practiced in the high court.
Without naming the late S Ashok Kumar, he said a particular judge who was identified as being “corrupt” by the IB was confirmed and transferred to the Andhra Pradesh High Court.
Katju said he opposed the confirmation of this judge whose probation was extended twice. Katju gave a clean chit to the late Jayalalitha whom he said never interfered in the judiciary.
The fact remains chief justices must keep aloof from ministers and take decisions as per law. This is easier said than done when chief justices meet chief ministers and governors during swearing-in ceremonies of incumbent judges at Raj Bhavans.
It is the state (headed by chief ministers) which furnishes judges’ accommodation and their official cars with drivers. This means though we believe the judiciary is insulated from politicians, the harsh reality may be different. As perhaps former Chief Justice Tahilramani is aware.
Olav Albuquerque holds a Ph.D in Media law and is a journalist-cum-lawyer of the Bombay high court.