New Delhi: The Supreme Court Tuesday directed the Centre to file response by May 4 to the petitions seeking review of last December’s verdict which dismissed the pleas challenging India’s deal to procure 36 Rafale fighter jets from France. The top court did not allow the Centre’s submission that the hearing on three review petitions in the case be adjourned as it wanted four weeks to file its response to the pleas.
A bench comprising Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi and Justices S K Kaul and K M Joseph asked Attorney General K K Venugopal, representing the Centre, that the reply, if any, be filed by Saturday and listed the review petitions for hearing on May 6. On being told by Venugopal that till now no notice has been issued to the Centre on the review petitions, the court said it would refer to the request of the attorney general in its order and issue a formal notice. The bench was hearing three review petitions, challenging the Supreme Court’s December 14, 2018 verdict by which it had dismissed a batch of the pleas against the Rafale deal.
The review petitions have been filed by former Union ministers Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha along with activist lawyer Prashant Bhushan, lawyer Vineet Dhandha and AAP lawmaker Sanjay Singh. At the outset, Venugopal said the Centre has already circulated a letter for seeking adjournment in the case.
Bhushan pointed out that he and his two co-petitioners have also filed two applications and the Centre be asked to file replies to them too. The trio, besides the review plea, has filed one application for perjury against the government for suppressing material information and misleading the court. In the second plea, the three have sought production of certain relevant documents by the Centre for just adjudication of the review plea.
The Attorney General said the Centre would oppose both the applications. In the verdict, the apex court had said there was no occasion to doubt the decision-making process in the procurement of 36 Rafale fighter jets from France and dismissed all the petitions seeking an investigation into alleged irregularities in the Rs 58,000 crore deal.
The top court had said there was no substantial evidence of commercial favouritism to any private entity. On January 2, Sinha, Shourie and Bhushan approached the apex court seeking review of the judgement, alleging that it had relied upon “patently incorrect” claims made by the government in an unsigned note given in a sealed cover in the court.
The Centre had submitted that three privileged documents were unauthorisedly removed from the Defence Ministry and used by the petitioners to support their review petitions against the verdict which had dismissed all pleas challenging the procurement of the fighter jets.
In a setback to the Centre, the apex court on April 10 allowed the pleas which relied on leaked documents for seeking review of its Rafale judgement and dismissed the government’s preliminary objections claiming “privilege” over them. The top court had rejected the objections raised by the Centre that those documents were not admissible as evidence under Section 123 of the Indian Evidence Act, and no one can produce them in court without the permission of the department concerned as they are also protected under the Official Secrets Act.
It had noted that all the three documents were in “public domain” and published by prominent daily The Hindu were “in consonance with the constitutional guarantee of freedom of speech”. It had said the documents used in the pleas were published in ‘The Hindu’ in February and one of the papers was also published by ‘The Wire’.
The apex court had also noted that no law enacted by Parliament specifically barring or prohibiting the publication of such documents on any of the grounds mentioned in Article 19(2) of the Constitution has been brought to its notice. The Rafale fighter is a twin-engine Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft manufactured by French aerospace company Dassault Aviation. A deal to procure the jets was signed between India and France in 2015. The delivery is expected to begin in September this year.