As soon as Justice S.V.N. Bhatti disclosed his disinclination to hear former Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu’s plea seeking quashing of cases in the alleged skill development scam, senior advocate Sidharth Luthra ran to the Chief Justice’s courtroom asking for at least some immediate relief. The Bench refused, ordering the case to be listed on October 3.
“My brother has some reservations,” said Justice Sanjiv Khanna as former Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh Chandrababu Naidu’s petition seeking quashing of criminal proceedings in the alleged skill development scam came up for hearing around 2:30 p.m.
With this, it became apparent that Justice S.V.N. Bhatti would not be able to hear the petition.
Appearing for Naidu through video conferencing, senior advocate Harish Salve replied, “M’lord, that is something I cannot say anything about” and appealed to relist the matter.
Justice Khanna added that the petition would be listed for next week, reasoning that the relocation of the Bench may take some time.
Also appearing for Naidu, senior advocate Sidharth Luthra sought Justice Khanna’s permission to mention the matter before the Chief Justice of India (CJI) immediately.
“If you can do it, you can do it,” replied Justice Khanna.
Custody under FIR which could not have taken birth: Naidu
Five minutes later, Luthra was seen sitting on the first bench of courtroom number 1 comprising the CJI Dr D.Y. Chandrachud, and Justices J.B. Pardiwala and Manoj Misra.
The Bench was preoccupied with another matter and Luthra waited patiently for it to get over.
As soon as the next matter was called out, Luthra was on his legs. “I have to make an unorthodox request because it is a liberty matter,” he began by saying.
Luthra then informed the Bench led by the CJI that the matter was listed before another Bench and that Justice Bhatti had chosen to recuse.
“This is a case where the first information report (FIR) was registered without a sanction under Section 17A,” Luthra contended.
Section17A of thePrevention of Corruption (PC) Act, 1988 provides that, without approval, no police officer can conduct an enquiry or investigation of any offence alleged to have been committed by a public servant under the Act where the alleged offence is relatable to any recommendation made or decision taken by such public servant in discharge of their official functions or duties.
Luthra, reading the bare provisions of the Act, stated that Naidu can only be proceeded against criminally with the prior sanction of the authority competent to remove him from his office, “which in this case is the governor.”
Luthra said non-compliance with Section 17A of the PC Act “goes to the root of the matter”, adding that Naidu “cannot be kept in custody under an FIR which could not have taken birth”.
The CJI asked Luthra whether he was asking for bail for his client based on non-compliance with Section 17A of the PC Act.
Luthra clarified that the application for bail was filed in the local court “without prejudice to Section 17A” since an application in that regard is pending before the Andhra Pradesh High Court and also the Supreme Court, which would have been heard on merits had Justice Bhatti not recused.
He added that he was not pressing for regular bail today in the Supreme Court, only interim bail.
Naidu was first kept in judicial custody and then sent to police custody for two days on the state’s request, which is now over, Luthra explained.
“They are seeking police custody after 15 days have elapsed”since the day Naidu was first arrested which, according to Luthra, is not permissible under Section167 of theCriminal Procedure Code, 1973.
Luthra contended that Naidu is being “roped in into FIR after FIR” and that sanction under Section 17A PC Act is required in each of those cases.
The state government was “making a circus out of him only because elections are staring them in the face and this man was talking about things that concern citizens,” Luthra said, imputing a political motive behind cases against Naidu.
“If this regime of revenge is allowed to go on, where will we go?” Luthra asked with some frustration.
As a last-ditch effort, Luthra sought directions for the state government not to press for police custody in the local court against Naidu.
To be re-listed before appropriate Bench: CJI
After some discussion with the other justices on the Bench, the CJI said, “What we will do is, Mr Luthra, we will list it before the appropriate Bench on October 3.”
“I leave it to your lordships. But this is a question of liberty,”replied Luthra.
At this stage, senior advocate Ranjit Kumar, appearing for the state of Andhra Pradesh, made certain arguments on the merits of the alleged scam. The Bench did not comment on his arguments or ask for clarifications.
Kumar added that the local court was in session “and whatever happens there will be informed to your lordships on Tuesday.”
Refusing Luthra’s prayers for immediate relief for Naidu, the Bench confirmed that the court will hear Naidu’s case next week on October 3.