The CBI investigation in the Odisha medical admissions scam case has opened a can of worms after the media reported leaked conversations of former Odisha High Court judge IM Quddusi with other accused in the case. The transcripts of the phone calls reveal that a middleman offered to influence judges of various High Courts and the Supreme Court to ensure a positive outcome for Prasad Education trust and other medical colleges. The trust was denied permission to operate its medical college by The Medical Council of India.
But this is hardly the first time allegations of bribery have been levelled against the judiciary. In a sensational case in 2004, journalist Vijay Shekhar of Zee News filed a public interest litigation in the Supreme Court claiming that he had obtained arrest warrants against four highly placed individuals - President APJ Abdul Kalam, the then Chief Justice of India VN Khare, a sitting Supreme Court judge B P Singh and president of the bar association RK Jain.
Zee News subsequently aired the story on January 28, 2004 after the Supreme Court admitted the petition and revealed how their reporter had managed to easily obtain the warrants on fake charges against the four individuals for a price of Rs 40,000. While the lawyers stung in the sting operation were mentioned in Shekhar's PIL, he said that the lawyers had claimed confidently that they could obtain the warrants by bribing the magistrates at the Ahmedabad magistrate court.
All hell broke loose when Zee broke the story on its channel on January 28, 2004. In a courtroom packed with lawyers and journalists who had rushed to get details on the sensational case, Justice Khare expressed his disgust on seeing the warrants issued against him and three other prominent citizens of the country and remarked in anguish,
"What is happening in Gujarat? By giving Rs 40,000 you can get a judicial order? If this is the state of affairs, only God knows what will happen to the country"
While Shekhar did not mention the name of the magistrate in his PIL, the three local lawyers - Narendra Choudhry, Iqbal Katia and Harish Bhanwaniwala - were named who had helped him secure bailable warrants, according to this report filed in The Times of India. Shekhar had pretended to be a businessman who wanted to settle scores with his business rivals - VN Khare, Abdul Kalam, B P Singh and RK Jain. Warrants were issued on a payment of Rs 40,000 with charges of section 406 (criminal breach of trust) and 420 (cheating) of the Indian Penal Code levelled against the four individuals.
The Supreme Court bench headed by Justice VN Khare acted swiftly and ordered the Gujarat High Court registrar general to immediately seize and seal the file from the magistrate of court No. 10, Meghani Nagar, Ahmedabad. The metropolitan magistrate M.S. Brahmbhatt was also suspended by the Gujarat High Court. The CBI filed a case against the three lawyers involved in obtaining the warrants under the charge of bribing a functionary of the state.
But later in 2007, the Gujarat High Court reinstated Brahmbhatt after their separate inquiry revealed that the magistrate was not part of the conspiracy to issue fake warrants against the four individuals, reported The Hindustan Times.
Over the last 14 years, Shekhar made several visits to the Supreme Court and Ahmedabad district court where a case was registered against him and his cameraperson by the lawyers named in the FIR. The lawyers have accused him of defaming the judiciary.
BOOM spoke to Vijay Shekhar to understand the twists and turns the case took over the last one-and-a-half decade, the ethics of sting journalism, if he would cover the story differently today and whether anything has changed after he filed a public interest litigation against corruption in the lower judiciary.
1) Can you explain to us what was the Cash for warrants story all about? And how did you arrive at this investigative idea?
Towards the end of 2003, I was approached by a bank employee who claimed that he was being harassed by some powerful people with whom he had some financial dealings. He told me that the businessman who didn't want to return his money had found a unique way of harassing him. There were some cases filed against him in Gujarat, a state he claimed to have never visited and his enemies had managed to acquire arrest warrants against him and his family, including his father who was nearly 70 years old. Initially, I did not believe him as I told him that it was not easy to acquire arrest warrants from a court without any proof. But he insisted that it was very easy and if I wanted, I could try for myself. Though I found it difficult to believe his story, I proceeded to Ahmedabad without a single contact to do one of the biggest stories to expose corruption in the legal system.
I went to the metropolitian court where I struck gold with the first person I approached. I told this advocate that I wanted to harass my business partners and acquire an arrest warrant to teach them a lesson. The advocate easily accepted my claim and took me to meet other senior advocates. We struck a deal with the Bar association's then vice president Harish Bhanwaniwala who drew up the false complaint of petty theft and molestation against the accused and got some random people to sign it.
When he asked me for the names of the accused, I gave him the name of the then President of India, A P J Abdul Kalam, Supreme Court Chief Justice V N Khare, another Supreme Court judge B P Singh and a Senior Supreme Court advocate R K Jain. While I gave their real name and real address, I also chose to give their full name which few people would have known about. For example, the President's full name was Avul Pakir Jainulabdeen Abdul Kalam. I paid a mere Rs 40,000 for 4 arrest warrants against the most prominent citizens of India on trumped up charges.
2) Did it ever cross your mind that you can also be accused of participating in an illegal act, considering that you were knowingly acquiring warrants against prominent persons on false charges?
I took legal advice from many legal experts before I embarked on the story as well as before airing it. So I always knew that I was on the right side of the law. Also before airing it, I approached the Supreme Court and filed a PIL appraising them of the situation and informing them that I was going to air the story. In fact, I also deposited the original tapes with the court so that no accusation of tampering could be leveled. I was well aware that this story is against the most revered institutions that exist in India. The system may not be corrupt but there are loopholes in the system which unscrupulous and corrupt individuals would use to exploit and harass the common man for financial gains. These loopholes needed to be plugged and the corrupt people in the court system needed to be weeded out. That was the purpose of my PIL.
During the course of the hearing, a visibly angry Chief Justice Khare, whose name was used as one of the so called accused to acquire the false arrest warrants, took a stern note of the shocking incident. He was very open minded about the case and immediately ordered that the court documents should be seized and a CBI inquiry be conducted.
3) What has been your experience over the last 14 years as you attended several court hearings?
During the course of my story, I was prepared to face many hardships and frivolous court cases against me which was proven right when many cases were filed against me in various parts of the country. Luckily for me, the supreme court was very sympathetic and they asked for all such cases to be transferred to the apex court. Suddenly all these cases disappeared. What I was not prepared for was the support I received from all over the country. The day we ran the story on our channel, we had put in a phone number where people could call and tell us about their similar experiences.
The phone started ringing non-stop. We had to increase the phone lines to 3 and later 6 lines to meet the demand and the phones rang non-stop for the next 3 days. I was curious and sat on one of the phone lines myself. I almost cried when I heard people narrate their grievances with the courts. Poor people narrated their hardships where they had to sell all their belongings just to go to the court to get dates. These cases went on for eternity with no result. Petitioners died but cases never got resolved.
My case is pending before the Gujarat courts since 2004 and in the middle of the case, my name along with the name of my cameraman mysteriously appeared as co-accused. In fact, a warrant was issued in our name for not attending the proceedings. Since that day, we have attended each and every court hearing. It meant traveling to Ahmedabad for each hearing, even if it meant we were just meant to sign the roster and get a further date. Then I had to travel to Delhi for the Supreme Court case. This went on for nearly 8 years. Sometimes, dates were given within days of each other, so we had to travel back and forth. The experience was painful and finally I managed to get exemption from attending the court in person.
4) In 2007, one of the SC benches threatened to move against you if you did not apologise. What was that all about and how did your legal team handle this?
Unfortunately for me, ex chief justice of Gujarat High court K G Balakrishnan became CJI and the case took a u-turn when we were asked why we shouldn't be held accountable for bribing the courts. We were asked to apologise for our actions or face the consequences. This went on for couple of months. I refused to apologise and braced myself for the worst. But subsequently the chief justice changed and there were less animosity against us as journalists who exposed the issue of corruption.
5) Do you think your story resulted in a clean up of the lower judiciary? Or is it still possible to obtain such warrants in the lower courts?
I don't think much has changed in the legal system since then. I am sure that one can still acquire a warrant against anyone if you go to some of the lower courts. But one will know for sure only if someone tries it again. But after what I went through, I don't think many would have the courage to do it again.
6) How do you respond to criticism that sting camera journalism is the lowest form of journalism and must be used only in the rarest of rare cases where national interest is involved?
I agree with the fact that sting operations are the most misused form of journalism. Every other story was being done with a spy camera. Investigative journalism no longer exists. I have used the spy cam only maybe thrice in my career. I believe that the story should demand a sting else it shouldn't be done. Many stories like the one I did cannot be completed without a spy cam. But to top it, I also made sure that I had all documents related to the case also in my possession.
Infact after the sting was done, I traveled once again against the advice of many people to the same spot to acquire a court stamped copy of the arrest warrants just in case the accused falsify or destroy the court documents. I could have been harmed because word of the story had already got out. We know the atmosphere there because once the story was aired, the press were badly attacked when they went to the court to cover the story. In fact one journalist and cameraman were hospitalised. Even after that attack, when journalists from the state went on a peace march in the same court, they were again attacked. For years, I feared for my life as the story exposed how deep the rot is within the judiciary.
Disclaimer: The author of this article has worked with Vijay Shekhar at Zee News during the period 2002-2005