“The subject of judicial corruption is taboo, and like the proverbial Chinese monkeys, one shall not see, hear or speak of this evil,” KK Venugopal, the attorney general of India, told an India Today reporter in 1990. “During the early ’80s, rumours of corruption, nepotism and favouritism were like distant thunder. Now they have got louder.” In the subsequent decades, the legal fraternity largely lived by Venugopal’s words; but the thunders clapped closer and closer to the judicial edifice. On the afternoon of 10 November, I saw a storm break loose in the court of the chief justice of India.
A five-judge bench, led by Dipak Misra, the CJI, was hearing a petition filed by the Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms, an organisation working on public-interest issues of judicial reform. CJAR’s petition asked for the constitution of a Special Investigative Team, headed by a former CJI, to investigate a first information report registered in September by the Central Bureau of Investigation, regarding a corruption scandal emerging out of a medical college in Lucknow.
The corruption allegations pertained to the highest offices of the Supreme Court. The petition noted that the health ministry, on the advice of the Medical Council of India, had declined necessary permissions for the medical college to begin functioning on two different occasions—and twice, different benches of the Supreme Court had directed the MCI to reconsider the college’s application. The FIR alleged that the managers of the Prasad Education Trust, which was setting up the medical college, were in conversations with a retired high court judge and several other individuals, who were allegedly acting as middlemen on behalf of members of the higher judiciary adjudicating the case. Both benches of the Supreme Court included the chief justice Dipak Misra.
On 8 November, Jasti Chelameswar, the senior-most judge in the Supreme Court after Misra, admitted the CJAR petition and listed it be to be heard in two-days’ time. Later that same day, Prashant Bhushan, the counsel for the petitioners, received a call from the Supreme Court registry, informing him that the CJI had moved the matter and placed it before a different bench, of which Chelameswar was not a part—it comprised AK Sikri and Ashok Bhushan.
The next day, the Supreme Court advocate Kamini Jaiswal filed a new petition in relation to the MCI case; the senior advocate Dushyant Dave mentioned the matter before Chelameswar the same day. A bench comprising Chelameswar and Abdul Nazeer heard Jaiswal’s petition later that day, and noted the reasons for its urgency: “It was brought to the notice of the Court that a certain case is registered by the Central Bureau of Investigation against a retired High Court Judge of this country containing serious allegations implicating the said Judge.” The bench issued notice to the central government and the CBI—the respondents in the CJAR’s petition—and stated, “The FIR contained certain allegations which are disturbing. The allegations pertain to the functioning of this Court.”