Advocate Prashant Bhushan on Friday asked Justice J.S. Khehar, next in line to be Chief Justice of India in January, to recuse from hearing the Birla-Sahara pay-offs case alleging kickbacks received by Prime Minister Narendra Modi when he was Gujarat Chief Minister.
Mr. Bhushan indicated that Justice Khehar should withdraw as his “file for elevation is pending with the PM (Prime Minister)”.
The civil rights lawyer’s request, which he said was made in his capacity as an officer of the court to protect the judiciary from rumour-mongering and “unpleasantness”, triggered a rash of criticism against him from both the Supreme Court Bench of Justices Khehar and Arun Mishra and the government.
Attorney-General Mukul Rohatgi, for the Centre, called it the “cheapest tactic” he witnessed in court. “I am pained,” Mr. Rohatgi said.
Justice Mishra observed the comment amounted to “holding of the highest court to ransom”.
“This is sheer contempt of court. We are constitutional functionaries. Is it not possible for us to conduct our duties?” a visibly irate Justice Mishra asked.
Justice Khehar questioned the timing of the request, remarking that it was “very unfair and very unreasonable”, Justice Khehar asked why the lawyer had waited till the third hearing of the case to make his plea for recusal.
“Go wherever you want to go… I am not going to hear it,” Justice Khehar said at one point, closing the file.
Later on, the Bench gave two options – that is either for the case to be listed before Chief Justice T.S. Thakur at 3.30 pm for constituting another Bench or post it after Christmas holidays. Mr. Rohatgi suggested the latter, following which the court scheduled the case for hearing on January 11.
Mr. Bhushan’s request came soon after the prospects of his case dimmed with Justice Khehar observing that “you have filed a petition on a serious allegation in a non-serious manner”.
The writ petition filed by Mr. Bhushan’s client and NGO, Common Cause, had sought a Supreme Court-monitored probe into documents allegedly recovered during raids at Aditya Birla and Sahara groups offices in 2013 and 2014. The documents, the NGO alleged, contained evidence of massive bribes paid to chief ministers, top politicians and bureaucrats.
One of the documents, the petition alleged, contained a cryptic entry – ‘Gujarat CM’ – believed to be a reference to Mr. Modi.
The Bench had in the past two hearings expressed its disinclination to entertain the petition. It had refused to intervene against the “high constitutional functionaries” till supplied with “the best material and clear evidence”.
“You are making allegations against the Prime Minister of the country… We cannot initiate an investigation just because a big man has been named by someone,” the Bench had cautioned Mr. Bhushan previously.
It had given the NGO two opportunities to produce fresh evidence. This time however the Bench seemed to have run out of patience after Mr. Bhushan sought time till January to place new evidence on record