The sweltering heat on Tuesday (April 23) morning had photographers perched on the front lawn of the Supreme Court in extreme discomfort. Proceedings that usually begin at 10.30 am were pushed by an hour as a full court reference was being held in the memory of two former SC judges, late Justices K Ramaswamy and SB Sinha. But no matter how many hours it was pushed by, the case now scheduled to begin at 11.30 am in Court Room No 4 would attract as many eyeballs.
This courtroom was where a special three-judge bench led by Justice Arun Mishra, along with Justices Rohinton Nariman and Deepak Gupta, were slated to hear a sou-moto case of a sworn affidavit submitted by a young Harvard-bred lawyer, Utsav Bains. Bains had claimed in a Facebook post on Sunday that he was approached with a “huge bribe” of ₹1.5 crore to frame the Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi in a false sexual harassment case. He also claimed that he possessed information which proved that this was part of a “larger conspiracy” involving a lobby of “disgruntled employees, corporate figures and fixers”, who fixed SC benches to get favourable orders.
The uncanny timing of it lay in the fact that Bains’s Facebook post had come just 24 hours after a former SC staffer levelled sexual harassment allegations against Gogoi. The 35-year-old woman also alleged that she was subjected to police harassment and finally unceremoniously dismissed from service. She had provided details and evidences in an affidavit written to 22 Supreme Court judges on April 19.
While online news portals took the lead and broke the story on the morning of April 20, the CJI called for an “extraordinary and unusual” hearing since “things had gone too far”. The bench comprised Justice Mishra, along with Justice Sanjeev Khanna and the CJI himself.
Come Monday (April 22), Bains had submitted his sworn affidavit to the top court about the conspiracy hatched to frame the CJI. A day later, the bench led by Justice Arun Mishra, along with Justices Rohinton Nariman and Deepak Gupta, sent Bains a notice asking him to appear before it on April 24 at 10.30 am.
But it wasn’t till 11.03 am that photographers—strategically placed with napkins over their heads to guard against the blazing sun on the front lawn of the Supreme Court—got a glimpse of Bains as he arrived for the hearing. Within no time, Court Room no 4 was jam-packed with senior lawyers such as Indira Jaising, Attorney General KK Venugopal, young understudies, as well as journalists and other bar members. People queued up in the narrow hallway outside the doors of the courtroom to catch a glimpse of what was happening inside the courtroom.
As the hearing commenced and the chatter died down in the courtroom, Justice Mishra asked Bains to say his bit. Bains handed over a sealed envelope to the bench, and the judges went through the new material. Following this, Justice Mishra said that the contents of the affidavit, if true, were “really very disturbing”. The bench was prompted to summon the CBI Director, Director of the Intelligence Bureau and Delhi’s Commissioner of Police, to the judges’ chambers at half-past-noon.
Explaining why the three top law enforcement officials had been called, Mishra said, “This is not just an inquiry, this is something more… We will not reveal anything. This will be kept totally a secret. We do not want the evidence to be destroyed.” The judges also requested the three top officials to seize relevant material supporting Bains’s affidavit.
A closer look at Bains’s Twitter timeline shows he has been quoting the likes of Guru Gobind Singh and Ram Prasad Bismil off late. The 32-year-old lawyer is the son of human rights lawyer RS Bains and also the grandson of former judge of Punjab and Haryana high court Ajit Singh Bains. He is best known for his role in the Apna Ghar sexual exploitation case in which he filed a plea to probe into the sexual exploitation of children at a shelter home in Rohtak, Haryana. The matter was later probed by the CBI. Earlier this month, Bains made headlines for rejecting an invite to Queen Elizabeth’s birthday party on the grounds that if he did so, it would be an ultimate betrayal of his motherland.
Looking at the members of the bar present during the hearing, the young lawyer went on to say that he was disgusted at how the bar was divided on the matter of allegations levelled against the CJI. “I have never seen such kind of cheap tactics,” he said. That’s when Solicitor General Tushar Mehta went on to suggest that the matter should be thoroughly investigated by an SIT under the direct supervision of the Supreme Court. But Bains voiced his concerns, saying that he did not approach the police because it falls under the State—which is ruled by some political party—and suggested that the matter should be probed by a judicial inquiry.
He also said that he had specific information as to how this conspiracy was planned and would file one more affidavit in the matter post-lunch. After granting him the liberty to do so, the bench, before rising, directed the government to provide adequate security to him as well. It (the bench) would now re-assemble at 3 pm in the same courtroom.
As the second leg of the hearing commenced post lunch, Bains handed over another sealed cover to the bench. He also submitted that he wished to file a third affidavit with more “clues” by 10.30 am on April 25. This is when senior lawyer Indira Jaising voiced her apprehensions as to whether “the judicial proceedings would jinx the mandate of the judges’ committee”. She said she didn’t want “issues to be mixed up” and that the sole concern was for an independent inquiry into the affidavit filed by a former female employee, reported Bar and Bench.
The bench clarified that its proceedings would not “supersede” the in-house enquiry being conducted separately by the judges’ panel into the ex-employees allegations. “The two enquiries will not prejudice each other,” assured Justice Mishra. “The judges’ committee is also not empowered to look into a larger conspiracy.”
Justice Rohinton Nariman addressed Jaising and said that the bench was “not hearing anything on what happened on Saturday [April 20] or allegations [by the woman]… We are constituted for a specific purpose. We are looking into only his [Bains] affidavit… So don’t back us into that corner.” However, Jaising stood her ground and reiterated that the bench was constituted only on Saturday after the allegations were first made by the ex-SC staffer. But Justice Mishra had to remind her of the magnitude of the allegations made by Bains. “Disgruntled employees have ganged up… The ‘fixing part’ itself is of grave concern. It has no place in the system. He [Bains] has named a fixer. We want to go into the root of matter… We want to know who these fixers are. They have no right to be part of a judicial system… We cannot allow the denigration of the judiciary. We will inquire and enquire and enquire until we get to the truth, to the root of the matter,” he said, adding that the court could not just keep quiet when a lawyer approached it with an affidavit claiming a frame-up—and alleged an even larger conspiracy behind it. “Otherwise, this institution will not survive. You will not survive. If we keep quiet, the country will lose faith in this institution. The institution is bigger than all of us.”
‘Mr Venugopal is the greatest gentleman in this court’
By 3.20 pm, the hearing took a dramatic turn when Bains was reprimanded by Justice Nariman for making remarks about Attorney-General KK Venugopal, who, shortly before this, had pointed out that a person could not first make allegations, and then approach the court with only half the evidence. He was referring to Bains’ request to file a third affidavit the next morning. “I really don’t understand how a person can make certain allegations and claim rest is privileged,” said AG KK Venugopal. Bains objected to this and said that Venugopal was making personal remarks against him—at which point Justice Mishra said that Venugopal was the most-respected member at the bar.
No one was more visibly miffed by Bains’s remarks than Justice Nariman, who served as a junior to Venugopal during his time as a lawyer. He pointed out to Bains that Venugopal is a respected figure in the legal fraternity and that the judges looked up to him, and even went on to warn Bains of dire consequences if he cast any aspersions on Venugopal. “You have no reason to have an iota of doubt on him. He is the most respected member of this Bar. We all look up to him. If you have an iota of doubt we will throw you out.” At this point, Bains started to walk out of the court stating: “Since Justice Nariman said he will throw me out, I will walk out myself.” However, the situation was swiftly contained by Justice Mishra, who called Bains back. “If anybody attacks me personally, I will defend myself,” said Bains, but once again Justice Nariman retorted: “Nobody is attacking you personally. Mr Venugopal is the greatest gentleman in this court. We all learn from him.”
Things escalated further during the course of the afternoon as Bains attempted to address Jaising directly, which the latter requested him to refrain from. Picking up from where she left off before, Jaising went on to ask how had Bains entered the Supreme Court campus in a car without the SC sticker on it. “How can he do that? All our cars have stickers. He came in a Jaguar taxi. Let him admit or deny it,” said Jaising, and urged the bench to not shut out the bar since it was there to provide help and assistance. To this, Justice Nariman smiled softly and responded to her: “Have we shut you out?” This evoked a swift “no” from Jaising followed by a laugh from among the attendees. Following up, Nariman asked, “Can we shut you out?” Another chorus of laughter followed. Jaising replied that she was just another member of the bar, to which Nariman said, “And a formidable one too.”
In the order that came out on Wednesday evening, Bains named dismissed court masters Tapan Chakraborty and Manav Sharma for framing CJI Ranjan Gogoi in a false case of sexual harassment. The duo had been earlier dismissed from their services for tampering with the court’s order directing personal appearance of Reliance Group chairman Anil Ambani. The order said that in Bains’s affidavit, he had also “given certain names and has also alleged that they have asserted that they could fix the bench of judges.” In reference to this, the court also warned Bains. “He knows the consequences of filing a false affidavit in this court.”
In Court Room no 4 at 10.30 am on Thursday, the Supreme Court resumed its suo-motu proceedings into Bains’s affidavit. AG Venugopal, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, senior advocate Indira Jaising and SCBA President senior advocate Rakesh Khanna were also present. Once the three judges had assembled and proceedings began, Bains handed over another sealed envelope to the bench. When Bains began speaking, Jaising pointed out that the microphones in the courtroom weren’t working and that they should have been fixed. Justice Mishra said there was not much they could do now if the microphones weren’t functioning, and jokingly responded: “We are very loud,” but Jaising said that their voices might not be audible to those standing at the back. “You are audible to everyone,” said Mishra, barely holding back a smile.
Venugopal then submitted that Section 126 of the Evidence Act would not hold water in this particular case since this so-called Ajay figure had approached Bains with ₹50 lakh as payment for holding a presser at Delhi Press Club regarding the sexual harassment allegations against the CJI. He pointed out that Ajay was not Bains’s client, yet, the latter had carried out an inquiry of his own accord and continued investigating the matter. All in all, since there was no client, there is no Section 126.
At about 11 am, Jaising once again voiced her apprehensions from the previous day, and said that there might be overlapping between the current proceedings that looked into Bains’s affidavit and the sexual harassment case of the ex-SC staffer. “Your apprehension is baseless,” Justice Mishra told her, adding that the court would clearly state in its final order that no inquiry by a judicial order would be made into what Jaising had alleged about the sexual harassment case. He once again emphasised that this bench was examining only the affidavit and allegations submitted by Bains.
However, Jaising went on to bring up another point from Wednesday’s hearing—about how could a car without the pre-requisite SC sticker be allowed to enter the court premises? She was referring to the car Bains had supposedly arrived in on Wednesday. “Someone made a call from the registry,” said Jaising, while also encouraging the Bench to look into the credentials of Utsav Bains. She also placed on record that Bains wasn’t a member of the bar, backing this up with “those who come to the court must come with clean hands.” Solicitor General Tushar Mehta then told Justice Mishra that there was an outside chance that people other than the ones named in the affidavit by Bains, could be involved in this allegation of bench-fixing. When Mehta droned on, even while Justice Mishra asked him to hear him out, the latter raised his voice and told Mehta not to provoke him. Justice Mishra went on to say that these allegations of fixing were very serious, and reiterated that no amount of money or political capital could control this judiciary. “The way this institution is being treated for the last 3-4 years, it will not survive,” he said to Mehta. “Nobody knows the truth. The people of this country must know the truth.”
He went on to say that “the powerful of this country think they can run the country” and how certain people try to run the registry with money and power. “When somebody tries to improve, they will malign and do worse,” he said. However, Justice Mishra did point out that he could not, at the moment, share the details of what he was referring to, but would provide these details at a more convenient time. The bench reserved its order for 2 pm.
At 2 pm, Court Room no 4 was once again bursting at its seams, as the bench prepared to read out its order. The order, read out loud by Justice Mishra, said that Bains did not qualify to claim privilege under Section 126 and was bound to disclose all relevant documents pertaining to the matter. The bench also appointed a former Supreme Court judge, Justice AK Patnaik, to look into the allegations raised by Bains. The advocate will now have to submit his report in a sealed cover to the court. Lastly, the court asked the CBI director, IB director and Delhi Police Commissioner to cooperate with Justice Patnaik.