Chief Minister Bhupesh Baghel never met any high court judge, the Chhattisgarh government told the Supreme Court on Thursday, rejecting a top central government law officer’s suggestion about his probable complicity in the state’s PDS scam. The Supreme Court was hearing an Enforcement Directorate plea seeking transfer of a PMLA case related to the ‘Nagrik Apurti Nigam’ (NAN) or the Public Distribution System (PDS) scam outside the state.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the ED, had referred to the WhatsApp chat of an alleged close aide to the chief minister that a judge had met the CM two days before bail was granted to some of the accused in the NAN scam case. We took instructions. The chief minister never met any high court judge, senior lawyer Kapil Sibal told the court on Thursday.
Mehta responded, saying he had only referred to the Whatsapp chat. The apex court bench comprising Chief Justice Uday Umesh Lalit and Justices Ajay Rastogi and S Ravindra Bhat, meanwhile, refused to further hear the ED’s plea on account of paucity of time and unavailability of the special bench to finish the hearing and adjourned it to the week commencing November 14.
The CJI, who will demit office on November 8, and the other two judges are part of three separate benches and they come together for this case only by disturbing the regular functioning of the other three courts. Though, we heard advocates appearing for the parties at some length, but considering the facts and circumstances on record and particularly the fact that the submissions would not be over in one session, the matter is released from being part heard, the order said.
Ordering re-sealing of the documents filed by the ED and the state government, the bench said the apex court registry is directed to list the matter before an appropriate bench in the week of November 14, after taking appropriate instructions from the CJI. Chief Justice Lalit said since he would not be hearing the case anymore, he will not make any remarks.
At the outset, some lawyers sought adjournment of the hearing as the special bench sat around 3.35 pm, and after some discussion, the CJI decided to release the case from his bench and from the status of being part heard. The ED’s plea will now be heard afresh by another bench constituted by the successor CJI.
Earlier, the Enforcement Directorate, which is seeking transfer of the PMLA case outside Chhattisgarh, had claimed a judge had met the chief minister two days before bail was granted to some of the accused. Alleging “collusion" between the accused and “highly placed persons", the ED had told the bench that 72 out 170 witnesses have turned hostile. It is impossible to have a free and fair trial in the case if it is held in the state, the anti-money laundering agency had said.
“The learned judge meeting the CM (chief minister) also is good enough, two days before the bail. I have nothing more to say. I did not want to say this. If this cannot shock your lordships’ conscience, nothing can," Mehta had told the bench. “Everything is not entered into in black and white. There would not be an agreement signed by the chief minister and the learned judge," he had said.
While hearing the matter on September 26, the apex court had highlighted the gravity of ED’s claim, saying it stood on a “completely different footing" as a judge was allegedly a party to “some kind of conversation". Besides seeking transfer of the PMLA case outside Chhattisgarh, the ED has sought cancellation of anticipatory bail granted to some high-profile accused in the money laundering case.
It recently submitted a sealed cover report containing some objectionable WhatsApp messages, indicating the alleged involvement of the constitutional functionaries, to the bench. The ED had alleged that some high constitutional functionaries of the state along with members of the SIT were weakening the case with the connivance of the accused, which included two senior IAS officers.
Prior to this, the Chhattisgarh High Court had granted anticipatory bail to IAS officers Anil Tuteja and Alok Shukla in the money laundering case related to the Chhattisgarh Civil Supply Corporation scam. In 2019, the ED had lodged an Enforcement Case Information Report (ECIR) under the Prevention of Money Laundering Act, which was based on the FIR and charge sheet filed by the Chhattisgarh Police’s economic offences wing (EOW) and the anti-corruption bureau (ACB) in the civil supply scam.
The alleged scam came to light in February 2015, when a BJP government under Raman Singh was at the helm. The ACB conducted raids on the offices of NAN, the agency entrusted with the task of effective functioning of the Public Distribution System (PDS), and seized unaccounted cash totalling Rs 3.64 crore.
The FIR alleged wide-scale corrupt practices in the procurement and transportation of rice and other food grains which involved officials and others related to the state Civil Supplies Corporation, Raipur. The central probe agency has alleged that the accused officers time and again evaded the proceedings established by law and have been successfully able to thwart an impartial investigation and trial due to their political clout.