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Shame & Awe: how Gujarat's judges are busting each other over houses

Darshan Desai | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 3:39 IST

The letters

  • Two former Gujarat HC judges wrote letters to the acting chief justice
  • The judges weren\'t allotted land at concessional rates, while 27 others were
  • The chief justice, VM Sahai, decided to convert the letters into a suo motu petition

The allegations

  • Gujarat advocate-general Kamal Trivedi alleged that Sahai himself wanted a plot of land
  • Sahai hit back alleging corruption and nepotism against Trivedi and his own HC colleagues
  • Sitting judges have questioned Sahai\'s appointments to class-three and class-four posts without tendering

A sordid war has broken out in the Gujarat High Court. There have been allegations of nepotism and corruption in state high courts before, but the incidents of the last few days have laid open just how unsavoury the mess can get.

It has now emerged that acting Chief Justice VM Sahai is at loggerheads with 27 sitting and retired judges, with the Gujarat government's Advocate-General, Kamal Trivedi, also getting himself involved.

A hearing in the high court on 11 August turned into a mud-slinging match, exposing just how deep the divide was. And why? Because of plots of land allotted by the state government to some judges at concessional rates.

History of the divide

Trivedi told Catch that it was in the late 1990s that a group of senior judges of the high court made a representation to the government to allot them land at concessional rates, as it had given to IAS, IPS, IFS (Indian Forest Service) officers and other government employees in the state capital, Gandhinagar. Eventually, after more than a decade, the state government agreed.

In 2007, several high court judges were given plots of 400 square metres each at concessional rates of Rs 25 lakh each. The market rate for these plots today is nearly Rs 2 crore.

Among the alleged beneficiaries were a sitting and a retired Supreme Court judge, eight sitting Gujarat High Court judges, 15 former judges and chief justices of the Bombay and Orissa high courts.

Two former judges - BJ Shethna and KR Vyas - wrote letters in this matter to the acting chief justice, since neither of them had been allotted land.

Shethna was an acting chief justice of the Gujarat High Court twice in March 2006 - once for five days and then for a week - while Vyas was a former chief justice of the Bombay High Court and, earlier, a Gujarat HC judge.

They claimed that irregularities had been committed in allotting land, and judges had constructed bungalows in the name of the Neetibaug Cooperative Housing Society in Sola area on the upmarket SG Road, near the high court premises.

Sahai first inquired into the letters and sought the housing society's documents from the Ahmedabad District Collector. Then, he initiated suo motu proceedings in the case and issued notices to the 27 other judges.

Courtroom drama

But Sahai, who retires on 12 August, soon had to field serious allegations against himself in the open court. Advocate-General Trivedi asserted that Sahai converted the letters into a petition since he too wanted a piece of land.

Trivedi told Catch, "The plots were given only to those who were sitting judges of the high court as on 6 November 2008 and this is on record."

Trivedi repeated this in court, and added for good measure that Sahai had requested him at the marriage of a sitting judge's daughter to try and get him a plot in the area where other judges had been allotted land.

Acting Chief Justice VM Sahai is at loggerheads with 27 sitting and retired judges over the allotment of land

This angered Sahai, who told Trivedi that he had approached him for favours in several state government cases. "Do you want me to open a Pandora's Box and convert all that into PILs?"

Hinting at corruption and nepotism related to sitting judges, a livid Sahai asked, "What about the bulk order for 1,000 laptop computers at Rs 2.7 crore given to the nephew of a sitting judge (name not stated)? And most of the computers are defective?"

Catch has been able to confirm that Sahai did indeed utter these sentences, from the judges who wrote the letters, as well as government pleaders, besides independent lawyers present in the court.

The trouble goes deeper

Sitting judges have earlier raised objections against Sahai over the appointments to 60 class-three and class-four posts without any tendering process.

On 7 August, Sahai had written to all his colleagues calling for a meeting on these allegations. He had also threatened to convert this into a PIL.

In the case of Shethna and Vyas's letters, a division bench headed by Sahai issued the notices, but the second judge, RP Dholaria, recused himself from the case before Sahai had completed dictating his order.

On 11 August, a bench of Sahai and new judge Mohinder Pal decided to refer the matter to a larger bench and also decided to frame a set of questions for the new bench to look into.

Sahai then went wild when Trivedi wanted the intervener, lawyer Bharat Rao, appointed by the court in the case, to include questions related to the alleged recruitment scam, as well as Sahai's own wish to have a plot of land in the Neetibaug Society.

No quid pro quo

Vyas, who lives in a private house in his wife's name in Ahmedabad's Prahladnagar area, told Catch, "The original decision was to allot plots to those who were sitting judges up to 2007. When I returned to Gujarat in 2012, the cut off date was surprisingly changed to 2008. And this was a decision of the high court judges, and not of the state government.

"I never knew that an administrative letter that I wrote to the chief justice in June would become a PIL and there would be such a brouhaha over it. The allotment of plots of land to judges was not a favour, and it never came in between the cases that we adjudicated. It was a request by the judges and the government gave 48 plots, many of which are still vacant," he said.

Vyas went on, "I was elevated as chief justice in Mumbai and retired on 19 July 2006. After that, I was made chairman of the Maharashtra State Human Rights Commission for five years. I returned to Gujarat in 2012 and discovered that I was no longer entitled for a plot. As for concessional rates, all state governments give it. There is no quid pro quo."

When contacted, Shethna refused to comment on the issue, saying "the high court has already converted it into a PIL and so I won't say anything. The contents of my letter are on high court record, you'll get it from there."

Senior lawyer Anand Yagnik, who fights several cases against the Gujarat government, sums up the issue as follows.

"It appears that those in power, holding constitutional posts affiliated to higher judiciary, are trying to settle scores on issues about which the common man is not aware. Whatever has transpired during the last two days in the first court of the Gujarat High Court has exposed the squabbles among the judges."

First published: 12 August 2015, 2:44 IST
Darshan Desai

The writer is Editor, Development News Network, Ahmedabad, and Director, Centre for Media Research Training and Advocacy