In the on-going saga of CBI Director Ranjit Sinha’s all-revealing guest register, the plea by Prashant Bhushan’s Centre for Public Interest Litigation (CPIL) to keep Sinha away from the 2G Spectrum case because he was regularly meeting some of the accused as the register reveals, plus the counter perjury pleas filed by the CBI against the CPIL, a startling but worrying aspect has been revealed, but ignored by most observers. It is the disposition and temperament of the Chief Justice in waiting, Justice HL Dattu.
Justice Dattu will be taking over next week, on September 28, 2014, after CJI RM Lodha retires, and will have the good fortune of a relatively long tenure, till December 2015, coming on the heels of two CJIs who both retired within one year – Justice Sathasivam had retired in April, and now CJI Lodha will retire later this month. Justice Dattu is on the bench monitoring investigations into the 2G scam, but it was his unusual demand that the litigants, CPIL, reveal the name of the whistleblower who gave Bhushan the guest register, that is an alarming prospect, especially for the media.
Last Monday, the two-judge bench headed by Justice Dattu had directed Bhushan to disclose the name and address of the whistle-blower in a sealed envelope. The CBI chief, defending himself, had said that 90 per cent of entries in the register were forged while some entries may be genuine. “We want to know about the authenticity of the whistleblower. It has serious consequences on the reputation of persons and also on the (2G) trial court. Give us the source of information. How all this information got leaked out is important. We have to satisfy ourselves first,” a bench of Justices H L Dattu and S A Bobde ordered Bhushan. The learned judges said that informing the court about the whistleblower was imperative in view of the Supreme Court Rules, which obligate every person filing an affidavit to disclose the source of their information. “We will proceed if we are satisfied that this man has access to the register with names and details of people visiting the director. Once we realize there is some hanky-panky, and some investigation is needed, we will certainly go for it but we’ve got to first believe these entries.”
The order led to a flurry of activity – Prashant Bhushan pleaded that the order infringes on the privacy of the whistle-blower and therefore needs the permission from the person; the court gave Bhushan a week’s time. By Thursday, Bhushan submitted an affidavit to the Supreme Court saying it will not reveal the whistle-blower’s name even in a sealed cover stating that public interest litigations (PILs) are non-adversarial where the court intends to find the truth and that rules of procedure are not strictly followed in such cases. It also gave letters by civil rights activists against revealing the whistleblower’s name in line with the Whistle Blowers Protection Act 2011, while also adding that several whistleblowers have been killed after their identities were revealed, like Satyendra Dube, S Manjunath, Amit Jethwa and Shehla Masood.
Today, while the Dattu-Bobde bench turned down the CBI director’s plea that the case filed against him should not be heard and be dismissed, it has only agreed to hear the CPIL’s plea that the court should recall its order of revealing the whistle-blower’s name. The court has rejected Ranjit Sinha’s plea and has in fact ordered that all documents – including CBI file notings and the Director’s guest register be given to Special Public Prosecutor Anand Grover. It however said it can consider recalling its own order of revealing the whistle-blower’s name. ”We can correct our mistake if it is a mistake so that it doesn’t affect the pending and future (petitions)” the court said.
Justice Dattu it seems has been caught in a bind after Bhushan dug his heels in about not revealing the whistle-blower’s name. But what does it say for the media and civil society if a Chief Justice demands that the cover of anonymity be blown of whistle-blowers who help uncover corruption cases? What can journalists do if the court orders that the source be revealed in an investigation story? It does not bode well both for media and civil society. Neither does it for Justice Dattu, in his last week before he takes up the prestigious post of Chief Justice of India, the highest ranking judge of the country.