The Supreme Court gave relief to former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Wednesday as it stayed a trial court order summoning him as an accused in a coal scam case and also restrained the special CBI judge from proceeding with the matter.
A bench headed by justice V Gopal Gowda issued a notice to the Central Bureau of Investigation on Singh’s appeal challenging the lower court’s order that had directed him to appear before it on April 8 under charges of criminal conspiracy and corruption.
The case pertains to the 2005 allocation of the Talabira-II and III coal blocks in Odisha to aluminium major Hindalco when Singh was also coal minister.
Special CBI judge Bharat Parashar had on March 11 rejected the investigating agency’s closure report and summoned the former PM and five others as accused.
The SC relief was also extended to former coal secretary PC Parakh, industrialist Kumar Mangalam Birla, his company Hindalco and two executives from the firm.
The 35-minute proceedings were watched by Singh’s daughters, Upinder and Daman, while a battery of lawyers, including former Union ministers Kapil Sibal and Ashwani Kumar, represented him.
Sibal led the argument and criticised the trial court for exceeding jurisdiction. “I must confess that I have not been able to find out what is the illegal act done by the petitioner (Singh) in the case,” he told the bench. “Is it illegal to allot a mine or is it not legal to allot it to a private party? There is no statutory prohibition in doing so.”
The 83-year-old Singh is only the second former head of government in India to be summoned as an accused, after his mentor and fellow architect of the country’s economic liberalisation, Narasimha Rao, appeared in court in three cases on charges ranging from bribery to forgery. He was finally exonerated.
In 2012, while Singh was PM, national auditor CAG said the exchequer had lost up to R1.86 lakh crore due to collusion between officials and private firms to depress the cost of coal-field awards.
Late last year, the Supreme Court cancelled 200 coal licences, many of them issued by the UPA government. The coal blocks are now being auctioned online.
The bench also agreed to look into Hindalco’s plea questioning the constitutional validity of a provision of the Prevention of Corruption Act under which a public servant can face a case if he obtains “for any person any valuable thing or pecuniary advantage” even if it’s without public interest.
According to both Singh and Hindalco, the mine was allocated to the company following the then state chief minister’s recommendation.
Sibal argued that though the allotment was made against the screening committee’s advice, the decision cannot be faulted for this reason.
He then recalled the SC’s judgment cancelling the coal licences and said the quashing was on the grounds that the screening panel procedures were illegal. “Once those procedures have been faulted by the top court, how can the trial court summon the petitioner on the grounds the screening committee’s recommendations were not followed?”
The trial court was wrong on technical grounds, too, he told the bench. According to Sibal, prior sanction is essential under law to prosecute a public servant. The former law minister said the court could not have summoned Singh as he held an office as a public servant at the time the alleged offence was committed.
Sibal also questioned the lower court’s December 16 order asking the CBI to re-investigate the case.