Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was on Wednesday summoned to appear next month as an accused in a coal scam case by a Special Court, potentially becoming the second former head of government to face trial.
Special Judge Bharat Parashar summoned the 83-year-old former PM, ex-coal secretary PC Parakh and four others saying “some acts of their omission and commission, though not all, show their complicity in the conspiracy.”
Parashar, who was considering the Central Bureau of Investigation’s final report in the case, directed Singh and the others to appear before his court on April 8 to answer charges of criminal conspiracy, breach of trust and corruption.
The accused will have to seek bail; if it is denied, they will be sent to jail.
Singh’s mentor and fellow architect of India’s economic liberalisation, Narasimha Rao, was the first former PM to face trial, appearing in three cases on charges ranging from bribery to forgery. He was finally exonerated, but his legacy was tarnished.
The case against Singh pertains to the 2005 allocation of the Talabira-II and III coal blocks in Odisha to aluminium giant Hindalco. It appeared, said the court, that the former PM and former coal secretary had played “different roles” with the “common purpose” of “accommodating” the company.
The judge said that Singh could not take the plea that he, as the PM, could not be expected to “look into the minute details of each and every case placed before him.”
He said that the former PM – who also held the coal portfolio between 2004 and 2009 – could not claim ignorance due to his office.
Reacting to the court order, Singh said he was upset, but expressed confidence that the truth would come through.
"I have always said I am open for legal scrutiny...I am sure the truth will prevail and I will get a chance to put forward my case with all the facts," said the former PM while adding "I hope, in a fair trial, I will prove my innocence."
Apart from Singh and Parakh, the court also summoned the chairman of the Aditya Birla group, Kumar Mangalam Birla; Hindalco, which is part of the group; and two of its officials, Shubhendu Amitabh and D Bhattacharya.
Hindalco said in a statement that “none of its officials, including its Chairman Kumar Mangalam Birla, have pursued any unlawful or inappropriate means for securing the allocation of the coal block.”
It added that it had “cooperated with the investigating authorities completely during the course of investigation since October 2013” and that the company’s management was confident that it would stand vindicated.
Parakh said the summons “came as a surprise” to him. He refused to comment beyond this, saying that the “court has its own method of working.”
Industry body CII said that the court’s order would “create an atmosphere of uncertainty and send a wrong signal to investors”.
The case was registered in October 2013, a month after Singh had told Parliament that his government had nothing to hide on the coal scam.
After a year-long investigation, CBI had sought to close the file, saying there was insufficient evidence to prosecute. However, the court directed further investigation of the matter, and asked the agency to examine Singh and some officials in the then PMO.
After recording Singh’s statement in late January, the agency had filed its final report last month.