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Law ministry note hints at Punjab Congress role

india Updated: Sep 08, 2011 21:50 IST

Join the dots.. In a highly unusual move, the union ministry of external affairs, in which Patiala Congress MP Preneet Kaur is minister of state, urged the union law and justice ministry to field former Punjab advocate general (AG) Harbhagwan Singh as a counsel in the Sehajdhari voting rights case being heard in the Punjab and Haryana high court.

And Harbhagwan — whose misleading statement in the high court that the central government had given Sehajdhari Sikhs voting rights in the SGPC polls triggered a political storm in Punjab and forced a clarification from the union home ministry — was AG when Kaur’s husband, Capt Amarinder Singh, was the chief minister of Punjab (2002-07).

The union ministry of external affairs has absolutely nothing to do with the Sehajdhari voting rights case. But according to a “most urgent” note — FTS no. 2260/MLJ/2011—of the law ministry’s department of legal affairs (judicial section), a reference from “Ministry of External Affairs” was received requesting for the engagement of Harbhagwan in the case in question.

Hindustan Times has a copy of this note. Harbhagwan on September 1 stated before a three-judge high court bench that the Congress-led central government had withdrawn the 2003 notification that made Sehajdhari Sikhs ineligible for voting in the SGPC elections.

He made the controversial statement during resumed hearing of a bunch of petitions seeking voting rights for Sehajdhari Sikhs in the SGPC elections, leading to uncertainty over holding of the September 18 SGPC polls and sparking a wave of political protests in the state. Union home minister P Chidambaram clarified in Parliament the next day that the Centre had not withdrawn the notification and Harbhagwan had no instructions to make that statement. Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal directly blamed state Congress chief Amarinder for the “conspiracy and mischief ” and sought a CBI inquiry into the issue.

According to the union law ministry’s note, the external affairs ministry had requested to field Harbhagwan in two cases — criminal writ petition of Harbans Singh Kandhola versus Union of India and others, and Sehajdhari Sikh Federation versus union of India and others. The note, bearing signatures of four officers dated August 26, 28 and 29, states that in these cases TS Doabia, senior advocate and assistant solicitor General (ARS Sidhu), respectively, were the Centre’s counsels in the cases.

“It has also been stated that both the cases are listed for final arguments for 26.08.2011,” reads the note. The copy of this note, which was “submitted for orders as to whether the engagement of Harbhagwan Singh….may be approved…” was duly marked to the “MEA-PS (private secretary) to minister of state for external affairs (Preneet Kaur)”. This copy was also marked to Harbhagwan. Kaur could not be contacted as she was said to be out of the country. When asked on Wednesday if any Punjab Congress leader was behind his appointment, Harbhagwan said: “I received a communication from the law ministry. I don’t know how and on whose recommendation I was appointed, and it is their (ministry officials’) internal matter.”

Several missing links

Caught on the wrong foot on September 1, Harbhagwan had said his statement before the court was based on the instructions he had received from an unidentified person claiming to be from the union law ministry.
The former Punjab AG said when the 3-judge bench was hearing the case on September 1, at 3 pm “somebody whose identity I don’t know” approached “me inside the court” urging him to come out. “The person who asked me to come out from the court handed over me a cellphone…
“Somebody claiming to be from the law ministry spoke over phone. I don’t know who he was…nor I know the person on whose phone I was speaking…”

Voting pattern
A Sehajdhari is a person who embraces the Sikh religion gradually

A decision to grant voting rights to them in the SGPC polls would
have meant lakhs of Sehajdharis could theoretically vote to elect the SGPC
house, which is currently dominated by Punjab’s ruling Shiromani Akali Dal