The Supreme Court on Monday directed Himachal Pradesh chief minister Virbhadra Singh and his wife to respond to the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) petition against the Himachal high court order granting them protection from arrest in disproportionate assets (DA) case.
A bench of justices FMI Kalifulla and UU Lalit, however, declined the CBI’s request to stay the Himachal high court’s October 1 order. It also issued notice to the CM on the agency’s second petition seeking transfer of Virbhadra’s petition from Himachal high court to Delhi. It fixed November 5 to hear the two petitions.
HC order hampering probe: CBI
The CBI claimed the HC order giving protection to Virbhadra from a possible arrest hampered its investigation into the disproportionate assets case against him. Attorney general Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for the CBI, assailed the HC order and asserted that one of the judges of the high court bench, which gave the relief, could not have heard the case because he had as a lawyer fought cases for Virbhadra.
The CBI alleged that the judge concerned, Justice Rajiv Sharma, had on two occasions recused himself from hearing cases involving the CM. Referring to newspaper reports on those cases, Rohatgi argued: “You cannot pick and choose cases for recusal or hearing.”
“He is on record that he will not hear the case as he (Virbhadra) was his client. The learned judge should have said so in this matter as well,” he said.
Senior advocates Kapil Sibal and P Chidambaram opposed Rohatgi’s contention. Sibal told the bench that justice Sharma had refused to hear a case related to the Himachal Pradesh Cricket Association stadium at Dharamshala and not from the corruption case.
‘Uniform practice should be allowed’
Though the bench did not comment on the merits of the case, it noted a uniform practice should be followed if judges decline to hear a case due to personal reasons.
The CBI alleged that Virbhadra had received unaccounted money to the tune of nearly early `5 crore when he was the Union minister of steel and micro small and medium enterprises. Virbhadra’s income tax returns for 2009-10, 2010-11 and 2011-12 show there was a “substantial increase” in his agricultural income, the first information report states.
According to the CBI, the Himachal high court could not have entertained Virbhadra’s petition because a public interest litigation (PIL) demanding action against him for amassing unaccounted wealth was already pending in Delhi.
Himachal HC order
The HC had on October 1 restrained the CBI from arresting Virbhadra and his wife in the DA case, but had allowed the inquiry in the matter to proceed. Admitting Virbhadra’s petition, the HC also directed the CBI to keep the court informed before interrogating the couple.
In his petition, Virbhadra said raids at his private residence and other premises were conducted with “malafide intentions and political vendetta” by the central investigating agency.