Amaravati land scam: SC makes FIR open for media to report
Two months after the Andhra Pradesh government headed by Jagan Mohan Reddy alleged corruption in the allotment of land in Amaravati, and accused the state’s former Advocate General of facilitating the purchase of land at throwaway prices by his relatives and acquaintances, including relatives of senior Supreme Court judge NV Ramana, the Supreme Court on Wednesday lifted a media gag on reporting the FIR.
The gag order was passed by the Andhra Pradesh high court on September 15, hours after the state’s Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) registered a first information report against former Advocate General (AG) Dammalapati Srinivas and 12 others. By the same order, the HC also stayed further investigation into the scam and ordered that no coercive action be taken against Srinivas.
Although an appeal against this order was filed in Supreme Court by the state on September 21, the matter was heard for the first time on Wednesday by a bench of justices Ashok Bhushan, RS Reddy and MR Shah.
The court issued notice to Srinivas and sought his response in three weeks. While posting the matter for hearing in the last week of January 2021, the bench said, “In the meantime, directions issued in the impugned order dated September 15, 2020 to the extent of following -- news in regard to registration of FIR or in the context of the said FIR shall not be made public in any electronic, print or social media – shall remain stayed.” The apex court did not remove the stay on the investigation and coercive action.
This isn’t the only controversy involving Reddy and justice Ramana.
In a letter to CJI SA Bobde on October 6, Reddy alleged that many judges of the Andhra Pradesh high court were biased against the state government and that justice Ramana was influencing the HC roster and getting cases against the state government listed before such judges.
On October 10, Jagan’s principal advisor, Ajeya Kallam, disclosed the contents of the letter to the media at a press conference. Two petitions in the Supreme Court against Reddy were filed after that press conference for targeting justice Ramana.
The Supreme Court , on November 16, adjourned a hearing on the two petitions.
On Wednesday, the bench allowed the high court to continue hearing the pending petition filed by Srinivas in which the interim order of September 15 was passed but said: “The High Court is requested not to finally decide the writ petition.”
According to the FIR, details of which can be reported now, between June and December 2014, speculation was rife about Amravati being the prospective new capital of the new state. Srinivas was Additional Advocate General from June 2014 to May 2016 and Advocate General from May 2016 to May 2019. The state’s claim is that Srinivas was privy to information about the exact location of future capital, and with an intention to make pecuniary gain, his brother-in-law acquired around 16 plots near Amaravati. Some of these plots were sold to Srinivas, his wife, and father-in-law at the same rates at which it was purchased from land owners. Certain plots were similarly sold to other individuals named in the FIR, including close relatives of Justice Ramana, the second senior-most judge in the Supreme Court.
HT contacted the office of justice Ramana but he was not available for comment.
On Wednesday, the state represented by senior advocate Rajiv Dhavan pointed out that in a writ petition, the HC passed orders staying arrest and further investigation as if it were dealing with an anticipatory bail plea. “Is there something extraordinary in this petition that the High Court passed such an order? ” Dhavan asked.
Dhavan pointed out that the action in this case was not a “knee-jerk reaction” as it began on March 23, 2020 when the state wrote to Union government seeking probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into alleged irregularities in allotment of land at Amaravati. This was based on findings of a Cabinet subcommittee in December 2019. A special investigation team was constituted in February 2020 which too got stayed by the high court. On September 5, a fresh complaint raising the same allegation was filed that was marked to ACB. A preliminary enquiry led to lodging of FIR on September 15.
Srinivas, who had filed a caveat, was represented by senior advocates Harish Salve and Mukul Rohatgi who alleged political malafide against the state. Salve pointed out that the former Advocate General was only “a part in an entire piece” as there are others too named in this FIR. Salve suggested that the matter be sent back to the high court as the state violated the HC order by going public with the allegations of the FIR despite a gag order. “The state has no faith in the high court,” Salve said.
Rohatgi mentioned that the chief minister faces dozens of criminal cases, and Srinivas was targeted as he appeared against him in several cases as the state’s law officer. Rohatgi claimed that it was “absurd to say that a law officer had prior knowledge of the exact location of capital” and told the court that he was forced to approach the high court as secret investigation was started against him by digging out information from the income tax department and registration of FIR in order to “defame and scandalise” his reputation.
Dhavan said that being a law officer offers no immunity from prosecution and if an offence is made out, state should be allowed to investigate and unveil the truth. The bench said, “We are satisfied that the matter requires consideration.”
Attorney General KK Venugopal on November 2 refused to grant consent for initiating contempt against Reddy and his adviser over the issue of their allegations against justice Ramana, partly because the matter was already before CJI Bobde (in the form of the CM’s letter). However, he held that the conduct of the two to be “contumacious” and called the timing of the letter “suspect”.
Reddy’s allegations against justice Ramana in the letter came within a month of an order passed by the latter on September 16 in a public interest litigation dealing with fast-tracking of criminal trials against sitting and former legislators. There are several such cases against Reddy.
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