Supreme Court pauses PILs against Hemant Soren

Published on Aug 18, 2022 12:48 AM IST

The PILs failed to make out a prima facie case against theJharkhand chief minister over alleged irregularities in grant of a mining lease and in MNREGS contracts, and transactions of some shell companies reportedly run by his family, the apex court observed.

Jharkhand chief minister Hemant Soren. (Hindustan Times)
Jharkhand chief minister Hemant Soren. (Hindustan Times)
ByAbraham Thomas, New Delhi

Three public interest litigations (PILs) against Jharkhand chief minister Hemant Soren in the Jharkhand high court over alleged irregularities in grant of a mining lease and in MNREGS contracts, and transactions of some shell companies reportedly run by his family failed to make out a prima facie case, the Supreme Court observed on Wednesday, as it stayed all proceedings on the petitions.

The PILs seek an inquiry by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and Enforcement Directorate (ED) against the chief minister and his family members.

A bench of justices Uday Umesh Lalit, S Ravindra Bhat and Sudhanshu Dhulia also refused to examine an ED report in a sealed cover claiming incriminating material against Soren, saying the top court’s consideration cannot be “coloured” by any other material if the PILs did not make out any prima facie case.

The bench further reserved its judgment on separate pleas of the Jharkhand government and Soren against an order of the high court that accepted the maintainability of the pleas.

“The present petitioner (before the high court) has not brought any prima facie material before the high court. The averments (made in the PILs) as of today are sketchy and superficial,” the bench observed.

“In a PIL, the allegations which the Court is called upon to consider are certainly bound by the four corners of the petition. It cannot be coloured with something else. Otherwise judicial discipline will go haywire,” it added.

The bench stayed further proceedings on the three PILs till it gave its final decision on the appeals questioning their maintainability.

“Since this Court is seized of the matter, the high court shall not proceed further with the pending writ petitions,” it ordered.

The high court, on June 3, had accepted the maintainability of two petitions filed by Shiv Shankar Sharma and one by Arun Kumar Dubey.

One of the petitions which was filed on February 16 this year by Sharma pertains to the alleged issuance of a mining lease by Soren, who also holds the mining portfolio, in his name last year. The chief minister has dismissed the allegation.

The second PIL, filed by him on October 10 last year, relates to allegations that Soren and his family have parked unaccounted money through their associates in shell companies.

The third PIL filed by Dubey in 2019 seeks an ED probe into alleged offences arising out of disbursement of MNREGS funds in 2010.

Appearing for ED, additional solicitor general (ASG) SV Raju said technicalities should not come in the way of the top court as otherwise corrupt persons holding high posts may go scot free.

“Though the petition may be sketchy, it may have credible material that we found in our investigation while probing 16 first information reports (FIRs) involving MNREGA scam in the state. Will the Court adopt an ostrich-like approach, taking a narrow view that we will not go beyond what the petition says,” Raju said.

To this, the bench responded: “If we accept your submission, criminal prosecution can be launched on the basis of anything.”

“Nobody has tied your hands in proceeding against other accused in cases investigated by you in a manner established by law. If you find any material, good luck to you, but don’t involve courts in it,” it added.

ED can only proceed with its probe when there is a predicate offence, the petitioner’s counsel said while referring to the MNREGS scam in Jharkhand’s Khunti district.

After ED arrested former mines secretary Pooja Singhal in May, a few materials that came to light during the course of investigation could not be shared with local police as senior officials in the government appeared to be involved in the matter and the evidence could get destroyed, Raju alleged as he requested the Court to open ED’s report in the sealed cover.

The bench, however, refused. “Unless and until a foundation can be laid for an investigation, we will not see your report. In a given case, we may allow you to file a sealed cover. We are not stopping you from initiating any proceeding that is permissible in law. But we are on whether a citizen can come up with a case which is unsubstantiated on which the Court can look into. Coming to maintainability of such petitions, a relevant part is whether a prima facie case is established before the Court,” it said.

“We understand the personality involved in the matter is CM so there is a feeling that the entire state machinery is at his command. But such matters must evoke the confidence of the Court,” the bench observed.

“The man (PIL petitioner) should take the burden of proving the matter himself. In this (MGNREGA) case, he doesn’t do that as he seeks the help of the investigating agency,” it added.

The top court also referred to one of its recent judgment upholding amendments to Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA), allowing ED to begin its probe in case of a predicate offence.

“This gives all the more reason that the Court should be vigilant…otherwise there is a possibility during investigation, search and seizure can happen. But at the end, if there is no prima facie case, where does the matter lie?” it said.

Senior advocate Kapil Sibal and former attorney general Mukul Rohatgi, who appeared for the Jharkhand government and Soren, respectively, flagged that Sharma did not divulge that his father had testified against the chief minister’s father, Shibu Soren, in a murder case in 2006, in which the veteran Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) leader was eventually acquitted.

Sibal pointed at the recent arrest of the counsel of the petitioner, Rajiv Kumar, in Kolkata for allegedly attempting to extort 1 crore from a city-based businessman.

“Perhaps there is more than what meets the eye,” the bench observed, referring to Soren’s argument that the PIL petitioner had an axe to grind against the chief minister’s father.

The ruling Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) in the state welcomed the top court’s observations.

“We have maintained from the beginning that these PILs have been filed with malafide intentions. The arrest of the petitioner’s counsel corroborates our theory. We are hopeful but will wait for the final order to react any further. We would abide by the law,” JMM principal general secretary Supriyo Bhattacharya said.

The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) expressed hope that “truth will prevail”.

“These developments are part of the judicial process. Sometimes stays are granted while they are vacated on other occasions. We have full conviction that ultimately truth will prevail,” state BJP spokesperson Pratul Shahdeo said.

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