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Ex-CJI Altamas Kabir issues press release to defend v ‘maligning’ TOI, IE printing ‘canards’

The former Chief Justice of India (CJI) Altamas Kabir, who retired last week, has lashed out at the Times of India and the Indian Express for their critical reports of Kabir, purporting to explain in a six-page press release what actually went on behind the scenes.

He wrote:

“Just before I was to demit office as the Chief Justice of India, certain reports began to appear in the Times of India and the Indian Express, which were clearly intended to lower my image before the public.”

“I have nothing against responsible reporting of facts in their totality, but I certainly object to canards, masquerading as news, being published in newspapers to deliberately malign an individual. Ordinarily, I would have ignored the barbs and innuendos, but when people close to me begin to ask questions, I have no option but to put the records straight. People who have read the said articles immediately commented about the timing of the publication of such articles.”

The allegations

Kabir proceeded to summarise the charges reported by the press, notably that the “Gujarat Chief Justice had been denied a berth in the Supreme Court on account of my personal bias towards him because of his objections to my sister’s elevation as a Judge of the Calcutta High Court”.

The Indian Express had reported on 12 July that the Gujarat high court chief justice Bhaskar Bhattacharya had lashed out at Kabir in a letter alleging the above.

Second, he wrote that “attempts purported to have been made by me to elevate a Judge of the High Court to the Supreme Court at a meeting of the Collegium on 2nd July, 2013, just a fortnight prior to my retirement.”

The Times of India had reported on 19 July that Kabir had accused the other collegium members of “ganging up” on him. The article did not cite any sources or carry a reporter’s byline.

Finally he said that he was criticised for “an order passed by the Bench presided over by me extending the time given by another Bench for deposit of installments in the Sahara case”.

The messengers

“The charge was led by two experienced journalists, one from the Times of India and the other from the Indian Express, for reasons which I am yet to fathom, but the timing was certainly perfect.

“As far as the first ‘story’ is concerned, the screaming headlines on the front page of the Indian Express made sensational reading, but it also betrayed complete ignorance as to how the Collegium system functions.”

Kabir explains collegium

Kabir said he would explain what “transpired at the Collegium meeting… to put the records straight”, noting that the collegium consisted of the five senior-most judges who took collective decisions, which were usually unanimous and can be vetoed by any two nay-votes.

“Various factors” would be taken into account before nomination other than just “profound knowledge” of law.

But while the collegium was in fact unanimous, claimed Kabir, the press reports made it look as though it was Kabir’s “individual bias” which prevented the Gujarat Chief Justice’s elevation.

Kabir explains alleged late elevation

“Dishonesty in reporting news is amply evident from the newspaper report, which does not disclose even one-fourth of the truth,” said Kabir about, presumably, the Express story.

In fact, Kabir said he had attempted to make sure that a Supreme Court judge from Madhya Pradesh – of whom there were none on the bench since August 2012 - would be appointed, with the process having begun long before he was due to retire.

During his “tenure, which was interrupted by almost three months of vacations, I was able to fill up most of the vacancies in the High Courts and seven vacancies in the Supreme Court, but my attempts to give representation to Madhya Pradesh remained unfruitful”, said Kabir.

“An impression had been given that it was only on 2 July 2013 that I had suggested the name of the person concerned, a fortnight before I was to retire. That is a classic example of less than half truth in action. The process began soon after I assumed the office [… in October 2012] but I deferred on one pretext or the other.”

He suggested the name again on 1 May 2013 but one member of the collegium “shot down” the suggestion, as he “wanted to find out about the background of the Judge concerned”, wrote Kabir. The collegium, but not Kabir, suggested taking the matter up again on 2 July after the summer vacations, knowing full well that Kabir would only have two weeks left on the bench, said the former CJI. When the collegium then reconvened it did not want to confirm any more judges, including additional judges.

“I leave it to the readers to draw their own conclusions in this matter,” closed Kabir.

Kabir explains Sahara

In respect of his Sahara judgment, in which he went against another Supreme Court bench in giving the Sahara Group additional time to pay its Rs 24,000 crore fine, Kabir wrote:

In this matter we were faced with a situation, where there were a large number of depositors who had not been paid their dues. Since the matter had already been disposed of with a direction for payment of dues in installments and since one installment had already been deposited by Sahara and they only wanted extension of time to deposit the second installment, we felt it to be in the interest of the depositors, to extend the time for depositing the installments by a short period, as that would give them a chance to recover their dues quickly instead of having to wait till SEBI attached and sold the properties of Sahara which could turn out to be a long drawn affair. The decision to extend the time for depositing the installments was the joint decision of the Bench upon consultation.

The attempts of some people, including some of the advocates who claimed to have appeared in the matter, to assign an ill-motive in granting such extension, again discloses the mind-set of journalists who base their articles on innuendos in order to make out a ‘story’ to bolster their reputation as investigative journalists.”

Kabir hopeful of publication in entirety

Kabir concluded his letter with the hope, “in the interest of responsible journalism”, that his six-page letter would be published in its entirety “at a place in the newspapers where it would be visible to readers in the same manner in which the screaming headlines were printed, both in the Indian Express and in the Times of India.”

Click to read full press release, via Bar & Bench

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