Supreme Court advocate M.L. Sharma has been fined and reprimanded several times for his frivolous PILs, but that hasn’t stopped him.
New Delhi: What is common between a public interest litigation (PIL) on the Rafale deal, a PIL accusing Union finance minister Arun Jaitley of “plundering the reserves of the Reserve Bank of India”, a PIL for an independent inquiry against previous finance minister Pranab Mukherjee for “misusing” his office to get himself elected President, and a PIL challenging the validity of the Indo-Pak Indus Waters Treaty?
It is the petitioner — Supreme Court advocate Manohar Lal Sharma.
The serial litigator, who is known for often filing poorly-drafted, headline-hunting petitions, majority of which get dismissed within minutes of the first hearing, draws his strength from the Supreme Court. This, even though several judges have questioned the basis of his PILs and their frivolous nature. The court often grants him a long rope, something it seems to attach a high premium to when it comes to much more qualified and accomplished lawyers.
But if there is one thing that Sharma is good at — the quality of his legal briefs notwithstanding — it is his perseverance.
Heavy fines — he was recently fined Rs 50,000 for the PIL accusing Jaitley of trying to plunder the RBI’s resources — don’t seem to deter him. Days after paying the fine — a precondition for allowing him to file another PIL — the advocate was challenging the Union home ministry’s authorisation allowing 10 security and intelligence agencies to intercept, monitor and decrypt any data generated, transmitted, received or stored on computers.
On 24 December, the Supreme Court turned down his plea for an urgent hearing in the matter.
The wording of the petition was interesting: “The impugned order has been issued to find political opponent, thinker and speaker to control entire country under dictatorship to win coming general election under an undisclosed emergency as well as slavery which cannot be permitted within the Constitution of India.”
He alleged that the order would allow the government the right to access any computer, communication device or mobile and use it to protect political interests.
While some of Sharma’s pleas have resulted in investigation and trials of national importance, most of them have missed the mark and irked the bench for their frivolity.
According to data available, from 2007 onwards, Sharma has filed more than 50 PILs in the Supreme Court. Data gleaned from court orders suggests that a staggering number of them were dismissed at the preliminary stage. Between 2007 and 2012, Sharma filed 33 PILs of which 30 were dismissed at the first stage itself and the rest were tagged with other matters.
Infamous for his views on women and corruption, Sharma has expressed his opinion on almost every matter that has grabbed headlines in the past few years. In this year alone, he has filed more than 10 cases on various issues.
Sharma’s PILs frequently target constitutional functionaries, personalities or political figures. Judges over the years have threatened to debar Sharma from filing frivolous pleas.
In 2015, Sharma called parliamentarians corrupt and accused them of being criminals when he challenged the apex court’s judgment in the National Judicial Accountability Commission (NJAC) matter.
“This court will never be a party to a petition, prayer of which is of the nature that calls our parliamentarians as criminals. We can never let it pass off just like that. It is an insult to the Parliament and it is an insult to our country. We cannot allow anyone to malign our representatives,” the court observed during arguments.
“We consider it to issue show cause notice to the petitioner (Sharma) why he should not be debarred from canvasing any PIL on account of irresponsible and scandalous allegations levelled by him in the petition,” the bench added.
However, Sharma’s plea in the coal scam was his big ticket. In September 2012, he was the first to file a plea seeking cancellation of the allocation of coal blocks on grounds of arbitrariness, illegality, unconstitutionality and public interest.
In April 2013, Sharma and lawyer-activist Prashant Bhushan’s Common Cause filed another plea seeking the constitution of a Special Investigation Team to probe the matter since it involved “very powerful personalities in the present government who were either in charge of the allocation process or who influenced the process to get allocation to their favoured entities”.
Now, almost six years later, a special court at the Patiala House District Court is exclusively dealing with matters in the coal scam.
Rebuked by SC
In this year alone, Sharma has filed pleas against Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Jaitley, the Central Bureau of Investigation, National Commission for Women (NCW), Punjab National Bank, the Union of India, the state of Uttar Pradesh, and the Staff Selection Committee, among others.
He also sought investigation into the Rafale fighter jet deal and the Nirav Modi scam. After he was unsuccessful in getting the film banned last year, Sharma sought deletion of certain scenes from the film Padmaavat.
On 14 December, the apex court dismissed a plea seeking an independent court-monitored investigation into the Rafale deal.
On 3 July, while dismissing Sharma’s plea pertaining to the PNB scam, the SC order noted Attorney General K.K. Venugopal’s submission that a charge sheet has been filed in the matter. However, it noted that in view of the unwarranted, uncalled for and vexatious allegations/assertions Sharma made in his plea, it was “not inclined to entertain the same”.
“What kind of PILs are you filing? You read some newspaper report and straight away come to court… and such reckless personal allegations against someone. These PILs are not PILs at all,” the apex court bench had said while rebuking Sharma for the allegations he made against the Prime Minister and the finance minister in his plea.
Views on women
Over the years, Sharma has courted controversy for his comments on women and even invited the wrath of the Supreme Court Women Lawyers’ Association (SCWLA) which sought to bar him from entering the premises of the court.
In 2013, Sharma filed a plea against an intern who accused a former judge of sexually harassing her. He also filed a claim of contempt of court against a newspaper and an online portal of reporting the matter and then Attorney General Goolam Vahanvati for petitioning the top court to investigate the matter under the provisions of the Vishakha guidelines. In his plea, Sharma suggested that he learnt from “ancient books” that “lady never speak truth”.
Sharma added, “Because sheer reference of sexual harassment by a lady cannot be accepted as an offence. However impugned statement does not contain name, date, time and place where such action was done… It is prima facie have no value but it was published under a concocted game by the respondent girl having hand with other conspirators just to defame the judiciary referring period of December 2012 (sic).”
Remarks on December 16 gang rape
Sharma triggered outrage when he suggested that the December 2012 gangrape case was nothing but an orchestrated incident conspired by a politician in connivance with the girl’s male companion in order to score some political mileage.
“I have already declared that I will pay Rs 10 lakh award to a doctor or anybody who can prove as per medical science that without destroying uterus the intestine can be pulled out using an iron rod. I am sure they cannot. The police is lying. The rod theory was added later to sensationalise the whole case and also to provoke public anger,” he said.
During the hearing in the SC, where Sharma appealed against the death penalty imposed on the convicts, the court came down heavily on him for his arguments.
In the documentary India’s Daughter, Sharma’s segment was full of comments that targeted women, and accused them of being responsible for rape. In 2015, the SCWLA sought directions to sensitise him towards the dignity and rights of women, a public apology, retraction of his statements and an assurance that he would not repeat them again.
On this issue, on 10 July 2015, the bench acknowledged Sharma’s “unconditional apology” and directed him “to expunge all derogatory remarks…”. It noted Sharma’s undertaking “not to make any such or similar derogatory remarks in any public interest litigation”.
Among other issues, in 2011, Sharma had sought the regulation of finances of the NGOs. He alleged that no NGO had been persecuted because politicians or bureaucrats owned 90 per cent of them.
In 2017, Sharma challenged the Indus Waters Treaty. He sought it to be declared void suggesting it was not a valid document since it did not bear the President’s signature. On 10 April 2017, the top court dismissed the plea and said: “This treaty is of 1960 and this treaty has held good for more than half a century.”
Once Sharma even filed a plea in Delhi high court suggesting that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) of the US was allegedly funding the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) so it could “implement the object and the policy of the American government”. The high court dismissed his plea in December 2015.
In September 2013, Sharma filed a plea seeking the removal of former CJI K.G. Balakrishnan as the head of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC). While refusing to entertain the plea, the apex court took exception to Sharma’s use of the former top judge’s initials, KGB, as opposed to his full name. “How can you use such term? It is not the name of a company or organisation,” the bench told him.
In 2012, Sharma had filed a plea against former CJI S.H. Kapadia who had ruled against the revenue department granting a tax relief to Vodafone to the tune of Rs 10,000 crore. Sharma contended that Kapadia should not have heard the Vodafone matter since his son drafted a due diligence report for the telecom giant when it acquired Hutchison-Essar. Justice Aftan Alam, who heard Sharma’s plea, dismissed it as frivolous and penalised him Rs 50,000.
Get the PrintEssential to make sense of the day's key developments