The recent news of the passing of Justice Ripusudan Dayal, former Chief Justice of the Sikkim High Court, gives an occasion to remember former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s gratitude to those who had helped her. Soon after she was defeated in the 1977 Lok Sabha election, there were calls to bring her to justice for her various acts and omissions. The Shah Commission was set up under the Morarji Desai government to investigate the excesses of the 1975 Emergency. The Gupta Commission was asked to investigate the Maruti project of Sanjay Gandhi.
There were calls to arrest Indira on charges of corruption, but the Morarji Desai government wanted to proceed carefully by building up a watertight case. The Prime Minister, Home Minister Chaudhary Charan Singh, and Law Minister Shanti Bhushan were all in agreement that there should be no missteps.
Ultimately, Indira was arrested on 3 October 1977, along with four of her former Cabinet colleagues, in connection with two cases. In the first one, she was charged with criminal conspiracy and misuse of official position for getting jeeps to campaign for the 1977 election; her colleague P.C. Sethi and five others were charged as well. In the second case, she was accused of favouring a French company in an offshore contract by the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation (ONGC).
Supporters of the Congress gathered at Indira’s Willingdon Crescent residence in New Delhi and shouted slogans of protest as the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) team waited for her. She refused their offer of bail and insisted that she should be taken away handcuffed — of course, no such thing happened. She spent the night at the police officers’ mess at Kingsway Camp and was produced the next day before Ripusudan Dayal who was then-Additional Chief Metropolitan Magistrate (ACMM).
Frank Anthony, the formidable Anglo-Indian lawyer and MP appeared for her as he had before the Shah Commission. The prosecution faced a tough time, and after some hearings, Dayal held that no case was made out. He observed: “The source of the accusation has not been disclosed, and no evidence, either documentary or oral, has been collected till now.” He, therefore, directed that she be set free forthwith.
This ‘slap’ on the face of the government by a mere magistrate was believed by many at that time to be the beginning of the fall of the Morarji Desai government and the return of Indira Gandhi. And return she did — in March 1980.
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The rise of Ripusudan Dayal
Indira did not forget Ripusudan Dayal, but there was nothing she could do immediately to show her gratitude because he had not yet earned his promotion to even the additional district judge level. Dayal joined the Uttar Pradesh Judicial Service in 1966 and later, the Delhi Judicial Service. He became an Additional District and Sessions Judge only in 1979, and it would have taken him nearly a decade-and-a-half in the higher judicial service before he could get promoted to the high court.
But Indira Gandhi wanted to reward him immediately. Initially, his name was proposed for the Orissa High Court by the Congress chief minister of the state, and the Chief Justice had apparently endorsed the proposal. Strong opposition from the Orissa High Court Bar Association sank the proposal, but Dayal did not have to wait much longer. In May 1984, at the age of 43, he was appointed as a judge at the Sikkim High Court, something no member of the judicial service of any state could have dreamt of.
For 11 long years, Dayal held that position. He was then transferred to the Allahabad High Court in 1995. Two years later, he was transferred to the Calcutta High Court. The culmination of his judicial career was his appointment as the Chief Justice of the Sikkim High Court in February 1999. He held that position for an unusually long period of four years before he retired in May 2003. But another position awaited him. He became Lokayukt of Madhya Pradesh, an office which he held for a full six years, where his tenure was dogged by controversies.
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Gratitude toward lawyers
Indira Gandhi did not forget her lawyers. K.G. Bhagat was practising in Delhi’s criminal courts and had appeared for her in different cases when she was out of power. Soon after she returned to office, she got him appointed as the Standing Counsel for Bihar in the Supreme Court by the Congress government of the state. Quickly thereafter, he was appointed Additional Solicitor General of India.
The other lawyer in Indira’s legal team during the post–Emergency period who won her gratitude was H.R. Bhardwaj. He was made Standing Counsel for Uttar Pradesh in the Supreme Court. His political career was to start soon after that. In 1982, he was elected to the Rajya Sabha from Madhya Pradesh, he served as both Minister of State and Union law minister under various Congress governments. In Karnataka, he also served a full five-year term as the Governor from 2009 to 2014.
Raju Ramachandran a Senior Advocate designated by the Supreme Court. Views are personal.
(Edited by Humra Laeeq)