New Delhi: Two Supreme Court employees arrested last month for allegedly fudging an order in favour of industrialist Anil Ambani are also under the lens for “orchestrating” the recent sexual harassment allegations against Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi.
What started as legal proceedings against Ambani’s Reliance Communications over its dues of Rs 550 crore to Swedish phone major Ericsson, has now transformed into one of the biggest crises of faith ever experienced by the Indian judiciary, exposing an alleged nexus of “judgment fixers” at work in the top court.
As reported by ThePrint this week, Delhi Police suspect that more Supreme Court staffers may have been involved in the alleged conspiracy to fudge a 7 January order before uploading it to the court website, to exempt Ambani from making a personal appearance in a contempt-of-court case.
In light of these developments, ThePrint takes you to the genesis of the RCom-Ericsson case, which, if inadvertently, lies at the heart of the current churn in the Indian judiciary.
Saved by elder brother
The National Company Law Appellate Tribunal (NCLAT) Tuesday allowed insolvency proceedings against Ambani’s Reliance Communications (RCom), clearing the way for the beleaguered industrialist to seek debt resolution under the insolvency and bankruptcy code.
This added another chapter to a dispute between RCom and Ericsson that has been dragging on for years now.
Ericsson tied up with RCom in 2013 to manage its network. However, in 2017, it moved the National Company Law Tribunal (NCLT)-Mumbai to initiate bankruptcy petitions against RCom and two of its subsidiaries — Reliance Telecom, and Reliance Infratel — over dues to the tune of Rs 1,100 crore. The NCLT took up the case in May last year.
RCom subsequently moved the NCLAT to stay the proceedings. At NCLAT, the three Reliance Group companies and Ericsson India reached an agreement under which the former would shell out Rs 550 crore, failing which the Swedish firm would be at liberty to revive the insolvency petition.
The company’s failure to repay lenders and service providers coupled with Ambani’s personal repayment guarantee made him liable for contempt of court in case of non-payment.
When Ambani failed to pay up, Ericsson moved the Supreme Court.
In August 2018, the apex court directed the Anil Ambani-promoted company to pay the dues by 1 October 2018. When RCom moved a plea for extension, the repayment date was settled at 15 December, with the court making it clear that no further extensions would be granted.
After RCom failed to clear the dues, Ericsson filed another petition with the Supreme Court in January, accusing Ambani of willful contempt, and sought his arrest.
It was an order from a subsequent hearing that was allegedly fudged by Supreme Court employees Tapan Chakraborty and Manav Sharma.
In February, the apex court held Ambani in contempt for not paying Ericsson’s dues despite having the money to do so, and threatened to send the businessman to jail for three months if he didn’t cough up what was owed in four weeks.
The court gave RCom and associated companies another chance to “purge” themselves of contempt by paying the settlement amount plus interest.
Ambani finally paid the dues this March with the help of his brother Mukesh Ambani, India’s richest man.
‘A conspiracy against Ranjan Gogoi’
Court employees Sharma and Chakraborty were dismissed by CJI Gogoi in February after they allegedly uploaded a fudged version of a 7 January SC order to the court’s website: Where the court had actually rejected Ambani’s plea for exemption from a personal appearance and said his presence “had not been dispensed with”, the order online said “it had been dispensed with”.
The allegations against the duo took a more sinister turn when their names cropped up in an affidavit filed by lawyer Utsav Bains in the Supreme Court last month, where he alleged that the sexual harassment allegations against CJI Gogoi were part of a conspiracy to unseat him.
The allegations of sexual harassment were made by a former Supreme Court employee who was once posted at Gogoi’s home office. In a letter to 22 Supreme Court judges in April, she had also claimed that she, her husband and her brother-in-law — the latter two employees of Delhi Police — had lost their jobs after she rejected his advances.
According to Bains, CJI Gogoi had cracked down on a ring of alleged “judgment fixers”, who were now out to unseat him through these allegations.
Just this week, as reported by ThePrint, Delhi Police told a local court that Sharma and Chakraborty were were not the only Supreme Court staffers involved in the alleged conspiracy to fudge the 7 January court order.
“Other persons have also misused their position in the office to give undue advantage to the ‘same person’,” it wrote in a submission to the court, opposing the duo’s bail pleas.
According to the Delhi Police Crime Branch’s submission, they had arrived at the conclusion following Chakraborty and Sharma’s interrogation. In the document, the Crime Branch notes that as an employee in “Section-X” of the Supreme Court, Chakraborty was well aware of the working and the loop holes of the process involved in the uploading of documents/orders passed by the apex court.
Insolvency proceedings to begin
Meanwhile, in February, RCom had asked the NCLAT to go ahead with bankruptcy proceedings against it, since it had failed to pay back its lenders. As of March 2017, according to a Reuters report, RCom owed $7 billion to banks and more to vendors.
At a hearing in April, the NCLAT observed that if the bankruptcy proceedings were allowed, Ericsson would have to return the Rs 550 crore RCom had paid it. “Why one party will take amount and let the financial creditors suffer?” the NCLAT was quoted as saying.
This plea of RCom was granted Tuesday, with the NCLAT allowing the firm to withdraw the petition it had filed last year challenging Ericsson’s bankruptcy petitions. NCLT-Mumbai will now take up the case on 7 May.
In mid-April, Ericsson had moved the Supreme Court against potentially having to return the sum to Reliance Communications. The Supreme Court will hear Ericsson’s plea in July.
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