All is (Not) Well in Andhra Pradesh

KARTIK JAYASHANKAR / Guest Author

The State of Andhra Pradesh has been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently, with the officers and ministers of the current government showing utter disregard for the orders passed by the High Court. The present issue is an escalation of the same, denoting the hubris of those currently in power.

The Andhra Pradesh High Court, in its recent order dated 15th September 2020, has passed certain directions which have variously been described by the media as “quite unusual and legally questionable” (Hindu, Editorial, 17th September 2020); “unprecedented” (Indian Express, 16th September 2020); “flawed” (New Indian Express, Editorial, 18th September 2020); and even “unfortunate” (Financial Express, 18th September, 2020). The order which has received such criticism is an interim order passed by the High Court while hearing a Writ Petition filed by the former Advocate General of Andhra Pradesh, Mr. Dammalapati Srinivas against the State of Andhra Pradesh, restraining the authorities from taking any coercive steps in relation to the FIR, staying the investigation and restraining information relating to the same from being made public in print, electronic or social media, until further orders of the Court. However, while recent news trends may have primed us to accept the next story critical of the functioning of the judiciary, a deeper look into this case suggests that a more dangerous game is afoot, which the Court in this case was correct to interfere with, by granting relief to the Petitioner. A few facts will prove the same, and raise certain serious questions regarding the criminal justice system in the country.

The first point, which sets the context of this case, relates to the Petitioner’s antecedents, and relationship with the current political party in power in the state of Andhra Pradesh. The Petitioner, a senior counsel designated by the High Court of Andhra Pradesh, was appointed as the Advocate General of the State of Andhra Pradesh in 2016, while the opposition was in power. He has been a vocal critic of the current government and its activities. An investigation being conducted, and FIR registered in 2020, against such an individual, relating to offences allegedly conducted in 2014-2015, would in and of itself have raised serious doubts about the genuineness of the same.   

The second point relatesto themanner in which the FIR came to be registered against the Petitioner and the others. On 14th September 2020, Mr. Srinivas filed the above-mentioned writ petition before the High Court of Andhra Pradesh, seeking a stay of an ongoing inquiry being allegedly conducted by the State with respect to him, without registering an FIR or any other official documentation regarding the same. It was indicated that the Petitioner had a reasonable apprehension that the State would illegally arrest, torture and silence him. One day after the filing and registration of the writ petition, on 15th September 2020, the present FIR was registered.

The above two points would in ordinary circumstances have been sufficient to raise doubts about the motivations behind the FIR and for a Court to come to a prima facie view that the case is malafide. However, an additional fact involved in this case, converts this from the stock political vendetta case which we are so habituated to in this country, to one that is both abhorrent and stunning in equal measure, with respect to the brazenness involved.

On 10th September 2020, a bench of the Supreme Court led by Hon’ble Justice N.V. Ramana, heard a Public Interest Litigation regarding decriminalization of politics and the expeditious disposal of criminal cases pending against sitting and former legislators. During the course of the hearing, the Court pulled up various States, including the States of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, for not providing complete information regarding criminal cases pending against legislators, despite an explicit order of the Court.

On 10th September 2020, a bench of the Supreme Court led by Hon’ble Justice N.V. Ramana, heard a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) regarding decriminalization of politics and the expeditious disposal of criminal cases pending against sitting and former legislators. During the course of the hearing, the Court pulled up various States, including the States of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, for not providing complete information regarding criminal cases pending against legislators, despite an explicit order of the Court. The Court noted in particular that the States had failed to produce information regarding pending cases under special legislations such as the Prevention of Corruption Act. The Court granted one weeks’ time to the errant States to provide this information, and indicated that they were inclined to pass directions to expedite all criminal trials against public representatives on the next date of hearing, i.e., 16th September 2020. The reports finally submitted by the States of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana indicated that there were at least 17 pending cases under the Prevention of Corruption Act against the current Chief Minister of the State of Andhra Pradesh, which had been pending since 2013.

On 15th September 2020 the above-mentioned FIR against Mr. Srinivas was registered, as mentioned earlier, one day prior to the next date of hearing of the PIL before the Supreme Court. What I have however not yet mentioned, is the fact that the FIR also named as accused the daughter of a sitting SC Judge. Simultaneously, an apparently coordinated media campaign against the Hon’ble Justice, his family members and the Petitioner was launched, with various news outlets picking up the same story at the same time. If this is not the most barefaced effort to intimidate and harass a sitting Supreme Court judge, to prevent him from performing his duties, it is unclear what will ever be.

It is in the context of all the above, that the High Court of Andhra Pradesh, after hearing both the Petitioner and the State, allowed the interim applications filed by the Petitioner. There is no doubt that the Courts in India have the power to stay investigations and to pass orders restraining the reporting of certain details by the media. The first is done by Courts in exceptional circumstances, while the principle with regard to the latter was recently highlighted by a division bench of the Delhi High Court in Pushp Sharma v. D.B. Corp. Ltd. and Ors., where the Court held that if it is “demonstrated at the threshold that the offending content is malicious or palpably false” then such an injunction could be given.

It would be difficult to argue that such a situation has not arisen in the present case. The High Court notes most of the above points while passing its order, except for the fact of the pendency of a PIL before the Supreme Court which affects the present Chief Minister of the State. The directions given by the Court also indicate that the same are subject to further orders of the Court. The matter is to come up for hearing in four weeks. Although the State of Andhra Pradesh plans on challenging the order passed, it would be a gross miscarriage of justice if the Supreme Court interferes.  

The State of Andhra Pradesh has been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently, with the officers and ministers of the current government showing utter disregard for the orders passed by the High Court. The present issue is an escalation of the same, denoting the hubris of those currently in power.

This is ultimately a watershed moment, a moment that will define our democracy. I know of no equivalent or comparable situation that has taken place in any nation that is proud to call itself a democracy. It signifies a deep malaise has taken root in the country, which has the potentiality to fell Indian democracy. And, Andhra Pradesh is the site where the battle lines have been drawn.

(The author is an Advocate in Supreme Court of India. Views are personal)

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