Justice Verma and the Appointment of Justice Punchhi

A recent interview of Justice J.S.Verma’s on CNN-IBN, with Karan Thapar, seems to suggest that, as the Chief Justice of India, he was against Justice Punchhi’s elevation to the Supreme Court, and even wrote a letter recommending an inquiry into the charges against Justice Punchhi. But former Prime Minister I. K. Gujral’s autobiography suggests that the facts are more complicated. The relevant extract is as follows:

From I. K. Gujral, Matters of Discretion: An Autobiography (Hay House India, 2011) at 478-479.

In January 1998, one more cause of worry was the appointment of the next chief justice of India, which had been mired in controversy as a result of determined opposition to the proposed name (Justice M. M. Punchhi) by highly respected advocates such as Shanti Bhushan and Ram Jethmalani. They along with Justice V. M. Tarkunde (a renowned civil rights activist known for his anti-Emergency stand) and some others had made serious allegations of misdemeanor against Justice Punchhi. However, the Supreme Court Bar Association had come out strongly in Justice Punchhi’s support and had even gone to the extent of expelling those who had levelled charges against him.

The present chief justice of India, J. S. Verma, was also against Justice Punchhi’s elevation. However, he had faltered in his duty in that he had not made the needed recommendation regarding his successor one month prior to the date of his own retirement, i.e., 17 January 1998.

After many hiccups, Justice Verma had told me in the third week of December 1997 – before he went on a holiday (as the Supreme Court was having a ten-day winter break) – that he would meet Justice Punchhi on his return and then make the required recommendation. All the same, he had orally stated that he would obstruct Justice Punchhi’s elevation. Ultimately, on January 4 1998, Chief Justice Verma sent me a letter exonerating Justice Punchhi of all charges and recommending his appointment as the next chief justice of India. On 5 January, in an official communication to the president, I recommended Justice Punchhi’s appointment.

The same day, after the Gandhi Peace Prize Function – awarded to Gerhard Fischer, a German diplomat known for his efforts to combat lepresy and polio – that was held in Rashtrapati Bhavan, Justice Verma met the president and me informally. He requested us to hold back the official appointment of Justice Punchhi’s appointment as the next CJI since he had summoned Shanti Bhushan and Ram Jethmalani to persuade them not to presist in their anti- Punchhi campaign. We agreed to his request.

In the meantime, the president asked me to submit the full file and not merely a summary of my recommendation.

Justice Verma telephoned me late on 5 January night to say that he had met Bhushan and Jethmalini but had failed to persuade them to change their stance and felt that the two might file a public interest litigation (PIL) against Justice Punchhi, which could lead to further complications. He had not disclosed to them that he had already recommended Justice Punchhi’s name. Meanwhile, he suggested that I should hold back the recommendation. This was an odd suggestion. I brought Justice Verma’s suggestion to the president’s notice first over the telephone and later when I met him at a formal lunch hosted by him.

Both Jethmalini and Bhushan believed that we needed to stop the process of Justice Punchhi’s elevation on the basis of an informal suggestion made by Justice Verma. In this context, I declared unambiguously: ‘We are not a group of conspirators to act for or against Punchhi. We must uphold the constitutional requirements.’ I planned to submit the full file to the President on 7 January. Around that time, Shanti Bhushan – who had helped me in 1991 in fighting a case against the Election Commission’s arbitrary order cancelling my election from Patna – expressed his strong displeasure that I was unwilling to go along with his campaign against Punchhi. He wrote a letter to the President that, as a ‘caretaker prime minister’, I should be barred from using Indian Air Force planes for electoral purposes. He also announced that he would stand against me from the Jalandhar Lok Sabha constituency. This upset me a great deal since I held Shanti Bhushan in high esteem.

President Narayanan agreed with me that I was constitutionally bound to elevate Justice Punchhi as the next chief justice of the Supreme Court on the basis of the written advice given by Justice Verma.”

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