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Is It Too Early to Judge Utsav Bains?

The young lawyer's claim that he was offered a bribe to help frame the CJI in a sexual misconduct case has transformed it into an alleged conspiracy to destabilise the judiciary

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“Grant me this boon O God, May I never refrain from the righteous acts, May I fight without fear of all foes in life’s battles and When this mortal life comes to end, May I die fighting with limitless courage”.

This tweet was not the first time Utsav Bains was invoking religious text, seeking strength to carry on with “righteous acts”. Nor was it the first time when he was allegedly offered a bribe for refraining from doing so. The young lawyer, who is a well-known child-rights activist in Chandigarh, Punjab, and Haryana, has been instrumental in getting justice to many victims of rape and sexual harassment, often perpetrated by powerful men.

Bains, 32, tweeted the verse from the Sikh religious text Dasam Granth on April 22 before filing an affidavit in India’s apex court with details of an alleged conspiracy by a “lobby of disgruntled judges, SC fixers, corporate scamsters and a few corrupt politicians” to “force the CJI to resign as their corrupt works were not going through in the Supreme Court”.

This was two days after a special bench — comprising Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi and Justices Arun Mishra and Sanjiv Khanna — assembled at court number 1 of the SC to deal with the “matter of great public importance touching upon the independence of the judiciary”.

The constitution of the special bench was announced by the registry of the top court on April 19, in the wake of allegations of “sexual misconduct” levelled against CJI Gogoi by a former female employee of the SC.

The bench assembled at 10.30am and the CJI refuted all the allegations made against him calling it “larger conspiracy” to destabilise the judiciary.

A few hours later, at 6.50 pm, Bains wrote on Facebook: “I was offered bribe to help frame CJI in the sexual harassment case by lawyering and organising a Press Conference against the CJI for the Ex SC staffer who has accused the CJI of sexual harassment just a few days back and also specifically asked to organise a press conference only at the Press Club of India”.

He claimed that when he refused to take up the case, he was offered a kickback of Rs 50 lakh, which was later increased to Rs 1.5 crore. He also claimed that when he “enquired more about this issue from reliable sources in Delhi for days, every information pointed to a larger conspiracy to make the CJI resign and kingpin of which are many Delhi based SC fixers or those who engage in cash for Judgments”.

The claims made by Bains changed the course of the case. What was till then seen as a case of alleged sexual harassment against the CJI was transformed into a case of alleged grand conspiracy to “destablise the judiciary”.

In his affidavit, Bains claimed that he was “privy to certain events” involving a corporate figure who “ganged up with an alleged fixer by the name of Romesh Sharma and his aides to frame the Chief Justice of India in a false case of sexual harassment to pressure him to resign". According to Bains, the reason for hatching this alleged conspiracy was that the “corporate figure” was not able to get a “favorable judgment in a case”.

On April 24, when the young lawyer appeared before the bench of Justices Arun Mishra, Rohinton F Nariman and Deepak Gupta to present his case, attorney general KK Venugopal pointed out that there was a “significant departure” in the affidavit filed by Bains from the Facebook post, in which he first talked about the alleged conspiracy.

Bains had omitted the mention of "lobby of disgruntled judges" in his affidavit. And the attorney general pointing to this discrepancy was enough to make Bains conclude that the “bar is divided” and he expressed his “disgust” at this.

Perhaps he was hurt by the doubts raised over his intent.

Bains had represented the complainant in the rape case in which religious leader Asaram Bapu was the prime accused. According to a post he shared on Facebook on February 13, he was offered Rs 45 crore as payoff in the case. “Just a few minutes back, I got offer of 35 cr in Asaram's case. To not put important evidence in the application to make Asaram an accused — the video recording of gangster Kartik Haldar where he says Asaram asked him to kill Akhil Gupta. When I refused, he said 45 cr. That's when I blocked him…”

Bains got a law degree from Panjab University and was involved in activism since he was studying there. He is the grandson of AS Bains, who was a judge in the Punjab and Haryana High Court. Utsav’s father RS Bains is a respected human rights lawyer based in Chandigarh.

Bains began his legal career from the Punjab and Haryana High Court and has appeared in many high-profile cases, which he fought on a pro bono basis. He came under the spotlight in the case of sexual and physical assault of more than 100 women at a shelter home named Apna Ghar in Rohtak, Haryana. The matter that dates back to 2012 had rocked the Haryana government led by Bhupinder Singh Hooda. Bains was appointed a member of the committee constituted at the directions of the high court. The panel was to look into the conditions of the inmates at the shelter home.

While Bains’s stint in legal activism has been almost untouched by any controversy, his recent attempt to “protect the independence of the judiciary” has come under attack from several senior lawyers of the Supreme Court, one among them being advocate Prashant Bhushan, whom Bains looked up to as an inspiration.

In the same Facebook post where Bains made claims of a conspiracy being hatched against the CJI, he also referred to his links with Bhushan to buttress his claim of being on the right side of the “cause”.

“In SC until now I have only associated in SC with the likes of Prashant Bhushan and Kamini Jaiswal and with Anupam Gupta in PB HRY HC, all who are known for standing against financially corrupt and morally corrupt judges and against judicial nepotism, fearlessly, have till date never associated with any kin or kith of SC judges as principle of having a clean legal practice and refusing to be institutionalised in nepotism or be a member of the uncle judges young lawyer club,” he wrote.

However, now in a strange turn of events, his “inspiration” and “friend” has turned into his most vocal critic and has raised serious questions on his credentials. In an interview to The Wire, Bhushan said Bains had met the CJI twice before he filed his affidavit in the apex court with details of the alleged conspiracy.

Bains, while claiming that the allegations made by Bhushan were his “imagination”, challenged the senior lawyer to produce proof.

Since then, Bains has been openly attacking Bhushan.”Prashant Bhushan Sir” is now “Prashant Bhushan”. In the interview with The Wire, Bhushan had also said that he was told by senior lawyer Nina Gupta (who came across Bains at the gates of the Supreme Court, on April 22) that Bains was heard saying he had been called by the CJI.

Bains vehemently objected to this. Later, the website published Gupta’s version where she clarified that she never heard Bains telling the security personnel that he was called by the CJI and the quote attributed to her was incorrect.

Bains was quick to react. “Confirmed & Proved: Prashant Bhushan lied to the Wire: After reading the story, Nina Gupta told The Wire that Bhushan’s statement that she told him she heard Bains tell the security that he was called by the CJI was incorrect,” he said on social media.

On May 6, Binalakshmi Nepram, a human rights activist and founder of the Manipur Women Gun Survivors Network, released a statement defending Bains and condemning those trying to “malign him”.

“We have known Advocate Utsav Singh Bains for years,” she wrote, adding, “He has helped in many racial discrimination cases against people of Northeast Region earlier such as Late Dana Sangma Case.” She mentioned that Bains, in spite of death threats, came down to Manipur from Delhi to help in the case of 19-year-old Irom Roger, who was shot dead in 2011 allegedly by N Ajay, son of current Manipur chief minister N Biren Singh, after lawyers in the state refused to represent the deceased’s family out of fear. “Young lawyers like Advocate Utsav Bains are like a ray of hope for bringing justice in India. Therefore, we are deeply saddened by the personal attacks on him recently.”

In April, the British deputy high commission in Chandigarh organised a party to celebrate the birthday of Queen Elizabeth II. VP Singh Badnore, the governor of Punjab and chief administrator of Chandigarh, was invited to the event. However, Badnore declined the invitation, which obviously made news. The governor pointed out that the event was falling on the eve of the 100th anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre by the British forces on April 13, 1919. However, before Badnore, the other person who had declined the invite and made news was Utsav Bains. Following the governor’s decision to not attend the celebrations, the lawyer took no time to claim credit.

“The Spark has begun a fire: After my refusal Governor of Punjab also decides to give Queen’s birthday party a miss, hope others too follow suit, high time The British Royal Family & PM apologise for horrifying human rights violations committed in India!” he wrote on Facebook.

Whether Bains likes to be in the news or news follows him—for the cases he chooses to handle—is something that even people who know him wonder about. But the fact remains that ever since he has got involved in activism, he has repeatedly hit the headlines for the stands he takes on important issues, and for the cases he fights. But, unlike in the past, he has never seen such a divided house when it comes to comments upon his intent.

The Supreme Court, on April 25, appointed former Supreme Court judge AK Patnaik to probe into the conspiracy claims made by Bains. However, it was decided that Patnaik would begin his probe only after the in-house committee of the SC—that was probing allegations of sexual harassment against the CJI— gave its final report.

On May 6, the panel gave its final report where it held that there was “no substance in the allegations” made against the CJI. Now, with the in-house committee’s work done, all eyes will be on Justice Patnaik’s probe into “larger conspiracy” claims made by Bains. This will decide whether Bains will be remembered as a young hero who “saved the independence of the judiciary”, or just a pretender who cried wolf.

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