False equivalence being drawn between Chidambaram, Amit Shah to downplay gravity of INX Media case

  • In the P Chidambaram case, a false equivalence is being created between recent developments and those that took place ten years ago.

  • It indicates blatant disrespect for the judiciary, judicial process and disregard for India’s criminal justice system.

  • Chidambaram’s pursuit by agencies, eventual arrest and subsequent custodial interrogation follow strict legal procedure.

Following the Delhi High Court’s order on Tuesday to remove the legal umbrella that protected P Chidambaram so far from getting arrested in connection with the INX Media bribery scam — leading to his eventual arrest by the CBI on Wednesday night — a false equivalence is being created between recent developments and those that took place ten years ago to suggest that it wasn’t a case of law catching up with an alleged economic offender but pure political vendetta.

This is a damaging and a dangerous narrative. One, it indicates blatant disrespect for the judiciary, judicial process and disregard for India’s criminal justice system. Two, it suggests that there are two classes of Indian citizens. Ordinary citizens may face penal action if charged with or found guilty of wrongdoing. "Extraordinary" citizens such as Chidambaram — a former Union home minister and current Rajya Sabha MP — are "above" the law. Coercive actions against them by state machinery must be a case of political witch-hunt regardless of the merits of the case.

The false equivalence is based on a coincidence between events that are unfolding now, and ones that took place ten years ago when Chidambaram was the Union home minister in the Manmohan Singh cabinet. Amit Shah, then the home minister of Gujarat in the state cabinet led by chief minister Narendra Modi, was arrested by the CBI in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case.

Sohrabuddin, a notorious criminal with terrorist links and around 60 pending cases to his name, became infamous when Gujarat Police booked him and his father under the Arms Act after recovering a huge cache of arms, including AK 47 and AK 56 riffles, cartridges and hand grenades from a well near his residence.

According to the CBI, gangster Sohrabuddin, his wife Kausar Bi and aide Tulsiram Prajapati were all allegedly killed by the Gujarat police in fake encounters. The agency accused former Gujarat home minister Shah of orchestrating Sohrabuddin’s murder. While Sohrabuddin’s death took place in 2005, the case was transferred to the CBI in January 2010. Chidambaram was then the Union home minister.

In July 2010, Shah was arrested by the CBI in connection with the case and charged with murder, extortion and kidnapping. The agency opposed his bail application in the Gujarat High Court arguing that Shah might tamper with the evidence or threaten witnesses using his influence. Shah eventually got bail three months later on 29 October, but the very next day he was externed by the Supreme Court from entering Gujarat for two years. Shah was eventually cleared of all charges in December 2014.

 False equivalence being drawn between Chidambaram, Amit Shah to downplay gravity of INX Media case

CBI officials escort Congress leader P Chidambaram from his Jor Bagh residence in New Delhi. PTI

In contrast, consider how Chidambaram, a designated senior advocate who practices at the Supreme Court, had gamed the legal system for years and managed to get judicial protection from being arrested by state agencies for his alleged role in his capacity as Union finance minister in Rs 350-crore INX Media bribery scam and the Rs 3500 crore Aircel-Maxis scam.

The former Union minister had been evading the long arm of the law at least since March 2018 by getting perpetual "interim" protection from coercive action by probe agencies. According to media reports, Chidambaram and his son Karti, both accused in the multi-crore scams, have managed to get “interim” relief from arrests at least 20 times in the past two years.

Chidambaram’s luck finally ran out on Tuesday when Justice Sunil Gaur of the Delhi High Court first cancelled the interim bail that prevented the ED and the CBI from taking the Rajya Sabha MP into custody and then “rejected Chidambaram’s application seeking a week-long stay on operation of the bail cancellation order so that he could move the Supreme Court for interim relief.”

The senior Congress leader’s battery of lawyers — all senior party colleagues — rushed to the Supreme Court for interim protection from coercive action, but throughout the entire day on Wednesday, the legal team led by Kapil Sibal failed to get interim relief in a veritable cat-and-mouse game. When it became finally clear that the apex court would provide him with no protection from arrest, Chidambaram had no other option but to surface from hiding, after having remained untraceable for over 24 hours.

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Media reports say that soon after the Delhi High Court had stripped Chidambaram of all immunity from arrest, “the Congress leader dropped his driver and clerk midway and left for an unknown location”. His mobile phones remained switched off as he stepped out of the Supreme Court on Tuesday and both CBI and ED were unable to locate him despite multiple raids at his residence and known locations.

Chidambaram finally surfaced on Wednesday evening in the AICC headquarters, where he held a news conference and played the victim card, claiming the high moral ground. But the way he evaded the agencies for over 24 hours while trying to outmaneuver them in seeking judicial protection from the apex court takes away from his attempts to ride the moral high horse. Instead, he appeared as a petty criminal on the run from the law, and no different from the Vijay Mallyas and Nirav Modis against whom he had raised his voice in the past.

In the end, CBI sleuths had to scale the boundary walls of his residence to detain him and take him to the CBI headquarters for questioning. Shah, incidentally, had driven to the CBI headquarters in 2010 to surrender and was arrested. But to equate these two unconnected developments and create a false equivalence is a mischievous way of reducing the gravity of charges against Chidambaram and cast aspersions on the legal procedure.

Chidambaram’s pursuit by agencies, eventual arrest and subsequent custodial interrogation follow strict legal procedure where the senior Congress leader got every opportunity at all stages to exercise his rights as an Indian citizen. If he finds himself in the soup now, that could be because his chickens have come home to roost. The agencies have still to chargesheet him and prove their case in a court of law and the Rajya Sabha MP may well get bail. But as far as charges of political vendetta in this case are concerned, it would be appropriate to quote from Justice Gaur’s judgment: “It is preposterous to say that prosecution of the petitioner is baseless, politically motivated and an act of vendetta ... The offenders must be exposed, no matter what their status is.”

Updated Date: Aug 22, 2019 21:24:51 IST