Tout As A Topper
Fake lawyers. And now touts who offer judgeship? The word ‘fake’, in this case, does not denote an unregistered charlatan, the sort we saw in our previous expose of the rot in our legal system. Rather, we mean junior lordships who may have received their judicial peerage by going through the system. Preparing for an exam, writing it, and acing it. But for a minor ethical infraction that makes all the difference between justice and its shadowy negative.
What if the exam was rigged—if the question papers were leaked selectively to the paying customer?
This tale unfolds in the Punjab-Haryana arena. Woven into it is a controversial former judge who once gave the slip to the CBI by escaping over a compound wall and who now runs a coaching institute; a senior court official who had custody of the question papers; an aspirant who strikes the actual deals with other aspirants and people suspiciously topping the exam “with minimum errors”.
During the exam on July 16, Suman realised the questions shared with her were part of the paper. Before that, it could have been a fraud.
On November 6, a Supreme Court bench led by the Chief Justice of India heard the case and issued notice to all parties—including the Punjab and Haryana High Court and the governments of Haryana and Chandigarh. Without notice, the CBI was also present in court. But it was in late July that the alleged leak of the preliminary examination question paper for the Haryana judicial services became cause for concern. And the tortuous trail it has spawned shines a torch into the heart of an unlit place.
Now, question papers being leaked is not big news in India. But judgeship for sale should have attracted more attention. The Punjab & Haryana HC recruits to the lower and upper judiciary through a process overseen by a recruitment committee of judges, led by a senior judge. This exam was meant to choose lower court judges—those who grant bail, adjudicate property disputes, convict criminals and so forth. In short, the first line of justice delivery.
The crux of the story: an aspirant claims she was offered both the preliminary and final question papers for Rs 1 crore. The offer was allegedly made by those who later topped the exams “with minimum error”. The person who offered the deal is linked by 760 calls and messages with the high court’s registrar (recruitment), who has admitted to sole custody of the question papers when it was leaked, as per the HC’s registrar-general cum registrar (vigilance).
The Punjab and Haryana High Court in Chandigarh
The investigation and court proceedings proceeded erratically, with quick transfers of the case. This reporter spoke to sitting and retired judges, senior members of the bar, some lawyers who appeared in the matter, aspirants to the judicial services and investigators. Documents accessed and reviewed include court records, call transcripts, interrogation records, status reports and the HC’s internal inquiry report.
Most lawyers and judges are cagey about commenting. “Recruitments are the court’s internal matter. An FIR was lodged and it was being investigated. Now, the matter is with the Supreme Court, and it will decide the course,” says Anmol Rattan Siddhu, president of the Punjab and Haryana Bar Association, in a typical response. Off-the-record, though, many admit they find the case and its progress unusual.
That there was a leak has been admitted by the high court. By an administrative order, it scrapped the entire exam after its vigilance wing found enough evidence to prove the leak. The matter became public when an aspirant, Suman (no surname given), filed a complaint before the chief justice, detailing her version thus:
Suman was preparing for the judicial services exam at a coaching centre in Chandigarh. A fellow student, Sushila, told her that she had access to both the prelims and main question papers through another aspirant, Sunita. Suman alleges Sunita (no surname given) offered her the entire set for Rs 1 crore barely four days before the prelims. Suman tried to negotiate the price down to Rs 10 lakh. On exam eve, Sushila shared five or six questions with her. Suman claims to have recorded many of these conversations secretly on her mobile phone. Outlook has seen the transcripts of the conversation, which suggest the papers were being sold to several aspirants on exam eve.
In one conversation, Sushila allegedly claims, “Sunita was saying GK is very tough and there are 15 questions from the Constitution and five cases.” They seem to briefly mull approaching the authorities to have the question paper cancelled but then Sushila says, “Who would believe that I have seen the question paper and she (Sunita) will be appointed as ADJ. She had shown me her paper, all the questions were attempted.” In the court’s internal inquiry, Sushila has admitted to these conversations.
Balwinder Sharma, registrar (recruitment) of the HC, claimed he is being made the fall guy. But call records show he was in contact with the accused.
During the exam on July 16, Suman realises the questions shared with her are indeed part of the actual paper. Before that, it could just have been a fraud. (Most doubts are settled when Sunita and Sushila later top the exams in the general and reserved categories respectively, with “minimum errors”.) On July 19, three days after the exam, Suman’s husband files a complaint with the DCP of Panchkula, the Haryana DGP and also the one before the chief justice.
On August 5, instead of waiting for the High Court’s internal inquiry, Suman files a petition, asking the court to register a case and order a high-level inquiry. While this is listed before a bench, the court takes up the complaint internally too and its recruitment committee directs the court’s registrar (vigilance) to probe the matter. Three more anonymous complaints to the court follow. One alleges that an assistant registrar and a superintendent of the recruitment committee had amassed disproportionate assets and could be the source of the leaks. Another aspirant’s complaint says the question papers were not sealed properly—the cover was merely glued shut—and candidates were not videotaped during the exam.
The registrar (vigilance) questions Suman, Sushila, a former judge who ran the coaching academy, two superintendents and an assistant registrar of the recruitment cell, and Balwinder Sharma, the registrar (recruitment). Call detail records (CDR) show Sharma had two cell phones and exchanged 760 messages and calls on these with Sunita on and around the exam dates.
Sharma, who is himself of the rank of additional district judge, admits to the registrar (vigilance) that he had coordinated the process of question preparation between Justices A.K. Mittal and T.S. Dhindsa—and that, after the final round, he had sole custody of the master pen drive containing the question papers between July 10-12. Between July 12-14, the question papers were printed and stored in sealed boxes, the keys for which too were with Sharma. Between July 14-17, he also retains the pen drive and a physical master copy of the question paper. The exams were held on July 16.
Sharma has claimed he is being made the fall guy but has not named anyone. Anyway, from the CDR it’s beyond dispute that he was in direct contact with Sunita and, through her, with Sushila, both of whom subsequently topped the exam.
The registrar (vigilance) also questions the person who runs the coaching institute in Chandigarh where Suman, Sushila and Sunita studied. He is a former lower court judge, Surinder Singh Bharadwaj, a man with a sensational escape from CBI custody 15 years ago on his resume. “The CBI had trapped Bharadwaj into accepting a Rs 8 lakh bribe. During interrogation, he had taken a break to go to the washroom. No one was sent to guard Bharadwaj…he was after all a judge. He scaled the wall and escaped, but later surrendered and was convicted in 2009. His appeal is pending,” says a senior lawyer.
Surinder Singh Bharadwaj (right), a former judge who escaped from CBI custody and was convicted in 2009. He runs the coaching centre Jurist Academy (left), where the accused studied.
Bharadwaj tells the registrar (vigilance) that he had found both Sunita and Sushila to be average students and did not expect them to top. When asked about his institute, he tells Outlook that other coaching institutes also figure in the investigation. “My students are all law graduates and what they do outside is their business,” he says. The probe has not yet followed the trail through to see if there is any link between Bharadwaj and Sharma. But on August 29, the three-judge recruitment committee (Justices Mittal, Dhindsa and Ajay Tiwari) scraps the exam, transfers Sharma out of the recruitment cell and directs that an FIR be lodged against Sunita, Sushila and Sharma.
While Sharma continues in office, the petition is heard on August 16 by Justice Kuldeep Singh, who issues notices to the parties, i.e. the police and the Punjab & Haryana HC itself. Suman’s lawyer orally demands a CBI inquiry. And, curiously, Sushila has turned up in court with an application for impleadment (since she is not a party to Suman’s petition). Advocates say it’s unusual for an accused to turn up and seek impleadment before a court has issued notice.
On August 28, Justice Singh scrutinises the exam results and finds Sushila and Sunita have topped. He notes that though the registrar (vigilance) is an honest man, he was in line for an elevation to the high court as a judge—and that an inquiry by a candidate for elevation may not satisfy the petitioner or the public. A probe at a higher level was needed, he says.
The court admits to the leak and has scrapped the exam. But the probe and court proceedings were erratic, with quick transfers of the case.
And then, on August 30, Justice S.S. Saron, then acting chief justice of the high court, passes an administrative order transferring the case from Justice Singh to a three-judge bench. Lawyers find it unusual that Justice Singh is not part of this new bench. “There’s no rule set in stone but if a judge has been hearing a matter, he is usually part of the larger bench to which it is subsequently transferred,” say lawyers. Outlook attempted to ask Justice Saron, now retired, about the context that led to the order, but he declined to speak on a subjudice matter.
On September 6 and 12, the three-judge bench hears the matter and goes through the sealed records of the in-house inquiry (the vital points already detailed above). Meanwhile, Suman approaches the Supreme Court with a request to transfer the case to the Delhi High Court, saying she didn’t have faith in the Punjab & Haryana HC to monitor an investigation into its own officials.
At this stage, the Supreme Court deems it fit to dismiss the plea. On September 15, the three-judge bench transfers the FIR to Chandigarh (from Panchkula), so that they can monitor the investigation and direct the formation of a high-level SIT. It also finally suspends Sharma.
A status report is filed on the probe at its end by Haryana Police on September 15. Surprisingly, the investigation into this crucial matter was carried out by an assistant sub-inspector (ASI), Pradeep Rana. This ASI made some interviews and closed the case as false, claiming Sunita was trying to get the exam cancelled since it had not gone well for her! Haryana Police later files an FIR against the ASI because it turns out that Sushila’s husband is also a sub-inspector and had manipulated the investigation.
On September 18, the three-judge bench forms an SIT comprising a superintendent of police (SP), a DSP and an inspector. On October 5, though, the Supreme Court, which had earlier declined to transfer the case, takes it up of its own accord and transfers the matter to itself.
The Punjab & Haryana High Court chief justice, S.J. Vazifdar—who, in an apparent act of camaraderie, had taken leave so that the senior Justice Saron could be acting CJ for a few weeks before his retirement—is not pleased with the way the case had proceeded. In an administrative order this reporter has accessed, he says “…a detailed enquiry is absolutely necessary”, but subject to “orders or directions from the judicial side”. In short, he wants primacy to be given to the judicial proceedings (in open court) rather than the moves on the administrative side—and so the decision to suspend Sharma too should wait till the court arrives at a decision after hearings. (Sharma, incidentally, has now filed an appeal in the SC against his suspension.)
The tap is on
Not that the leak was an out-of-the-blue event. One aspirant from Punjab this reporter spoke to has gathered data on the exams of the past few years since Sharma had taken over. It seems those who had failed once managed to top the next exam—one such candidate from a previous year topped the exams in both Punjab and Haryana.
What’s more, the list of those who got very high marks includes the children of very powerful people, he had found. He feels the judicial appointments of the last few years should be looked into, but few are willing to question a high court, even if on the administrative side. The recruitment committee had not opened up previous years’ recruitments, made under Sharma, for probe. Now that’s up to the Supreme Court.
In June, the SC collegium had almost cleared the elevation of Justice Mittal as chief justice of the Delhi High Court. It had reportedly consulted two other senior SC judges who had served as chief justice of the Punjab & Haryana HC. They had supported Justice Mittal’s elevation but suggested it be halted till Justice Saron, then second puisne judge, retired in September. Till then, the Delhi High Court was to continue with an acting chief justice.
The paper leak surfaced in the interim period. The petitioners filed complaints with the police and the chief justice on July 19. Without waiting for that to fructify, within days they approached the judicial side of the High Court with a criminal petition. The evidence has cleared the recruitment committee members but the matter was transferred up twice. Outlook attempted to speak with Justice Mittal but he declined to break protocol and speak to the press. What view the SC collegium has now taken is still not known.
Earlier this year, Outlook had published a cover story on the high number of fake lawyers in the country. At the time, a former Supreme Court judge had said in an interview to this reporter that a fake lawyer becoming a judge was a theoretical possibility. Leaked judicial exam question papers available on the market shelf only boost the chances of that “theoretical possibility”.
The salary for an additional district/sessions judge would be around Rs 60,000. Those leaking the paper would hardly be offering an EMI mode of payment. This means the recruit would require to be both rich in cash and poor on scruples…or else, obviously, perhaps be begging and borrowing—secure that he or she was looking forward to a much higher return on investment.