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Judgeship for sale?

In India, we are not new to reports of leaked question papers and rigged examinations. But the case of the leak of the question paper of the Haryana Civil Service (Judicial branch preliminary examination) is a shocking example of how such cheating and rigging has reared its ugly head even in recruitments for the lower judiciary.

Background

The story begins in March, 2017 when the Haryana Public Service Commission issued an advertisement for 109 posts of the Haryana Civil Service (Judicial Branch) pertaining to subordinate judicial services. Suman, the complainant in the present case, applied for the same and joined a coaching institute called “Jurist Academy” at Chandigarh to prepare for the same. Here, she came in contact with another aspirant called Sushila. Suman and Sushila became friends and started sharing notes.

On May 25th, the preliminary examination was announced to be held on July 16th. During the course of preparation for the preliminary examination, Sushila told Suman that she had access to both the preliminary and main exam question papers through another fellow aspirant, Sunita. Suman alleges that Sunita offered her the set of both question papers for Rs.1 crore. With a view to get to the bottom of the matter, Suman tried negotiating with her to bring the price down to Rs.10 lakhs. Suman also claims to have recorded many conversations regarding this deal on her phone secretly.

Around the date of the preliminary examination, Sushila claimed to have struck a deal with Sunita and disclosed 5-6 questions to Suman which she claimed would appear in the examination. Suman was shocked to find that the questions actually appeared in the paper. In a detailed report on the issue by the Outlook (Tout as a topper), it appears that the transcripts of the conversations recorded by Suman suggest that papers were being sold to several aspirants on the eve of the examination.

On July 19th, Suman’s husband, Manoj filed complaints with the DCP of Panchkula, the DGP of Haryana and the Chief Justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court. Without waiting for the internal inquiry of the High Court, on August 5th, Suman filed a petition before the High Court on the judicial side seeking directions for registering a case and to order a high level enquiry.

Judicial Proceedings

The petition was heard by Justice Kuldip Singh on 16th August, 2017. He took serious view of the matter and took the CD containing the conversations that Suman had with Sunita and Sushila. The judge also allowed Sushila to be impleaded as a party respondent, based on her application for impleadment. The judge also asked the Registrar (Recruitment) to show who is conducting the in house inquiry and its status.

On 28th August, the single judge called for the result of the preliminary examination to be produced before the Court in a sealed cover. The cover was opened in open court and on the request of the counsel for the petitioner, the results of Sunita (general category) and Sushila (reserved category) were particularly checked. It was discovered that both aspirants were toppers of their respective categories with exceptionally high marks and minimum errors. The single judge further noted that the matter needed to be decided expeditiously as there was a shortage of judges in the subordinate judiciary and the whole recruitment process was being held up as the result of the preliminary examination had not been declared.

The single judge also noted that since the Registrar (Vigilance) was in the consideration zone for elevation to the High Court, an inquiry by him would not satisfy either the petitioner or the public. He therefore suggested that the inquiry be conducted at a much higher level, and the same was to be decided by the Court after hearing the preliminary submissions of the parties on the next date of hearing.

The Court stayed the result of the preliminary examination and directed the Registrar (Recruitment) of the Court to file his personal affidavit in a sealed cover stating the names of all persons involved in the conducting of the examination right from the time the question paper was set till the time it was distributed in the exam hall as well as the names of all officers / officials who were involved in handling and printing  of the papers officially and whether anybody who was not deputed for such purpose had entered the room where the papers were being printed. The application of the petitioner to implead the CBI as a party was kept pending by the Court.

The Registrar (Recruitment) approached the acting Chief Justice to transfer the case to a larger bench. The then acting chief justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court Justice S. S. Saron, passed an administrative order transferring the case from Justice Singh to a three judge bench. A source, on the condition of anonymity, told The Indian Jurist, that though not much is known about the reason for such transfer of the case to the three judge bench, the move was rumoured to have been done in view of the seriousness of the case and its importance. Justice Singh was not a member of the three judge bench.

On September 6th and September 12th, the three judge bench went through the sealed records of the in-house inquiry. The findings and observations of the in-house inquiry are covered by the Outlook in its report.

In-House Inquiry

During the course of the in-house inquiry, the Registrar (Vigilance) questioned Suman, Sushila, Surinder Singh Bharadwaj, a former judge who ran the “Jurist Academy”, two superintendents, an Assistant Registrar of recruitment and Balwinder Sharma, the Registrar (Recruitment). Call Detail Records of the two cell phones owned by Sharma show that 760 calls and messages were exchanged between the two numbers and Sunita around the date of the exam. Sharma admitted to the Registrar (Vigilance) that he had coordinated the process of preparation of the question paper between Justices A. K. Mittal and T. S. Dhindsa. He also admitted that after the final round of discussions between the two judges, he had sole custody of the master pen drive containing the question papers bet­ween July 10th and July 12th. Between July 12th and 14th, the question papers were printed and stored in sealed boxes, the keys for which were in Sharma’s custody. Between July 14th and 17th, Sharma had both the pen drive and a physical master copy of the question paper.

Bharadwaj, who runs the Jurist Academy is a former lower court judge who was trapped by the CBI into accepting Rs.8 lakh as bribe. During interrogation, he managed to scale a wall and escape. However, he later surrendered and was convicted in 2009. His appeal is pending. Bharadwaj told the Registrar (Vigilance) that he had found both Sunita and Sushila to be average students and did not expect them to top.

Further Developments

While the three judge bench was hearing the case, Suman filed a transfer petition before the Supreme Court seeking the transfer of the case from the Punjab and Haryana High Court to the Delhi High Court saying she did not have faith in the Punjab and Haryana High Court. On 12th September, the Supreme Court rejected the petition.

The High Court, in its order dated 13th September, 2017, recorded the recommendations made by the Recruitment Committee of the High Court. The recommendations were the following:

“(a) In view of the prima facie finding that atleast two candidates namely Ms. Sunita and Sushila had the question papers and therefore the possibility that other candidates may have also had access to the question paper cannot be ruled out; in such circumstances, purity of the examination having been lost, the Committee recommends that the HCS (JB) Preliminary Examination2017 held on 16.7.2017 be scrapped.

(b) Keeping in view the finding that Dr. Balwinder Sharma,Registrar (Recruitment) unequivocally stated that he had no prior acquaintance with Ms. Sunita (the  topper  in general  category),  while  the  call  details  given  by the service provider reveal that there were a total of 760 calls and SMSs  exchanged  between  Dr.  Balwinder Sharma and Ms. Sunita during the last one year, indicate that the matter requires a deeper probe. Therefore, the Committee recommends that regular enquiry be initiated against Dr. Balwinder Sharma, Registrar (Recruitment) on the basis of preliminary enquiry.

(c) Dr.  Balwinder  Sharma,  Registrar  (Recruitment)  be transferred  forthwith  from this  post  pending  further action.

(d) An FIR be lodged against Ms. Sunita, Ms. Sushila and Dr.  Balwinder  Sharma,  Registrar  (Recruitment)  to further  probe  the  act  of  leakage  of  question  paper  of HCS (JB) Preliminary Examination 2017.”

On 15th September, the Court directed the transfer of the FIR from Panchkula to Chandigarh so that they could monitor the progress of the investigation. The Court also directs the formation of a high level Special Investigation Team and orders the suspension of the Registrar (Recruitment), Balwinder Sharma.

On 15th September, a status report was filed by the Haryana police at the end of its investigation. The Assistant Sub Inspector, Pardeep Rana, conducted several interviews and closed the case as false. As reported by the Outlook, an FIR was later filed against the ASI by the Haryana Police as it was found out that Sushila’s husband, SI Ram Bahgat had manipulated the investigation.

On 18th September, the High Court formed a Special Investigation Team comprising of an SP, a DSP and an inspector.

However, in an unanticipated development, on October 5th, less than a month after rejecting Suman’s transfer petition, the Supreme Court suo motu decided to transfer the case to itself, having declined to transfer it to Delhi earlier at Suman’s request. On 6th November, the Supreme Court issued notice to all parties. The computer generated next date of listing for the case is 8th December, 2017.

About four months after the complaint was filed by Suman, the first arrest in the case was made on November 9th, when the police arrested Sunita. The hearing of the case at the Supreme Court will decide the further course that the case will take.

Read Supreme Court Order transferring case to itself:

 

Supreme Court image by Mohit Singh (Own Work)  [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons. Punjab and Haryana High Court image by Sanyam Bahga (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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