Corruption and the courts

If there is a larger message in the Karnataka High Court’s refusal to grant bail to former Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, it is that the judiciary will treat corruption among public servants with greater seriousness than ever before. In normal circumstances, an appeal against a four-year prison term by a person who is not expected to flee from justice may have been admitted as a matter of course and the sentence suspended without much ado. However, in the light of Supreme Court decisions describing corruption as a violation of human rights that leads to “systematic economic crimes”, and a “serious malady undermining the very health of the polity”, the High Court has chosen to place corruption cases on a different footing altogether. It cites a ruling that says a convicted public servant should be deemed to be corrupt until exonerated by the appellate court. And it also says suspension of sentence should not be an automatic event, but a relief that should be granted only if adequate grounds exist. The grant of post-conviction bail, undoubtedly, is not the same as one given in the pre-trial stage, when there is a presumption of innocence. In addition, early disposal of the appeal may be offered as an alternative to interim relief. It is in this backdrop that Justice A.V. Chandrashekara has chosen to overrule the Special Public Prosecutor’s stand that conditional bail may be granted to Ms. Jayalalithaa and others, and hold that there were no grounds for granting any relief. It is indeed a major setback for Ms. Jayalalithaa, who will have to move the Supreme Court for immediate relief.

In terms of corruption jurisprudence, the judge’s order is in tune with the spirit of a series of Supreme Court verdicts. In recent times, the apex court has removed the protection from immediate disqualification enjoyed by convicted legislators, fixed a time-limit for grant of sanction for prosecution of public servants, directed early completion of trials involving lawmakers and struck down discriminatory provisions that required government clearance for investigating cases involving bureaucrats above a certain rank. The High Court has also shown itself to be immune to the political clamour for Ms. Jayalalithaa’s release in Tamil Nadu. Workers and supporters of the ruling All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam had their reasons for publicly demonstrating loyalty to and sympathy for Ms. Jayalalithaa, but incidents of violence and protests that inconvenience the general populace will do nothing at all to help her legal battle, and, instead, could hurt her politically in the long run. Chief Minister O. Panne erselvam, who made an earnest appeal for calm, should ensure that the limits of democratic protest are observed and law and order is maintained.