The time when a sitting President deposed before the Supreme Court

The last week of April holds a very special place in the chapters of Indian legal history. On 24th April 1973, the Supreme Court delivered the judgment in Kesavananda Bharti v. State of Kerala (the lengthiest and arguably its most important till date), wherein it held that the parliament while amending the Constitution cannot change or modify its basic features. On 26th April 1973, the Union government of Mrs. Indira Gandhi broke the Court’s seniority convention and appointed Justice A.N. Ray as the Chief Justice of India, superseding senior Judges Shelat, Grover and Hegde. Three years later on the same day, the Court delivered one of its most infamous decisions in ADM Jabalpur v. Shiv Kant Shukla (1976) 2 SCC 521, wherein it upheld the presidential order suspending the right of citizens to approach the Courts for enforcement of their fundamental rights under Article 21 i.e., the Right to Life and Liberty, during the emergency. In effect, the Court left a detainee remediless as long as the National Emergency continued. The lone dissenter Justice H.R. Khanna held that life and liberty cannot be at the mercy of the Executive and the rule of law does not allow the government to detain an individual without a trial. Justice Khanna ultimately held that a citizen’s right to approach the Courts could not be suspended even during an Emergency.

The judgment was infamous for two other reasons. First, for the court room exchange between Justice H.R. Khanna and Attorney General Niren De. During the hearing, Justice Khanna asked De, “In view of his submissions would there be any remedy if a police officer because of his personal enmity killed another man?” De responded, ‘consistently with my argument, there would be no judicial remedy in such a case so long as Emergency exists.” He further said, “It may shock your conscience, it may shock my conscience but consistently with my submissions, no proceedings can be taken in a Court of law that score”. It is believed that De went on to argue that during an Emergency even if a person was to be killed by the security forces in the presence of the Judges, they would remain helpless. Second, Justice Khanna’s dissent caused him the Chief Justiceship, as he was superseded by the government and instead Justice M.H. Beg (junior in seniority) was appointed as the Chief Justice of India.

Amidst these crucial chapters of Indian legal history, lies another event (mostly forgotten), which also happened in the last week of April. On 24th April 1970 for the first time in India’s history, a sitting President appeared before a Court to testify in a case against him.

In the year 1969, following President Zakir Hussain’s death, presidential elections were due. Shri N. Sanjiva Reddy was the candidate for the ruling Congress government (led by Mrs. Indira Gandhi) and was opposed by Shri V.V. Giri (contesting as an independent candidate) and Shri C.D. Deshmukh (the opposition’s candidate). Interestingly, Mrs. Gandhi was not in support of Reddy and unofficially canvassed for Giri instead. As per historian Ramachandra Guha (in India after Gandhi), four days before the election Mrs. Gandhi asked members of the Congress party for vote on conscience and defy the party by choosing V.V. Giri as the President. V.V. Giri won and due to her rebellion, Mrs. Gandhi was expelled from the party. She formed a new Congress (R) and was joined by many erstwhile Congress MPs.

Post the results, V.V. Giri’s election was challenged before the Supreme Court in Shiv Kirpal Singh and Ors., v. V.V. Giri and Ors., (1970) 2 SCC 567. The petitioners argued that his election should be declared void as inter alia he and his supporters had attempted to prejudice the election by circulating pamphlets containing false statements against N. Sanjiva Reddy and also committed the offences of undue influence and bribery. Ultimately, the Court dismissed the petition and upheld the election of V.V. Giri. However, the judgment is noteworthy not only for its ultimate conclusion but the proceedings.

During the pendency of the case, President Giri insisted on appearing before the Court in person rather than submitting written submissions. As per the book Courts of India: Past to Present (published by the Supreme Court) on Giri’s arrival he was given a seat on the Judge’s dias and was offered a glass of water and juice. He greeted the Judges with a namaste but received no response. He was examined and cross-examined, like every other witness. His testimony played an important role in the final judgment. The court observed,  “We are of the ‘view that Shri Giri’s version is preferable to the version given by the petitioners in so far as there is any conflict, and therefore we hold that the allegations made in the Petition in this respect have not been substantiated.”

Interestingly, before being named a Respondent in an election petition, Giri had been a petitioner himself, as he had challenged the election of one Mr. Dippala Suri Dora before, arguing that he could not be elected on a general category seat after having declared himself a member of a Scheduled Tribe (VV Giri v. D. Suri Dora, AIR 1959 SC 1318).

Shri V.V. Giri is not the only constitutional authority to appear before the Constitutional Courts in person, in a case against them. 5 years later in 1975, Mrs. Indira Gandhi became the first Indian Prime Minister to testify in a Court. In the 1971 general elections, Mrs. Gandhi won the Rae Bareli constituency comfortably defeating her nearest rival Shri Raj Narain. Narain challenged her election before the Allahabad High Court on grounds of electoral malpractice (the petition was also filed on 24th April 1971). During the proceedings, she appeared before the High Court to testify, interestingly in the same court room in which both her father and grandfather appeared as lawyers.

Much like V.V. Giri’s appearance, she was given a seat at the same level as the presiding Judge. In her book Courting Politics, Shweta Bansal writes that Mrs. Gandhi was cross-examined by Narain’s lawyer Shri Shanti Bhushan and at one instance she could not answer a question to which Bhushan remarked, “your lordship, I want to ask whether a person who is not able to appreciate something said in simple English can be regarded as a suitable Prime Minister of the country?”.

On 12 June 1975, Justice Jagmohan Lal Sinha read out his verdict wherein he acquitted Mrs. Gandhi on 12 out of 14 counts against her. However, she was found guilty of electoral malpractice and disqualified from holding public office for 6 years. The aftermath of this judgment was the infamous emergency, that led to the darkest period in independent India’s history.

Views are personal.

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