It had directed them to remain seated till the rising of the court and imposed a fine of Rs 1 lakh each for transferring out an officer who was probing the Bihar shelter homes sexual assault cases.
Sparing contemnors Rao and CBI’s legal advisor S Bhasuram the jail term, the apex court held them guilty for “wilfully disobeying” its orders by transferring CBI joint director A K Sharma, as additional director general of CRPF on January 18.
“In our considered view, it is a case where contempt has been committed by both the then acting CBI director, M N Rao, and the director prosecution (of the agency)” said a bench headed by Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi.
Pensive looking Rao and Bhasuram, who on Monday had already tendered unconditional and unqualified apologies for their roles in the transfer of Sharma, were in for a shock as the bench expressed its mind on their culpability at the outset.
Holding them guilty of contempt of court, the bench, also comprising justices L N Rao and Sanjiv Khanna, said, “We could not have done anything else”.
It said: “We have heard Rao and Bhasuram for commission of contempt of court and we impose Rs one lakh fine and sentence them till the rising of the court.”
“Go to one corner of the court and sit down till the rising of this court.”
Both remained in the CJI‘s courtroom till 4 pm, the normal working hours of the judicial side of the apex court. They also remained seated during the lunch session.
The bench did not allow attorney general K K Venugopal’s request that the two officers be allowed to leave even at 3.40 pm – 20 minutes ahead of time.
The top court responded furiously to Venugopal’s seeking the permission.
“What’s this? Do you want us to sentence him till the rising of the court tomorrow? Go and sit where you were,” the CJI
Before passing the order in the pre-lunch session, the bench told Rao and Bhasuram they have been held guilty of contempt of court and it was not accepting their unconditional and unqualified apologies.
At the outset, the attorney general, appearing for CBI and its officer, referred to the noting on the file related to the transfer of Sharma and said that it was a case of “error of judgment” on Rao’s part as he had acted on the “incorrect legal advise”.
“It is not wilful. Facts are little muddled … Rao has put himself to the mercy of this court,” Venugopal said and sought leniency from the bench.
“Let us see the sequence of events. From the note of the acting (cbi) director, this much is obvious that he knew that there was an order of the Supreme Court (against the transfer of the CBI officer). He also seeks the opinion of the legal advisor,” the bench said.
Later, Rao approved the relieving order of the CBI officer without “satisfying” himself whether the sanction of the court has been secured or not and “if this is not the contempt then what is contempt,” the bench said, adding “the axe falls on the Supreme Court orders”.
“He is the acting director of the CBI … Would the heavens have fallen if the relieving orders were passed after taking the Supreme Court into confidence,” the furious CJI remarked.
The CJI told the attorney general, “Let us be very clear that I don’t think any of us have as judges had the opportunity to invoke the jurisdiction of the contempt”.
“We are and I can say I have not invoked the contempt powers and punished anyone. Speaking for myself I can say I have not invoked contempt power in the last 20 years. However, the dignity and majesty of the court has to be maintained,” the CJI said.
“But this is brazen”, the CJI said, adding that he was of the “firm view” that “the majesty of judiciary” has to be maintained.
At this moment, the attorney general said “To err is human, to forgive is divine.”
The bench said that the officers have committed the contempt and asked, “Why should a contemnor be defended at government expenses?”
Dealing with Rao’s approval to the transfer Sharma, the bench made clear at the outset that Rao can be held guilty of contempt as he did not bother to check while signing the relieving order of Sharma.
“Not only that, Rao did not even seek “post facto” approval of the apex court to the decision for two weeks,” it said.
It also gave option to Rao and Bhasuram to say something as the sentence for them could be 30 days in jail. “Do you have to say something” the bench asked them.
Venugopal repeatedly requested the court to look into other options as per the law and sought leniency for them.
Rejecting the defence of the two officers, the bench said though they have tendered an unconditional and unqualified apology, “we don’t agree with the contentions raised by them”.
The bench said that Rao was aware of the apex court direction that the CBI officer probing the shelter home sexual assault cases cannot be transferred without its consent.
However, his “attitude is ‘I have done what I thought was required’,” the bench said.
“This is a blatant contempt of court. If this is not contempt of court then what is,” asked the bench.
The court had on February 7 come down heavily on the CBI for transferring Sharma out of the agency in violation of the court’s order.
It had also taken note of the violation of two earlier orders and issued contempt notice to Rao.