SC Rejects SBI Plea for Time to Disclose Electoral Bonds Info

New Delhi: In a huge setback to the State Bank of India, the Supreme Court on Monday junked its plea seeking an extension of time and ordered it to disclose the data of electoral bonds encashed by political parties to the Election Commission by close of business hours on March 12.

A five-judge Constitution Bench headed by Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud also directed the Election Commission to publish the details shared by the bank on its official website by 5 pm on March 15.

The CJI-led bench, also comprising Justices Sanjiv Khanna, B.R. Gavai, J.B. Pardiwala, and Manoj Misra, put the SBI on notice that the apex court may be inclined to proceed against it for “wilful disobedience” of its February 15 verdict if the bank failed to comply with its directions and timelines.

In a landmark verdict delivered on February 15, a five-judge Constitution Bench had scrapped the Centre’s electoral bonds scheme that allowed anonymous political funding, calling it “unconstitutional” and ordered disclosure by the EC of donors, the amount donated by them, and the recipients by March 13.

Ordering the forthwith closure of the scheme, the top court had last month directed the SBI, the authorised banker under the scheme, to submit by March 6 the details of the electoral bonds purchased since April 12, 2019, to date to the Election Commission.

The apex court directive on Monday came during the hearing by the bench on the SBI’s plea seeking an extension of time till June 30 to furnish the data.

The bench also heard separate pleas seeking the initiation of contempt action against SBI for alleged willful disobedience of the February 15 directives of the apex court.

During the hearing, the top court observed that the SBI’s submissions in the plea sufficiently indicated that the information that was directed to be disclosed by the court was readily available.

“In view of the above discussion, the miscellaneous application filed by SBI seeking an extension of time for the disclosure of details of the purchase and redemption of electoral bonds until June 30, 2024, is dismissed,” it said.

“SBI is directed to disclose the details by the close of business hours of March 12,” the bench said.

It said: "As regards the ECI, we direct that ECI shall compile the information and publish the details on its official website no later by 5 pm on March 15, 2024.”

The SBI shall file an affidavit of its chairman and managing director in compliance with the directions issued by the top court, the apex court said.

On the submissions of senior advocate Harish Salve, appearing for the SBI, that more time was needed for collating the details and matching them as the information was kept in two different silos with its branches, the bench said it had not directed the bank to match the details of donors and donee with other information.

The bench also took note of Mr Salve’s submission that if the matching exercise was to be done away with, the SBI could complete the exercise within three weeks.

The top court said the SBI has to just open the sealed cover, collate the details, and give the information to the EC.

At the outset of the hearing, the bench asked the SBI about the steps taken in compliance with the February 15 judgment.

"In the last 26 days, what steps have you taken? Your application is silent on that," it said.

It also asked the SBI to do a "plain disclosure" as per the court's judgment.

Mr Salve told the bench the bank had stopped the issuance of electoral bonds as per the February 15 order of the top court.

“We need a little more time to comply with your lordships' order,” he said.

While referring to the SBI's application, CJI Chandrachud said as per the bank, the donor details were kept in a sealed cover in a designated branch of the bank.

Justice Khanna said the bank mentioned in the application that all purchaser details were kept in a sealed cover.

In its application, the SBI had contended that the retrieval of information from “each silo” and the procedure of matching the information of one silo to that of the other would be a time-consuming exercise.

The application said due to stringent measures undertaken to ensure that the identity of the donors was kept anonymous, “decoding” the electoral bonds and matching the donors to the donations would be a complex process.

"It submitted that the data related to the issuance of the bond and the data related to the redemption of the bond was kept recorded in two different silos. No central database was maintained," it said.

“It is submitted that donor details were kept in a sealed cover at the designated branches and all such sealed covers were deposited in the main branch of the applicant bank, which is located in Mumbai,” it said.

The apex court expressed its disinclination to take up the contempt plea at this stage, moved by NGOs Association for Democratic Reforms and Common Cause, claiming the SBI’s application seeking an extension of time has been deliberately filed at the last moment to ensure that details of donor and the amount of donations are not disclosed to the public before the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.

“It is submitted that the said application is mala fide and demonstrates a wilful and deliberate disobedience & defiance of the judgment passed by the constitution bench of this court. It is further a clear attempt to undermine the authority of this court,” the two NGOs had said.

( Source : Deccan Chronicle )
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