This octogenarian lawyer from Bengaluru proved many wrong when late J. Jayalalithaa and four others were found guilty in a disproportionate assets case. He showed what could happen if a lawyer, particularly a public prosecutor, remained honest. In an interview with DC, veteran legal eagle B.V. Acharya spoke about various issues, including the Jayalalithaa case. He is one of the few advocates who will not hesitate to charge a low fee if a particular case benefits a large section of society. Mr Acharya also has a strong suspicion about PILs really helping curb corruption. He feels that on the contrary, it is misused in India. Similarly, he feels that barring women, tribals and some others, individuals who fight corruption cases have deep pockets, so the government need not help them. One may agree or not with his views, however, none can suspect his integrity, dignity, warmth and hospitality. Here are excerpts from his interview.
Finally, the disproportionate assets (DA) case involving late J. Jayalalithaa and her aides has reached a logical end. Before going into the case, there is a small doubt: Are corruption cases different from the DA case?
There is no sharp distinction as such. The Prevention of Corruption Act has several clauses dealing with these and section-13 deals with misconduct. Then, there are clauses to deal with the taking of bribe and illegal gratification. Corruption can happen in peculiar ways. For instance you buy a pen and pay Rs 1 crore, that tantamounts to corrupt practice. Because why would you pay Rs 1 crore for a pen? Or things may happen otherwise, in the sense, you undervalue property and buy them to evade tax and other legal provisions. To deal with illegal gratification, a separate clause, 13-1e was introduced in the late eighties.
Moving on, can you please recap the Jayalalithaa case details..
Very interesting case no doubt. What Sasikala and her aides used to do was to go to remote areas of Tamil Nadu and purchase fertile land. These people would go with the notary. For instance, if they see your land is fertile, they would offer a price and you have to accept it and subsequently, you have to sign the stamp paper given by them. They would take away your rights to sell or to do anything, by executing the GPA. Once they return to Poes Garden, the registrars would come to register the land as per the directions of Sasikala. The large tracts of land were registered in the names of various firms in which Sasikala was either a partner or a director. In all, they possessed 3,000 acres of land, including one estate of 900 acres. The illegality here was that Sasikala, Ilavarasi and Sudhakaran conspired to launder the ill gotten money of accused number one, Jayalalithaa. The investigators had seized jewellery worth `5 crore and sarees worth ` 90 lakh and 750 pairs of sandals. But, Judge D’Cunha discounted their value saying Jayalalithaa was an actress and she might have got them from film income. However, other charges and the money trail were proved. It was interesting to see the money trial. Sashi Enterprises and Jaya Publications were the two entities which existed for quite some time but hardly any big transaction happened till Jayalalithaa became Chief Minister. Then, suddenly, money started going into the accounts of these enterprises. Interestingly, 250 suitcases were used to carry money from Poes Garden to two branches of Indian Bank and Canara Bank every day. From the accounts of these two entities, funds were transferred to the accounts of six firms and 28 companies in which Sasikala was either director or promoter. These firms used to purchase land for which the GPAs were already executed.
In such cases how do you corroborate the charge?
For example, if it is a government document, it is accepted. If for instance, there is an account book of a firm, we need to call the persons in charge to cross examine them. They have to admit to corroborate our charges. In this case, we proved charges beyond doubt.
In hindsight, do you regret resigning from the public prosecutor post at the final stage?
Considering the hardship and mental agony, I had thought I should continue. It was till the judiciary, a judge of district judge rank, who claimed to be a crusader, ordered the filing of a case against me. This was done to prevent me from continuing as prosecutor. That was the last straw. If the judiciary would not stand by me, then who would? Of course the High court quashed the case. It should have allowed me to continue. Then I thought, these people may not leave me. Then where is an end to it? Why should I alone fight corruption? Even the bar as a whole, did not take active interest. Of course, barring a few like R.N. Narasimha Murthy and Ashok Harnahalli, none came to defend me. I don’t repent it. But going by providence or whatever you may call it, the state government was compelled to file an appeal. When the government approached me to take it up in the Supreme Court and if I had disagreed, people might have thought I was arrogant. When the government made a request, I agreed.
What are the pitfalls or lacunae you see in the Indian system when it comes to fighting corruption cases?
First, you should have an honest investigating officer (IO), then an honest prosecutor and finally, an honest and competent judge. See the commonalty here: all the accused are filthy rich. These people have the capacity to influence the IO or the prosecutor. Considering the number of corruption and DA cases reported in India, it is difficult to have so many honest investigating officers (laughs). In bribery and trap cases, the accused catch hold of complainants. Then, the position of you as a prosecutor becomes precarious. DA cases are more difficult. One must have sound knowledge of various fields, from revenue to banking.
Did you face the agony of witnesses turning hostile in this case?
It’s interesting. Of the 299 witnesses, 77 turned hostile because Jayalalithaa came back to power in 2002. She made a plea to recall these witnesses. They all came and said: “We do not stand by what we had said earlier.” At that moment, the court should summon the accused and question them. But, she refused to come, on the contrary, she sought exemption from appearance and sent a reply. The case was about to fall flat. At that moment, a DMK leader moved the Supreme Court, which finally transferred the case to Karnataka in 2003 and asked Karnataka government to appoint a public prosecutor in concurrence with the chief justice of Karnataka high court. When the government gave a list of names, the high court CJ, N.K. Sodhi, quashed it and suggested my name. So happened my entry into the case. I got all the witnesses grilled here again. By then, the DMK came back to power, so these 77 witnesses who were government officers changed their statement again.
Some suggest that at least a few corruption case reach a logical end in south India and up in the North, it does not. What do you feel?
I tend to disagree. A politician from the South is no different from those in north India. So, geographical distinction is not good I suppose. Everywhere, corruption cases involving the rich and the influential do not end. A village accountant is prosecuted very fast while politicians’ cases linger on. And interestingly, corruption cases against the lowest rung of the bureaucracy are proved in 95 per cent of the cases. But we cannot say the same with regard to cases involving politicians.
You might be seeing individuals fighting corruption cases and they end up either losing the case or in the long-drawn battle, they lose interest. How do you think the government can help such people fight corruption cases?
If you encourage people to lodge private complaints, it may turn out to be counterproductive. Do you know what’s happening with the RTI Act? Considering our culture, I can say a large section of people misuse it. I suggest that the government should fight corruption and we should cleanse the government system. I would suggest that instead of having the RTI mechanism, the court should be empowered to call whatever records they want.
Are you planning to train young prosecutors?
Surprisingly, things are happening in Kerala more than here. In the last one year, I held three such meetings and camps there. The director of prosecution had held meetings with prosecutors. Then I attended the young lawyers colloquium. Supreme Court lawyer, K.K. Venugopal has started an academy to train young lawyers. I attended a few sessions. I cannot do it on a large scale. Whenever there is an opportunity, I don’t hesitate to go.
Now that the Jayalalithaa case is over, are you planning to take up any other high profile case?
Such cases are very rare. I may not venture upon it considering my age....