The Supreme Court on Monday declared that it would set up an independent committee, to be headed by a retired judge of the court, to investigate and fix responsibility on those responsible for the breach of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s security in Punjab last week, and shot down the Union government’s request to let the Centre’s inquiry panel conclude its probe into the incident.
Calling the incident “serious”, a bench, headed by Chief Justice of India NV Ramana, said that the court-appointed committee shall ascertain accountability of those responsible for the lapses and would submit its report to the court for issuing further directions.
The bench, which also comprised justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli, added that the committee shall include the registrar general of the Punjab and Haryana high court, director general (DG) of Chandigarh Police, and one senior officer each from the National Investigation Agency (NIA) and Punjab Police.
The name of the former SC judge and officers from NIA and Punjab Police will be released by the bench later this week through a detailed order, which will also elucidate the terms of reference for the committee and the timeline for conclusion of its investigation.
There was no response from the government on the matter.
While firming up its decision on a court-monitored independent committee, the bench also expressed displeasure at the Centre’s stand on letting an inquiry panel proceed against the chief secretary and director general of police (DGP) in the disciplinary proceedings initiated against the two.
“If you have already made up your mind, why did you come to this court? You said to this court on the last date that this court should examine the matter. But if you want to go ahead with your own inquiry, why should this court go into the matter at all? What is left for this court to decide in that case?” it asked solicitor general Tushar Mehta, who represented the Centre in the matter.
The bench added: “No doubt, there is some lapse. But who is responsible for this lapse is yet to be found. The state (Punjab) and the petitioner want a fair hearing and you cannot be against a fair hearing too. So, why this administrative and fact-finding enquiry by you at all? Yes, there is a breach and the state has admitted it. But the other issues are question of facts and it has to be seen by independent persons.”
The bench further commented that it is “not expected of” the Union government to demand explanations from the officers of the Punjab government within 24 hours after agreeing to an intervention by the top court into the matter.
On Friday, the court directed DG, Chandigarh, and an NIA officer to assist the HC registrar general in taking custody of all materials related to the PM’s security breach as it entertained a PIL by a lawyers organisation, Lawyer’s Voice, that sought a “professional and effective” investigation into the incident. The plea also demanded suspension of Punjab’s chief secretary and director general of police (DGP) over the unprecedented lapse.
The Prime Minister was stuck on a flyover for 15-20 minutes on the road from Bathinda to Ferozepur on January 5 due to a blockade by protesters, sparking a furious political battle between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress government in Punjab.
Both the Union and Punjab governments later set up their respective inquiry panels to probe the incident. On Monday, the bench clarified that the two inquiry panels will suspend their proceedings in the wake of the court’s decision to constitute a high-power committee for investigating the incident.
During the hearing on Monday, the bench did not find favour with the Centre’s stand, conveyed through S-G Mehta, who argued that the inquiry panel was set up by the Centre under the Special Protection Group (SPG) Act and that the top court should let them conclude their proceedings against the chief secretary and the DGP of Punjab. This inquiry panel comprised a secretary in the Cabinet Secretariat, joint director of the Intelligence Bureau and inspector general of the SPG.
The S-G was emphatic that Punjab’s chief secretary and DGP could not escape the statutorily mandated proceedings against them since they were directly responsible for ensuring a secured route and that they had even approved the route on Wednesday where the PM’s convoy got stuck due to the protesters.
“It is rarest of rare case and it could not brook any delay. The Union government had to set up a committee to investigate into the matter which it has done. The Blue Book (a set of instructions under which the SPG holds an advance security liaison with everyone involved in securing a PM’s event) instructions and the rules had to be enforced by the chief secretary and the DGP of the state,” asserted Mehta.
He added that a security rehearsal on the same route from Bhatinda to Ferozpur was done a day before the event in liaison with the local police and therefore, the state government or its officers cannot claim ignorance about the road route to be taken by the PM.
On his part, Punjab government’s advocate general DS Patwalia strongly objected to the show-cause notices issued to state chief secretary and DGP, complaining that the notices had already recorded findings that the officers have prima facie violated directions issued under the SPG Act by not ensuring adequate security.
“On what basis these findings have come when there is no inquiry conducted so far and all materials are with the HC registrar general? Why have these show-cause notices come when this court is already seized of the matter? I am sanguine that I won’t get a fair hearing before Centre or any central agency. Please, hang me if I am guilty but don’t condemn me without a hearing,” Patwalia contended.
Mehta, however, maintained that the Centre’s inquiry committee should be allowed to conclude its proceedings, following which a report could be submitted before the bench.
At this, the bench questioned the language used in the show-cause notices, holding Punjab’s chief secretary and DGP prima facie guilty for the lapses. “Your show-cause notice is totally self-contradictory. By constituting the committee, you seek to inquire if there was violation of the SPG act and then you hold state chief secretary and DGP guilty in notices. Who has held them guilty? Who has heard them?”
It pointed out that the chief secretary and DGP are added as parties in the PIL. “They are parties before us and we will come to know who is responsible for the lapse. Why can’t there be an independent inquiry by some other mechanism?” it asked Mehta.
The court added: “You asked us on Friday to seize the materials. After the materials are seized, it will be ascertained who is responsible. But you issue show cause notices giving them 24 hours to respond. This is not expected of you.”
To this, Mehta said that such comments were “too harsh”, adding that senior officers should be allowed to probe the lapses in PM’s security.
“Please, don’t be under the impression that we are not taking this seriously. Nobody is saying that breach in PM’s security isn’t a serious issue. It is a serious issue. But other issues are questions of facts. Some authority will have to go into those facts as to who is responsible for the lapses,” retorted the bench.
The judges then had a brief discussion with each other, following which the CJI declared that the court will set up an independent committee, which will be headed by a former Supreme Court judge and will also include the HC registrar general, DG, Chandigarh, and officers of NIA and Punjab Police.
The bench said it would release the detailed order later while clarifying that the proceedings before the committees set up by Centre and Punjab shall remain in abeyance.
The unprecedented breach in the PM’s security forced Narendra Modi to cancel his first rally in poll-bound Punjab. The ministry of home affairs sought a report on the incident from the state government.
Punjab chief minister Charanjit Singh Channi expressed regret over the incident but rejected allegations of any complicity. Channi claimed that his government had no information about the PM’s motorcade taking the road route.
Meanwhile, the petition by Lawyer’s Voice requested the Supreme Court “to take cognizance of the serious and deliberate lapse” on part of state government, its chief secretary and DGP in ensuring a secure route for the PM’s visit to the state on Wednesday. The local police is in charge of logistics and route security when the PM visits any state or UT.
According to the PIL, the sequence of events indicated that the state government and the state police failed in providing effective security for the PM and were allegedly complicit in jeopardising the security of the high constitutional office in the country.