Jul 21, 2010
(Ctsy: Daijiworld Weekly, dated Jul 16, 2010)
TEN DAYS. It took exactly 10 days to expose the dark underside of corruption. On June 23, the no-nonsense and normally taciturn though affable Justice Nitte Santhosh Hegde called on Karnataka’s Governor Hans Raj Bhardwaj at Raj Bhavan and tendered his resignation to his position as the State’s Lokayukta, effective from August 31. And on July 3, he announced the withdrawal.
The interregnum from June 23 till July 3 was enough to show how serious is the malaise of corruption.
It is not known whether Justice Hegde reads or has time to read English literature. ``I don’t have time to read all the newspapers and magazines that pile up on my table,” he confessed while flipping through copies of Daijiworld Weekly.
``I keep myself busy in my work from morning till night. There is so much to do, meetings to attend with my staff and others besides meeting scores of visitors and attending to phone calls. I don’t find time to indulge in any of my pastimes,” he candidly admitted in a freewheeling chat with Daijiworld.
But, if he were a student of English literature and an ardent follower of the great humourist Mark Twain, Justice Hegde would have reason to feel an affinity because he too has a wry sense of humour. Of course, most of the writing that he does are perhaps the judicial judgements and compilation of reports.
Anyway, what is the connection between Justice Hegde and the American Author, whose real name is Samuel Langhorne Clemens? One may wonder.
Justice Hegde, who turned 70 on June 16, may have perhaps agreed with the views expressed by the celebrated humourist on his own 70th birthday celebration long before he was born: ``The seventieth birthday. It is the time of life when you arrive at a new and awful dignity; when you may throw aside the decent reserves which have oppressed you for a generation and stand unafraid and unabashed upon your seven-terraced summit and look down and teach--unreduced.”
Handsome, dapper and quite agile, Justice Hegde is certainly dignity personified. But he rarely loses his cool and is unafraid to call a spade a spade. However, on June 23, when he spelt out the circumstances that compelled him to put in his papers after deep deliberations with himself and his family – not out of pique or any other pecuniary considerations – Justice Hegde did exhibit his righteous sense of indignation.
``The decision to reign was not sudden or whimsical,” says he. ``I was going through some kind of depression. I was feeling frustrated. I use to wake in the middle of the night. I was feeling totally down and out. Even my wife used to comment on my changed behavior. On June 17, during the wedding reception of my nephew in a marriage hall, I told my family over a meal about my frustration. They were unanimous in asking me to quit if I was not happy.”
``I made up mind to resign and go out quietly. I did not want to embarrass the Government. I thought of putting in my papers and leave without making a big issue. The idea was to go to US with my wife and spend some time with my sister,” he said.
``The mining lobby and the illegal mining and large-scale transportation iron ore besides the brazen attitude of the Government with regard to corrupt officials, even after being caught huge amount of ill-gotten wealth or the failure in conceding the legitimate demands as also the inordinate delay in the appointment of Up Lokayukta were all taking a toll on me,” he explains.
However, says Justice Hegde, ``The letter written by a cabinet minister (Ports and Fisheries Minister Krishna Palomar) to the Chief Secretary (S V Ranganath) recommending suspension of R Gokul (Karwar Deputy Conservator of Forests) was the clincher.
``Gokul came to my office on June 21 evening showing me the letter written by Palemar. Incidentally, Gokul happens to be the officer who exposed the 8.5 lakh tonnes of illegally mined iron ore illegally transported and kept in the Belikeri port (Uttara Kannada district) and another 50,000 tonnes at Karwar under orders from Chief Conservator of Forests U V Singh on my instructions. He had booked cases against 11 mining companies under my instructions. Out of this iron ore stock, 5 lakh tonnes was moved or exported without valid documents. This iron ore was technically under court custody.
What would have happened if Gokul was suspended and somebody else posted in his place? The criminal cases filed by Gokul would have been conveniently swept under the carpet. What is the point of my continuing in office, if I can’t protect a honest officer who was working on my behalf to protect the state’s wealth and interests?” he asked adding: ``The Gokul episode came as the last straw that firmed up my resolve.”
Explains Justice Hegde: ``It was never my intention to do something with ulterior political motives or to embarrass the Government. If that were the case, I could have released the report on illegal mining activities before the elections. Not just mining. I had submitted many other damaging reports during the last three years. But I had always tried my best to avoid situations that might have had political repercussions. That does not mean that I could tailor my reports to suit the political needs of any one party. That is not my style of functioning. Though I have friends in different parties or rather friendly contacts with several political leaders, I have never indulged in politics nor have I any political ambitions.”
Justice Hegde is quite candid in admitting that the Governor tried his best to dissuade him from resigning and told him that he would not accept it. That perhaps was the reason along with my pent up feelings over the various actions of the Government forced me to speak out during the news conference immediately after submitting the resignation.
``I did receive calls from various quarters from all over the country and even from my well-wishers abroad. You know some of the names like Union Home Minister P Chidambaram, Union External Affairs Minister S M Krishna and many others. There was a spontaneous outpouring of feelings, protests and public demonstrations from various sections of the people not only in Bangalore but other parts of Karnataka as well. Leaders cutting across party lines met me or called me and requested me not to persist with my decision to resign. I was, however, firm in my resolve not to withdraw the resignation,” he said.
``I still vividly remember the advice that my father (Late Justice K S Hegde and former Lok Sabha Speaker) gave me. Don’t ever stay in a place where you are made to feel you are unwanted,” he says.
The Lokayukta is happy that his decision and the spontaneous public reaction has had its desired effect. ``The Chief Minister was forced to assert on the very next day (during the meet-the-press programme at the Bangalore Press Club on June 24) that Gokul would not be suspended while the other officers found to be involved in the mysterious disappearance of the iron ore would face action. The Chief Minister also announced that the Government had written to the Centre to suspend the Customs officers for allowing the export of the iron ore without valid documents. This is no small achievement in less than 24 hours,” he chuckles.
When virtually the entire state was urging Justice Hegde to withdraw his resignation, the Chief Minister, however, was not inclined to bend though he went out of the way to lavishly praise and compliment the Lokayukta for his honesty, integrity and commitment. ``He (Justice Hegde) must have taken the decision after weighing the pros and cons and serious deliberation. He is not the kind of person who will change his mind once he has decided. I don’t want to embarrass him by appealing him to withdraw,” Yeddyurappa had said in a tongue-in-cheek comment indicating that he was happy to be rid of him.
However, as protests against the resignation and demands for withdrawal persisted with a campaign against the alleged encouragement to corruption in the only BJP-ruled state in the South, the RSS and the former deputy prime minister, Lal Krishna Advani, the tallest BJP leader after A B Vajpayee, obviously felt enough was enough and decided to intervene. Advani made a public appeal to Justice Hegde to withdraw and followed it up with a personal request over phone. On the same day, Nitin Gadkari, the handpicked RSS candidate for BJP national president’s post, who was in the city to attend state BJP’s ``swabhimani samavesha’’ of backward classes personally called on Justice Hegde along with Yeddyurappa to buttress Advani’s plea.
Justice Hegde, who had refused to heed the personal appeal made by Law and Parliamentary Affairs Minister S Suresh Kumar and State BJP president K S Eshwarappa when they met him on the previous day, relented following Advani’s appeal and the fervent pleas by Gadkari-Yeddyurappa, who also promised to consider most of the demands.
``Advani is like a father.. He was a close friend of my father and I equate him with my father. I cannot go against his wish. I have acceded to his request. There is no other political reason but my love and respect for Advani. There is a difference when somebody who is close to your heart says something. If Advani asks me, I cannot but accept it. I have decided to withdraw my resignation,” he had said pointing out that he announced his decision on withdrawal immediately.
"Though my decision has fulfilled the demands and aspirations of the general public and almost all sections of my well-wishers or admirers,” said Justice Hegde, ``I did make a mistake in giving sole credit to Advani, when I should have acknowledged the pressure mounted on me my the people and different other leaders. In fact, I was guilty of breach of protocol because I should have first informed the Governor and then made my decision public. I know it was a momentary lapse on my part and I have publicly expressed my sincere apologies to everybody. I met the Governor and have formally withdrawn my resignation.”
Justice Hegde was, however, deeply pained by the criticism from a section of writers and intellectuals for acceding to Advani’s appeal and for terming the former deputy prime minister as a ``father’’ figure in view of the latter’s role in the demolition of Babri Masjid.
``I am totally apolitical and would not like to make any comments on political issues. But what is wrong in expressing my honest opinion, my love and admiration for Advani for his integrity and probity in public life. My father was close to him and was BJP vice president after he entered politics following the resignation from BJP,” he said while taking the opportunity to clarify that the incident also proved the fallacy of the argument or insinuations by some that he had resigned to take up some Central government assignment.
``What next?,” I ask reminding him that Advani no longer is the person he was within BJP and outside and was almost on the verge of political retirement. I also bring it to his notice that Sushma Swaraj, who succeeded Advani as the Opposition leader in the Lok Sabha, has been publicly acknowledged as the ``mother’’ of the all-powerful Bellary Reddy brothers, who are accused to be the ``ring-leaders’’ of the entire mining scam. There is also speculation in political circles regarding a power struggle between Advani-loyalists and his opponents with Sushma Swaraj being in the rival camp, I tell him.
``That may be true. I can’t comment on hearsay. There are allegations but no tangible proof against the Bellary Reddy brothers of indulging in illegal mining activities in Karnataka. They don’t have any mining leases in the state. I am not the kind of person who goes on making unsubstantiated charges. I have not met the Reddys so far. But that is not important,” he said and made it clear that he was not interested in political speculation.
``I have been given certain promises including early appointment of Upa Lokayukta which has been vacant for a long time and grant of more powers. I hope the Government will keep them. The Opposition party leaders, who have publicly and in their private meetings with me, have assured me of their backing to ensure that the Government honours its commitment and above all, the people are there to watch all developments,” he said asserting that grant of suo motu powers against the corrupt babus was not his primary objective.
``I know that the powers conferred on the Lokayukta were withdrawn 24 years ago. Much water has flown in the Cauvery river, which most of us drink in Bangalore, since then. I have worked without these powers since 2006 and have done a fairly decent job judging from the widespread support and reactions for my resignation and subsequent withdrawal. So, if the Government is really serious about curbing corruption, then it should grant the suo motu powers. But if the people are okay with it, I am prepared to work. I have no axe to grind nor achieve anything,” he says adding: ``I only wish to check corruption to the best of my abilities.”
As I was talking to Justice Hegde, he received information from State Advocate General Ashok Haranahalli regarding the interim stay granted by Karnataka High Court against the transportation of iron ore by 10 mining companies from the three ports of Belikeri, Karwar and Mangalore. ``See, things are finally happening,” he said passing orders to enforce the court orders. ``The Chief Minister has already promised that Upa Lokayukta’s post will be filled up within a week and I feel it will be done.”
And the very next day, came the news regarding the State Cabinet’s decision to concede most of his demands regarding empowerment. ``Half of my demands are met. I would have been extremely happy if the Government had accepted the demand for bringing all ministers, including the chief minister and legislators under the purview of the Lokayukta. But including all government officials including secretaries upto the chief secretary is a welcome move. There is still time for the Government to reconsider its decision as I am sure everybody is equally worried about corruption,” he said expressing happiness at the decision to empower the Lokayukta to carry out the functions of Upa Lokayukta and vice versa if either of the posts were vacant due to resignation or retirement.
All in all, Justice Hegde feels that the entire episode has created an awareness about the importance of the institution of Lokayukta and has resulted in strengthening it. ``Has it damaged your image?,” I ask him. ``Why? Did I gain anything or achieve monetary or other benefits? Far from it. My responsibilities have now increased. People who know me and my nature, will understand. I can’t satisfy everybody. I will not be here forever. Whoever comes after me, will be better placed to carry out his responsibilities. To that extent, I feel this kind of shock treatment was and is necessary.”
``Corruption is an all-pervading cancer and must be rooted out. The degree or magnitude of corruption keeps growing. It knows no religion, caste or regional barriers. The more affluent and knowledgeable the people are, the scale of corruption increases. Fighting against corruption is an unending and thankless job, which creates powerful enemies. But that is part of life. I consider it a sacred mission to carry on the war against corruption,” he promises.
Santhosh Hegde :
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