With the dismissal of Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s plea by the supreme court last month seeking stay on trial court proceedings in a criminal defamation case filed by finance minister Arun Jaitley, the stage was finally set for a high profile duel between two legal stalwarts. The apex court’s ruling that a judgment given in a civil proceeding was not binding on a criminal court pitted Jaitley in the firing range of firebrand lawyer and jurist Ram Jethmalani for cross examination.
Jethmalani, appearing on behalf of Kejriwal, fired 52 rapid questions at Jaitley in his bid to prove that the lawsuit on defamation by the senior BJP leader was tenuous, unfounded and should be dismissed. During the proceedings which lasted nearly two hours in a packed court room of joint registrar Amit Kumar appointed to decide whether any defamatory statements were made by the respondents, an array of questions including allegations made by veteran cricketer Bishan Singh Bediwere put to unnerve the finance minister but he retained his cool.
Besides a civil defamation suit in the high court seeking damages to the tune of Rs 10 crore, Jaitley had also filed a criminal defamation complaint on December 21, 2015 in a lower court alleging Kejriwal and five AAP leaders — Raghav Chadha, Kumar Vishwas, Ashutosh, Sanjay Singh and Deepak Bajpai — had defamed him by making defamatory statements against him and his family members in connection with alleged irregularities in the Delhi District Cricket Association (DDCA) which he headed for 13 years till 2013. Jaitley further alleged that Kejriwal made false allegations for “political mileage, causing irreversible damage to him.” The criminal defamation, if it succeeds, carries punishment of up to two years in jail.
Finance minister’s loss in Amritsar during the 2014 Lok Sabha polls cropped up during his cross questioning. Jethmalani asked whether Jaitley had, for the first time, “put his reputation to test in a public election in a democratic manner while contesting from Amritsar”. Jaitley retorted: “An election result is the outcome of several factors prevailing in the constituency and not merely a test of a candidate’s reputation, considering that (Kejriwal) had lost the same Lok Sabha election in 2014 by 3.5 lakh votes.”
The statements made by the respondents had damaged his reputation in the eye of the public, alleged Jaitley. He further said that while the AAP leadership may not be the source of the allegations made against him, he will exercise his right to sue anyone who has repeated a defamatory statement. “Many people on social media make irresponsible statements about people in public life, but when a CM endorses them, it becomes a serious matter. Even false allegations gain credibility,” Jaitley said, asserting that “repetition of a libellous statement gives me a cause of action against the person”.
He was responding to a question by Jethmalani on why he did not sue academician Madhu Kishwar, who initially made the allegations on Twitter, but rather chose to file a suit against Kejriwal and others for merely reiterating them. Jaitley said he never thought of suing Kishwar, but added that Kejriwal, in endorsing her allegation, “has committed a serious act of libel through his malicious falsehood, falsely alleging that my wife and daughter are linked to fake companies. He took public discourse to a very low level”. When Jethmalani confronted Jaitley with various statements on alleged irregularities in DDCA while he was heading it — purportedly made by CPM leader Sitaram Yechury and Congress leaders Ghulam Nabi Azad and Ajay Maken — the minister said he was not concerned with Yechury’s statements and not aware of statements made by others.
The hearing also saw Jaitley address allegations against him by Indian spinner Bishen Singh Bedi, who wrote to the prime minister alleging irregularities in the DDCA. “After (Bedi) lost an election against me, the association of which I was the president had appointed him as the chief coach of the Delhi (Ranji) team for a period of three years. His appointment could not continue beyond that period. Nonetheless, I always continued to maintain the due courtesies that he deserved as an eminent cricketer,” said Jaitley, adding, “I do not recollect if the PM had shown me a letter addressed to him by Bedi.”
Jaitley said Bedi’s letter was written in 2015, even though he had quit the cricket body in 2013 itself. “I strongly deny the contents of this letter in so far it pertains to me… To the best of my knowledge, the contents of the letter are untrue in so far as it relates to my tenure in DDCA,” Jaitley countered after going through the letter which was shown to him during cross examination.
Jethmalani then asked him: “You are allowed to continue as the finance minister by the PM because of your promise to seek a judicial decision in your favour of allegations made by Bedi, what do you have to say?” Jaitley responded: “…the suggestion is denied in entirety”. Jethmalani further asked: “Are you aware that I advised Narendra Modi not to set you up as a candidate from the Amritsar seat?” Joint registrar Arun Kumar, who was hearing the cross questioning, disallowed the question. In all, there were 11 questions which were disallowed on the ground that some were matter of record and irrelevant to the case and others were questions of law and not fact and some could be argued during the hearing.
During the cross-examination which was full of drama, lawyers of both sides opposed various questions and answers and Jaitley’s counsel – senior advocates Rajiv Nayar, Sandeep Sethi and Pratibha M Singh — termed some of them “scandalous”.
The minister, who faced a barrage of questions from his former BJP colleague who was expelled from the party in 2013 for six years, refuted Kejriwal’s claim that the December 2015 CBI raid at the Delhi CM’s office was “purely” aimed at removing some files related to alleged irregularities in the DDCA in which he was named. He clarified he had no prior knowledge of the raid, nor had he even been privy to the facts of the raid.
Jaitley denied accusations that he tried to influence Chetan Sanghi, Delhi government’s vigilance chief who handled DDCA case, and persuaded him to go back on his report. “I read in the media that bureaucrat Sanghi had written to the Home Secretary, Government of India seeking posting in the Centre since the Delhi government felt offended by him for his having refused to name certain VIP in the DDCA inquiry,” he added. The minister answered in the negative a query as to whether he and his government had befriended Sanghi.
On March 1, the Delhi High Court had dismissed another application of Kejriwal seeking bank account details of Jaitley and his family. On December 6, 2016 the minister had appeared to record his evidence after the high court on July 12, 2016 had framed issues against Kejriwal and others, notwithstanding their claim that they had not made any defamatory statement against him in the DDCA case. The issues were framed against them after Kejriwal’s counsel had denied the allegations and submitted that whatever was said against the minister was in public domain and he had not said anything on his own.
Jethmalani, on behalf of Kejriwal, fired 52 rapid questions at Jaitley to prove that his defamation lawsuit was tenuous
The union minister came to the court with a battery of senior lawyers and deposed that Kejriwal and others had defamed him by levelling serious allegations, despite his contradicting the accusations in the media and also in parliament. Jethmalani also had a battery of lawyers around him, mostly the prosecutors of AAP government and Kejriwal’s lawyer who is handling the case.
When asked by Jethmalani to explain how the damage to his reputation was “irreparable and unquantifiable” and whether it had anything to do with his “personal feelings of greatness,” the BJP leader said “I believe that considering my stature, background and reputation, the loss caused to me and my reputation was so enormous that it could be considered unquantifiable…My view about my own reputation was based on what my friends, well-wishers and other people both privately and in media, who had expressed an opinion on this subject.”
During the cross examination which was deferred to the following day, Jethmalani asked the minister whether he had made any serious effort to reverse the alleged damage before coming to the court. Jaitley replied “My denial on public platform was a serious effort”. Kejriwal’s counsel said the minister had not suffered any monetary damage, “which is why he called it by the expression unquantifiable damage.”
“The loss of my reputation has been partly quantified in terms of money in my claim. A person’s reputation operates in the public space and so does the loss of reputation. In addition, it causes pain and mental distress to the person defamed, which it did in my case,” Jaitley recorded. The finance minister, who questioned by Jethmalani, maintained his calm throughout the cross examination. The cross-questioning remained inconclusive and will continue on May 15 and 17. Several law students of Jindal Global Law School (JGLS) plan to witness the legal battle on next date since it is shaping to be a perfect tutorial to teach how to duck, deflect or hit the crafty and disguised Jethmalanian googlies to win the match, commented ace mooter Pitamber Yadav.