Weighing the burden of proof The case of the former Coal Secretary, H.C. Gupta, has raised an important debate. The issues involved in the prevention of corruption are more complex than an officer’s personal integrity

“An honest civil servant should not be harassed by anybody or agency or institution while in service or after retirement. It would make the civil servants working in the system nervous and edgy, which would not be in the interest of the country,” Sanjay Bhoosreddy, Honorary Secretary of the Central IAS Officers Association has said. Ponderous words indeed in the context of former Union Coal Secretary H.C. Gupta, who is facing trial in several Coalgate cases, choosing not to have any lawyer to defend him. Mr. Gupta told the trial judge recently that he did not have the money to hire a lawyer. He also turned down an offer of state aid made by the judge. In all likelihood, he will argue his own case. This is an extraordinary decision that could prove to be a double-edged weapon. The skill required to defend an accused in a criminal case is a specialised one. In my view, Mr. Gupta is taking too big a chance out of desperation and disgust at the way things are taking shape around him.

Appeal to good senses

Mr. Gupta is obviously outraged at the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) action. He probably understands that the law on the subject is against him, and he would therefore appeal directly to the good senses of the judge, something bordering on an attempt to play on emotions. Not for him the technicalities of what he is accused of. In his own eyes, he has done nothing wrong, and cannot be placed in the company of the corrupt and wily. He is only partly right. Many in government and outside may dismiss him as a maverick. From whatever I have heard of him, Mr. Gupta was an outstanding officer with a reputation for integrity. Remember also that the formal charge sheet against him by the CBI do not allege that he ever obtained any gratification for showing favour to the private companies that had received licences to operate a few coal mines. The charge sheet indicts him only as part of a ‘conspiracy’ to confer undue favour on private parties, and which caused loss to the public exchequer. This implied that he was negligent, and there was no application of mind on his part when the screening committee headed by him decided to examine the licence applications in question. There is no recorded evidence, however, that he dissented from the majority opinion which favoured the grant of licences to some firms. The conclusions of his committee were purely recommendatory in nature. That the final authority here was the Coal Minister, who, at that point of time, was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and that he was not prosecuted by the investigating agency, is not very relevant to Mr. Gupta’s defence — although the CBI decision, possibly backed by legal opinion, smacked of double standards. Remember, in Bofors, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi figured posthumously in the charge sheet as ‘accused not sent for trial’ only because he held charge of Defence. There was no charge that Bofors made any payment to him. Interestingly, what many of us would look upon as a moral or constructive civil liability comes to be defined as ‘criminal misconduct’ under the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988, which was enacted to lend more deterrence to what was being considered for long as a weak and toothless — the 1947 law against public servant corruption.

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Amit Singh

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