New Delhi/Mumbai, May 10: The Supreme Court today set “an example” by sentencing a minister and a top bureaucrat to jail for contempt, with a warning to those who flout court orders “because of their money power, social status or post”.
Maharashtra transport minister Sarup Singh Naik’s one-month term could begin tomorrow ' after an arrest warrant is issued ' unless the court agrees to suspend the sentence till a review plea is decided.
A three-judge bench today convicted Naik and additional chief secretary Ashok Khot of wilfully violating in 2004 a Supreme Court ban on the operation of six saw mills in Vidarbha.
Congressman Naik and Khot ' then environment and forests minister and principal secretary, environment and forests ' have both been sentenced to a month in jail.
Naik enjoys no immunity from arrest or imprisonment either as minister or lawmaker. Article 194 of the Constitution, which deals with such immunity for MLAs, doesn’t extend it to criminal charges or contempt of court.
The Maharashtra government indicated the duo would be arrested either late tonight or on Thursday after a copy of the court order arrived.
The minister’s only hope lies in his counsel, Tapesh Kumar Singh, informing the court tomorrow morning that he would seek a review and getting the sentence suspended till the petition is decided.
With the court going into vacation after Friday, it is expected to take up the review only in July. Singh is likely to argue that if the minister is sent to jail now, he would have served his entire term before the court sits again, making the review pointless.
Even if the court accepts that plea, Naik will still be jailed later if the judges find no merit in the review plea after hearing it.
The petition would be decided by the same bench ' of Chief Justice Y.K. Sabharwal, Justice Arijit Pasayat and Justice S.H. Kapadia ' that pronounced the verdict, saying Naik “deserves severe punishment”.
“This will act as an example to those who have the propensity of disregarding the court order because of money power, social status or post held,” the court said. “Whoever he may be, however high he is, he is under the law. No matter how powerful he is and how rich he may be.”
In 1997, the apex court had ruled that all wood-based industry within a 1-km radius of forests anywhere in the country should be closed. In 2002, it asked states not to allow any saw, veneer or plywood mill to run without clearance from a “central empowered committee” it had appointed.
The 2002 order had said the six mills should be closed, and a year later the court had rejected a plea by the state to allow them to reopen. But in 2004, Naik and Khot granted licences to the mills.
The court noted that “attempt has been made to overreach the orders of this court (and) also to draw red herrings. Still worse is the accepted position of inserting a note in the official file with oblique motives.”
Naik avoided the media through the day amid speculation he had resigned. An embarrassed chief minister, Vilasrao Deshmukh, cancelled a cabinet briefing.
Naik had triggered controversy in February when, during culling of chicken in Navapur, his three poultry farms were spared initially.