March 28: The Congress-led Kerala government was caught in a storm today after the high court ordered a CBI probe against the chief minister’s former bodyguard in land-grab cases, and a minister made controversial remarks about the judge.
The controversy has erupted just when the Congress-headed UDF coalition appeared to be enjoying an advantage over the Opposition CPM-led LDF.
Chief minister Oommen Chandy welcomed the court order but not before airing his displeasure, saying the court had arrived at “harsh” conclusions without hearing him.
State culture minister K.C. Joseph, considered close to the chief minister, told a news channel that the court’s “intentions were suspect’’ and that “the public cannot be faulted if it felt that the judge was playing politics”.
The chief minister’s former personal security guard, Salim Raj, is accused of grabbing land in Ernakulam, the commercial hub, and in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital.
Asking the central agency to complete its investigation in nine months, a bench of Justice Harun al Rashid referred to another scandal to which Salim Raj’s name was linked. Known as solar scam, the controversy is associated with the alleged cheating of some investors by two persons who claimed proximity to the chief ministers and several other ministers to hardsell a project on solar energy.
The court said today: “The alleged involvement of the member of the personal staff of the chief minister’s office in criminal acts has come to the attention of this court at multiple instances. The chief minister’s office should be a model institution, serving the people of the state. This shows that authorities at the helm of affairs of the administration in the state have not been prudent and responsible in appointing personal staff with integrity and character.’
“Prime facie evidence of the presence of unscrupulous elements among the personal staff in the chief minister’s office and associated criminal activities in these cases calls for a thorough and independent investigation. Serious allegations have been made against the accused of colluding and conspiring with revenue department officials in forging and fabricating false documents and records for the purpose of defeating the title of the petitions,’’ the bench said in its 132-page order.
Salim Raj is now under suspension and described by petitioners as the “gang leader of the land mafia”. The state government had taken the stand that it had no objection to a CBI probe.
The Opposition seized the court order with gusto. CPM state secretary Pinarayi Vijayan and Opposition leader V.S. Achuthanandan asked Chandy to step down if he had any shame left.
Chandy did not react immediately to the court order but convened a media conference in the evening Alappuzha in southern Kerala, where he was campaigning.
“I welcome the order. The government never opposed a CBI probe in court…. But I was denied natural justice that even a common man deserves. The court should have heard me before making such harsh criticism. But I have no complaints,” Chandy said.
Asked if the government will approach the division bench for expunging the adverse remarks, the chief minister said: “People are the highest court and I will approach them.”
Chandy pointed out that a case was registered against Salim Raj in 2007 in connection with the land grab allegation in Thiruvananthapuram. But later it was written off as a civil matter when CPM leader Kodiyeri Balakrishnan was home minister, the chief minister said.
Balakrishnan could not be reached for comment.