New Delhi, Nov. 25: Justice K. Venkataswami today broke his three-day silence on his resignation as head of the Tehelka probe committee as well as from the finance ministry post that he held.
“I resigned to uphold the dignity of the high judicial office I held,” the retired Supreme Court judge said at a news conference at the Vigyan Bhavan Tehelka commission office.
“A section in Parliament has raised questions about the propriety and the ethical dimensions of a chairman of a commission of inquiry holding an additional appointment,” Venkataswami told a huge gathering of reporters. “In order to ensure that nothing less than the highest standards of justice and objectivity are seen to be maintained and keeping in mind the dignity and high traditions of judicial office held by me, I decided to relinquish both the appointments.”
The resignation followed accusations by Opposition parties that the offer of a new job to the judge had “prejudiced” his position as head of the commission probing the defence scam as the government expected a “clean chit”.
As chairman of the commission, Venkataswami also released an official communiqué. “Just at the stage when the Union of India was asked to clearly define its standing in respect of allegations of financial conspiracy, a controversy was sought to be raised about the chairman of the commission having been offered an appointment of a quasi-judicial body,” the communiqué said.
“The honourable chairman reiterates that he accepted the appointment as chairman of the authority for advance rulings (customs and central excise) on the strength of the recommendation of the then Chief Justice of India. The chairman did not view this appointment as interfering in the discharge of his functions as chairman of the commission of inquiry,” it added.
Venkataswami said he had “spontaneously” decided to resign “since he would not like the judicial character of the commission being directly or indirectly undermined in any manner”.
The judge said he had accepted the Tehelka probe as a “call of duty” but was forced to step down because of the controversy “which struck at the root of the dignity of the high office”.
This was the crux of the resignation letter he had written to Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. In the letter, he said he was reluctant to accept the “responsibility” as chairman of the Tehelka commission but was “persuaded by the then Chief Justice, A.S. Anand, to take up the probe.
“I did not draw salary for the commission of inquiry since I was getting my salary as chairman of railway rates tribunal, Chennai. I only accepted some allowances,” he said and pointed out that he accepted the other job, chairman of the authority of advance rulings, on the “sole persuasion” of S.P. Bharucha who succeeded Anand as Chief Justice.
Venkataswami said the Tehelka report was “almost ready” and would have been complete with one more extension. He said the commission had completed inquiry in respect of “18 past defence transactions”.
The retired Supreme Court judge said he had held 181 sittings, examined 50 witnesses and passed 720 interim orders so far. “And nobody has ever complained.” It was not the first time, he added, that a judge has accepted more than one assignment at the same time.
The government has accepted the resignation and said it would write to the Chief Justice to suggest a new retired judge to continue the Tehelka probe.