The Justice Sikri controversy, explained

Within days of voting for CBI chief Alok Verma’s re-removal, Supreme Court Justice Arjan Kumar Sikri landed himself in a huge stir over his decision, leading him to turn down a lucrative retirement offer reportedly by the Narendra Modi-led government.

Withdrawing his consent for a nomination to the London-based Secretariat Arbitral Tribunal (CSAT), an international panel meant for arbitration among Commonwealth countries, Sikri told the Indian Express that he was “pained” by the linking of his nomination to the CSAT and the CBI panel decision to transfer Verma. “I don’t want the controversy to be dragged. I want it to die,” he said shortly after writing to the Law Ministry to be taken off the prestigious posting.

Stung by controversy

Senior lawyers with Sikri, saying it is unfair to target after critics and opposition alleged that the centre was rewarding Sikri for his “.” Former Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi slammed some “activist-lawyers” for allegedly maligning the judge on social media. Other condemned the manner in which the treatment of Sikri denigrated the highest judicial body in the country.

The government too was taken by surprise, official sources since Sikri’s consent for the overseas assignment was obtained early December, almost a month before the Chief Justice of India nominated him to the high-powered CBI selection panel.

Here’s what happened

The Centre had first sent Verma packing in a surreptitious move in October, following allegations of corruption traded between the CBI chief and his second-in-command Rakesh Asthana, which unfolded in public eye as a riveting internal crisis at the nodal investigation agency.

The apex court earlier this month reversed this move, saying that there is no provision in which permitted the government to divest the CBI director of his powers and functions without prior consent from a high-powered select committee. Justice Sikri was unceremoniously nominated to the panel and played an instrumental role in removing Verma from his position again, last week.

Verma’s final ouster

The controversy stems from the fact that Sikri was not even supposed to be on the panel, which was ordered by the Supreme Court who reinstated the exiled CBI director to his former position on January 8. The bench had left the final call to be taken by a high-powered select committee comprising the Prime Minister, CJI Ranjan Gogoi, and the leader of the opposition Mallikarjun Kharge. But Justice Gogoi stepped down due to undisclosed reasons the day before the crucial vote, following which Justice Sikri, the second senior-most judge of the Supreme Court, took his place in the panel. Voting in of Verma’s ouster, Sikri took the outcome to 2:1 (Kharge had cast the opposing vote).

No correlation, claims Sikri

Days after the decisive vote, which shocked political and bureaucratic circles alike, the news of Sikri’s nomination for president of the Commonwealth Tribunal broke. The beleaguered judge, set to retire from the Supreme Court on March 6, has vehemently denied any correlation between the CSAT offer and his decision on the CBI matter.

Turning down the offer, Sikri, in a letter to the government on Sunday, said: “I am at pain to note in some quarters my aforesaid nomination is being connected with certain developments which happened a couple of days ago even though there is no correlation. Be that it may I do not want any such controversy to take place even when it is totally misconceived. I, therefore, withdraw my consent.”

It is worth noting that Justice Sikri had exemplified his lack of bias during the Karnataka Assembly elections when he was a part of a hurriedly-assembled Supreme Court Bench. It had curtailed the window for the floor test, expressing apprehensions of horse-trading in a ruling that dashed the BJP’s hopes of winning a majority.

On the subject of his nomination to the CSAT, sources say it was Asia’s turn in the Commonwealth body this year and Sikri’s appointment to the body would have meant his active involvement in dispute resolution.

Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius

Alok VermaCBIJustice AK Sikri