A feeling of elation, mixed with fear, descended upon the Jha family on Tuesday when a Delhi court convicted Union coal minister Shibu Soren. From hiding in forests of Giridih and Hazaribagh during his campaign against moneylenders to occupying the coveted chair of Union coal minister twice Shibu Soren is the first minister in India’s history to be declared guilty of murder while holding office. The main Opposition BJP on Tuesday renewed its assault on the government over “criminalisation” of the Cabinet and demanded that all the “tainted” ministers be asked to go. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh Tuesday lost no time in securing the resignation of Coal Minister Shibu Soren after a court convicted him. 

The outrage is not just that Manmohan Singh’s Cabinet had a alleged murder occuppying an office of power but that the alleged murder was to silence  Shashi Nath Jha, private secretary of Jharkhand Mukti Morcha (JMM) chief Shibu Soren because he was aware of an alleged deal between the Congress party and JMM to save the then PV Narasimha Rao Government in which Manmohan Singh was the Finance Minister.

So Offstumped asks the question of Manmohan Singh

Mr. Prime Minister What did you know and when ?

The JMM Bribery Case was one of many high profile political scandals that errupted during the 1990s reign of PV Narasimha Rao.

A trial court had convicted Narasimha Rao in the case in October 2000. The Judge of the trial court, Ajit Bharihoke, had found both him and his Home Minister, Buta Singh, guilty of entering into a criminal conspiracy between themselves and with others to abet Members of Parliament to demand and accept bribes in lieu of support to the minority Congress(I) government headed by him during the voting on a no-confidence motion (Frontline, October 27, 2000). The motion moved by the Opposition in the Lok Sabha on July 26, 1993, was provoked by several factors, including the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. Both Narasimha Rao and Buta Singh were sentenced to three years’ rigorous imprisonment and a fine of Rs.2 lakhs each under Section 12 of the Prevention of Corruption Act and Section 120-B of the Indian Penal Code.

The irony of this case was that the Bribe Givers and not the Bribe Takers were subject to crimimal prosecution. This constitutional atrophy arises from the Supreme Court which in 1998, a five-member Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court, in a split decision, upheld the immunity enjoyed by MPs from legal proceedings for their speeches or vote in Parliament. The majority decision, delivered in response to a petition filed by some of the accused in the JMM bribery case, meant that all those who cast their votes in the Lok Sabha, including the bribe-takers in the JMM case, enjoyed the protection of Article 105. However, bribe-givers, even if they were MPs, could be prosecuted.

Well in the JMM case however the bribe givers were acquitted too before long. On March 15 2002 the a Delhi High Court Judge Sodhi acquited Narasimha Rao and Buta Singh of any wrong doing on the grounds that the chief witness Suresh Mahato was an unreliable witness. Narasimha Rao has since passed away and the this entire travesty on Indian Democracy and the Constitution has been long forgotten, till Shibu Soren’s high crimes and misdemeanours caught up with him.

The interesting thing to this case is the fact that the trial court had held that Mahato’s testimony was fully corroborated by the statements of the officers of the Punjab National Bank (PNB) and the records of the bank. Bharihoke held that Mahato could not be treated as a wholly unreliable witness. Relying on the testimony of officers of the Nauroji Nagar (New Delhi) branch of the PNB and an examination of the bank’s records, Bharihoke concluded that on August 1 and 2, 1993, Rs.1,62,80,000 was deposited in various accounts in the names of the four JMM MPs and their family members and also in a joint account of the MPs. Mahato claimed that the MPs were offered the bribe so that they would vote against the no-confidence motion. The trial court found Mahato’s version credible because the main beneficiary of the defeat of the motion was Narasimha Rao.

So now that we know that Shibu Soren was responsible for the murder of his secretary and that the motive of the murder was his knowledge of the above bribery, Offstumped poses the question on how can the Congress Party get away with its past actions of condoning murder and corruption to save its government. More specifically Offstumped poses the question to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who was an important member of the Cabinet that indulged in this bribery on whether he had knowledge of this bribery, if he condoned it and if not why did he keep his silence over the years on this issue or where was his consicence in not resigning immideately from the Narasimha Rao Cabinet to uphold morality in public life.

Offstumped Bottomline: The UPA Government’s track record on upholding probity in public life is disgraceful. Having condoned blatantly unconstitutional and unapologetically criminal actions by actors from Lalu Yadav to Buta Singh and now Shibu Soren, the Manmohan Singh Sonia Gandhi dispensation has lost all credibility on this front. The Teflon coating that the Prime Minister has wrapped himself around in is in danger of wearing away as questions arise on if the motive of the murder was knowledge of the bribery, where is the accountability for the bribery ?

What indeed did you know Mr. Prime Minister and when ?

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