What happens to innocent victims caught up in the securities scam of 1992?
Justice delayed, they say, is justice denied. In India, there is another element to this dictum. Even delayed justice is available only to those who can afford the best (and most expensive) legal counsel possible. While cases drag on for decades in courts, the cost of litigation has shot up exponentially. Senior counsel work with a support team that includes mid-level lawyers, juniors and solicitors that only corporates or super-rich individuals can afford. Some of us, including NGOs, are fortunate enough to benefit from the generosity of top lawyers and get high-quality help on a pro bono basis. Some are able to get even the SC’s attention, multiple times in quick bursts, sometimes even in the middle of the night. What happens to the vast majority who have no such access and are destroyed by the miscarriage of justice?
At a time, when the Supreme Court itself has admitted that the judicial system needs correction, it is time to highlight some of these cases and bring them to back to public attention. One victim of the 1992 scam is AN Bavdekar, a manager in charge of the vault at SBI’s main branch, who was told to counter-sign the cheques signed and issued by R Sitaraman in the treasury department.
Mr Sitaraman was the official who colluded with the late Harshad Mehta in allowing him access to the vast reservoir of funds at SBI. Mr Bavdekar, like his predecessor, continued the system of counter-signing these cheques, even while protesting that he had no knowledge about what was being signed. When the going was good, everybody ignored him—remember those were the days of cowboy banking! To his bad luck, the music stopped in April 1992; the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) stepped in and, suddenly, the rulebook became sacrosanct.
Mr Bavedekar was arrested along with Harshad Mehta and 13 others, none of whom he had met barring R Sitaraman, who colluded with the broker. He spent 107 days in jail before I even heard of his story. The superintendent of police (SP) in charge of investigations for the CBI agreed that Mr Bavdekar was an innocent trapped by events and that his name would be dropped when the charge-sheet was filed. But the SP died in a strange road accident soon after and it was years before the charge-sheet in the first case was even filed. Mr Bavedekar’s name was routinely put in the list of accused. The SBI Officers’ Union supported him strongly in the early days, but then delayed justice has a way of ensuring that such support also fades away when colleagues retire. A few brokers, who remain extremely wealthy, offered Mr Bavedekar financial support; but the man who is convicted of ‘corruption and collusion’ had refused their help. SBI terminated Mr Bavdekar’s services in 2000, on the day he was to retire. Even the dismissal letter clearly said, ‘‘There is no evidence to prove that the charged officer had any knowledge regarding the malafide intentions and dishonesty on the part of Shri Sitaraman.’’ It made no difference in court.
In 2006, the Special Court went by the book and convicted him. Consider this: Mr Sitaraman, a known Harshad Mehta crony, got a four-year jail term on 30th October, while Mr Bavdekar was given a five-year rigorous imprisonment. Harshad Mehta’s brothers were acquitted in the case, along with several others. So, Mr Bavdekar waits patiently for his matter to be heard by the apex court with a senior counsel having agreed to take up his case pro bono. A strange turn of fate has also given him access to a strong judicial mind who will hopefully help him when the case is finally heard. But who will ever compensate him for the lost 23 years, the huge costs, job loss, the ignominy and humiliation he has had to bear?