As the Supreme Court puts the brakes on the Commission inquiring into late Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa’s demise, the Commission falls back on inapplicable clauses in the RTI Act to deny information
The Lede’s RTI query on how much public money the Arumughaswamy Commission has spent so far in investigating the demise of late Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa has turned up nought. The state government either does not know or have the details, and the Commission itself hid behind the RTI Act’s confidentiality clause to withhold this information.
The Commission’s response on behalf of “Hon’ble Mr Justice” Arumughaswamy though generously gave out information about the demise of “late Hon’ble Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Selvi J Jayalalithaa” that was not sought by The Lede.
On Friday, the Supreme Court issued an interim stay on all proceedings of the Arumughaswamy Commission which is inquiring into the demise of late Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa.
“The Supreme Court today stayed all further proceedings of the Arumughaswamy Commision,” said Maimoona Badsha, counsel for Apollo Hospitals. “It brings relief to Apollo Hospitals and the team of more than 50 doctors who attended on the late Chief Minister. The Hon’ble Madras High Court had already held that the Commission was conducting the proceedings in a “bizarre” and “disturbing” manner. However it did not interfere with the continuance of the Commission. Aggrieved, Apollo Hospital filed an appeal before the Hon’ble Supreme Court and an interim stay has been ordered,” she said.
The Lede has consistently been tracking the inside details of the Arumughaswamy Commission’s confidential proceedings.
The lack of judicial rigour, non-adherence to professional standards in terms of keeping records, complaints of browbeating and harassing of witnesses and selective leakage of “conspiracy theories” without basis in fact, have all been pointed out in our reportage thus far.
Read about The Six Faces of the Arumughaswamy Commission here: https://www.thelede.co.in/tamil-nadu/2019/01/01/exclusive-six-faces-arumughaswamy-commission
The Commission, which began hearings on 27 October 2017 and was given a time-frame of one year to complete the enquiry, has so far asked for and received four extensions.
The first extension was for a period of six months from 25 December 2017.
The second extension was for four months from 25 June 2018.
The third extension it got was for four months from 25 October 2018.
The fourth extension, which the Commission is currently on, is for four months from 25 February 2019. This would end on 24 June this year.
The Commission, which was set up as a precondition for the merger of the warring AIADMK (All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam) factions, was given two terms of reference by the state government:
· “To inquire into the circumstances leading to Jayalalithaa’s hospitalisation on September 22, 2016”
· “Treatment provided till her death on December 5, 2016”
Disagreements soon began between the retired judge heading the Commission, the counsel for Jayalalithaa’s confidante VK Sasikala as well as the counsel for Apollo Hospitals.
Soon enough, doctors who had treated the late Chief Minister and deposed about their line of treatment began to protest against the Commission’s questioning, poor record keeping as well as refusal to make corrections to blatantly wrong medical facts in their depositions.
Read about How Corrections to Witness Testimony were Erased by the Arumughaswamy Commission here: https://www.thelede.co.in/tamil-nadu/2019/01/03/corrections-witness-testimony-erased-arumughaswamy-commission
The Commission then went on to publicly accuse Apollo Hospitals and then Health Secretary J Radhakrishnan of “conspiracy” and “collusion” in Jayalalithaa’s death, with little to back up that claim. Ministers of the ruling party took the cue and bayed for blood of the senior bureaucrat as well.
Read about the mysterious doctors referred to by the Arumughaswamy Commission to accuse the state Health Secretary of “conspiracy” and “collusion” here: https://www.thelede.co.in/tamil-nadu/2019/01/03/corrections-witness-testimony-erased-arumughaswamy-commission
Apollo Hospitals then knocked at the doors of the Madras High Court, which, on April 04, rejected the hospital’s objections to the Commission and its line of questioning.
Read about the Madras HC order and a crucial omission by the court here: https://www.thelede.co.in/politicking/2019/04/04/madras-hc-sidesteps-32-doctors-complaints-arumughaswamy-commission
Friday marks the completion of a year and a half of the Arumughaswamy Commission’s hearings. The Lede wanted to find out how much of taxpayer money had gone into expenditure incurred by the Commission.
To this end, we sent RTI applications to the state Finance Department, Law Department, Health Department and the Chief Minister’s Cell.
The RTI application had the following questions.
1. Please provide details of the expenditure incurred by the Retd Justice Arumughaswamy Commission enquiring into the facts leading up to the hospitalisation and demise of late Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa.
2. Kindly provide break up of expenses incurred by the Arumughaswamy Commission from the date of inception till date.
3. How many extensions have been granted to the Commission and on which dates and for how long have they been granted?
4. Kindly provide details of the number of sittings and/or hearings of the Arumughaswamy Commission from the date of inception till date.
5. Kindly provide details of the number of witnesses examined by the Arumughaswamy Commission till date.
6. Kindly provide access to inspection of all relevant files relating to the Arumughaswamy Commission
From the Finance and Law departments as well as the CM’s Cell, The Lede’s RTI application was forwarded to the Public Department. The Health department simply said they had nothing to do with the queries asked.
The Public Department, which deals with budget and expenditure for the Commission, gave details of the extensions granted to the Commission but redirected the rest of the queries to the Commission itself. It is unclear as to whether the Public Department was unaware of or disinclined to divulge the details of expenses incurred by the Commission.
And finally, on April 09, a response arrived from the Arumughaswamy Commission. The queries regarding expenditure incurred by the Commission thus far, were denied with this explanation – “I am also to inform that the reply regarding the remaining questions are confidential in nature, and as the investigation is still going on and in process, it is not feasible to furnish reply to your RTI petition at present.”
Activists who are well informed about the RTI Act say that this excuse does not hold water.
“If the disclosure of certain information will hamper the investigation – only then can they withhold that information under Section 8 (1) (H) of the RTI Act. Matters of administration, like finances, will not come under this exception of the Act. This information must be provided under Section 2 (f) of the RTI Act.”said Jayaram Venkatesan of non-profit Arappor Iyakkam to The Lede.
Curiously the Commission’s response also arbitrarily made statements that were not requested for in the RTI application.
For instance, excerpts from affidavits, complaints and petitions from the public have been included to “prove” that “allegations were leveled against Dr Pratap C Reddy, Chairman, Apollo Hospital and his daughter Dr Sangeetha Reddy, for having colluded together with Mrs VK Sasikala, then Ministers and other MLAs leading to the demise of the late Hon’ble Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Selvi J Jayalalithaa…” There were no queries in the original RTI petition regarding the same.
The Commission then goes on to provide lessons in nomenclature to The Lede – namely that the retired judge must be addressed as “Hon’ble Mr Justice” and the late Jayalalithaa as “late Hon’ble Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu Selvi J Jayalalithaa”. These rules, says the Commission, must be followed if a reply is required of the Commission.
“The Commission has no business saying how she (Jayalalithaa) should be addressed. If the Commission itself is saying such a thing, then it shows that the Commission is biased.”said activist Jayaram Venkatesan.