Shocked over the acquittal of minister Ponmudy, Madras HC initiates suo motu proceedings

Justice N Anand Venkatesh called for the case records and ordered notice to Villupuram's vigilance and anti-graft wing, Ponmudy, and his wife.

ByVinodh Arulappan

Published Aug 11, 2023 | 3:43 AM Updated Oct 09, 2023 | 9:42 PM

Shocked over the acquittal of minister Ponmudy, Madras HC initiates suo motu proceedings

For the first time in the judicial history of the Madras High Court, it took up a suo motu case against an order passed by a special court for the cases relating to MPs and MLA.

The special court acquitted Tamil Nadu Higher Education Minister K Ponmudy and his relatives in a disproportionate assets case.

Justice N Anand Venkatesh, the judge holding the portfolio for cases relating to MPs and MLAs, called for the records related to the case.

He also ordered notices to be sent to the Vigilance and Anti-Corruption Wing of the Viluppuram district, Ponmudy, and his wife P Visalakshi.

Also read: ED seized ₹81.7 lakh cash, GBP worth ₹13 lakh from Ponmudy

The facts of the case

Ponmudy was the minister of transport in the DMK government between 13 May, 1996, and 30 September, 2001.

During this period, the minister allegedly acquired and came into possession of properties and other pecuniary resources — in his name and the names of his wife and sons — that were disproportionate to his known sources of income.

An FIR was registered by the Cuddalore village Anti-Corruption Department on 14 March, 2002, under Section 109 of the IPC read with Sections 13(1)(e) and 13(2) of the Prevention of Corruption Act of 1988 against Ponmudy (accused number 1, or A1), his wife Visalakshi (A2), his mother-in-law P Saraswathi (A3), and friends A Manivannan (A4) and A Nandagopal (A5).

After completion of the investigation, Cuddalore’s deputy superintendent of police (DSP) of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption submitted a final report against the accused before the chief judicial magistrate-level special judge in Villupuram. The case was thereafter taken on file as Special Case 3 of 2003.

The prosecution recorded the statements of 228 witnesses and collected 318 documents, which were produced before the special judge.

Ponmudy and others filed a case before the special judge to discharge them from the case, and it was allowed by the special court on 21 July, 2004.

The state’s Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption (DVAC) filed an appeal in the Madras High Court against the order. On 11 August, 2006, the high court upheld the order of the special judge.

The matter was carried on appeal to the Supreme Court. On 10 December, 2010, the Supreme Court set aside the order of the lower court and the high court.

The case was revived and the accused — including the minister — was directed to appear before the special court on 3 February, 2014.

On 31 March, 2015, the trial court framed charges against the ministers and others. Meanwhile, the minister’s mother-in-law Saraswathi and his friend Nandagopal died and were discharged from the case.

Also read: ED raids properties of TN Higher Education Minister K Ponmudy

More recent developments

The case was transferred to Villupuram’s principal district judge (in the Designated Special Court for the Trial of Criminal Cases relating to elected members of Parliament and members of the Legislative Assembly of Tamil Nadu).

  • On 26 April, 2022, the principal district judge wrote a letter to the high court requesting permission to conduct a special sitting during the holidays of the court on 2, 4, 5, and 6 May that year from 10 am to noon for expeditious completion of the case.
  • On 7 June, 2022, the then administrative judges of Villupuram refused permission to conduct a special sitting and directed the special court judge, through an official memorandum, not to take the case until further orders.
  • On 12 July, 2022, based on the recommendation of the then administrative judge, the case was transferred from the Villupuram special court to the principal district judge of Vellore.
  • On 20 October, 2022, the principal district judge of Vellore wrote to the registrar general of the high court that the case files had been received and that a new case number (Special Case No 3 of 2022) was assigned.
  • On 23 January, 2023, the prosecution witnesses were examined.
  • On 10 April, the minister and his wife were questioned and they submitted a written statement.
  • On 28 June, 2023, the special court acquitted Ponmudy and others in the case.

Related: Special court acquits him in 1998 land-grab case

‘Shocking and calculated attempt’

Justice Anand Venkatesh, who took over the case, stated that a case which had thus far been languishing for years started to move with great alacrity by 6 June, 2023.

“Perhaps, the accused drew inspiration from Paulo Coelho who said that ‘when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it’. By the first week of June 2023, the celestial stars of the accused appeared to be lining up perfectly, with the blessings of judicial personages, including the principal district judge of Vellore, who was set to demit office on 30 June, 2023”, the judge noted.

Pointing out that the Defence Witness (DW-1) was quickly examined on the side of the defence on 6 June, and written submissions were made on the side of the accused on 23 June, the judge said: “On 28 June, ie., within four days, the principal district judge of Vellore marshalled the evidence of 172 prosecution witnesses and 381 documents and managed (or rather stage-managed) to deliver a 226-page testament/judgment acquitting all the accused.”

He added that this “unique feat of industry” on the part of the principal district Judge of Vellore could “find few parallels, and it may well be said is a feat that even judicial mortals in constitutional courts can only dream of”.

The judge also noted: “Two days thereafter, on 30 June, the principal district judge of Vellore retired and cheerfully rode off into the sunset.”

Expressing shock over the pace of the case, Justice Anand Venkatesh said, “The narrative reveals a shocking and calculated attempt to manipulate and subvert the criminal justice system. Having examined the record, I find that there is not even a speck of legality on anything that has been done on and from 7 June, 2023, when the high court administration injuncted the principal district judge of Villupuram from proceeding with the case.”

He added: “The dubious and curious process of transfer followed by the trial and judgment of the principal district judge of Vellore are wholly illegal and are nullities in the eyes of law.”

Also read: ED has the power to arrest a person, Madras HC is told

Questions posed by the judge

Finding that there was “a calculated attempt to undermine and thwart the administration of criminal justice”, Justice Anand Venkatesh exercised his powers under Sections 397 and 401 of the CrPC and Article 227 of the Constitution and took the case suo motu, posing several questions.

“There are several questions looming large. The first amongst these is: Where did the high court get the power to issue an official memorandum injuncting the principal district judge of Villupuram from proceeding with the case?” the judge asked.

He further said: “What was the tearing hurry to restrain the principal judge of Villupuram from hearing a corruption case which had been pending for years? In any event, the use of an official memorandum to restrain a principal district court from exercising judicial functions is something unheard of”

Stating that the power of administrative Superintendence under Article 227 was vested in the high court, ie, the full court and not in any individual judge, the judge asked: “Where did the administrative committee, comprising two high court Judges, get the power on the administrative side to transfer a pending criminal case from one district to another, and that too by way of a note?”

He added: “It is clear that where manifest illegality by a criminal court resulting in gross failure of justice comes to the notice of the high court, it is the bounden duty of the high court as a constitutional court to set right the illegality and to ensure that public confidence in the criminal justice system is maintained.”

The suo motu case was posted for hearing on 7 September.