The punishing, tiring 16-year long pursuit to jail the culprits, the Maran brothers of Sun TV fame, in the infamous telephone exchange fraud case exposed 10 years back, is still on.

By S Gurumurthy

The punishing, tiring 16-year long pursuit to jail the culprits, the Maran brothers of Sun TV fame, in the infamous telephone exchange fraud case exposed 10 years back, is still on.

And it is seemingly unending. The case of the fraud discovered in 2007, kept buried till 2011, filed in 2016, and blocked several times, has hit a roadblock again.

The buccaneers first used their huge political, media and financial clout and stalled the CBI from filing a first information report (FIR).

After the FIR was finally filed, the Marans began misusing the judicial process itself to delay the trial. After crossing all impediments, with the trial in its last lap, a critical judicial delay seems to open an escape route for them now.

A long recall is needed to know how all efforts to catch the culprits may get frustrated after all. 

Case in Supreme Court for the sixth time

It was indeed a daring crime. Dayanidhi Maran as telecom minister got installed in his twin homes in Chennai, a secret and un-billable telephone exchange outside the system, that had 756 multimedia high-speed telephone lines.

A fraud on his own ministry and government, it was also a national security risk to keep a huge phone system off the record. Uncovered by an honest CBI Inspector in 2007, the fraud lay deep in the UPA government, till The New Indian Express exposed it in 2011, causing the explosive exit of Dayanidhi from the ministry. But, with their pronounced media might, political clout and money power, the Marans — with whose names echo the infamous Italian politician Silvio Berlusconi — thwarted the probe even after the exposure. 

That forced this writer to petition the Supreme Court in 2013 to direct the CBI to file an FIR. Cornered, the CBI had to — six years after it had itself found out the fraud and three years after the NIE exposed it.

The CBI chargesheeted the Marans in 2016. But they began an unending procession of vexatious proxy litigations to thwart the trial. They took the case to the highest court four times – once in 2015, twice in 2018, and once in 2019. 

Finally the trial began. Again they faked litigation to stop the CBI from further probing the case and adding Sun TV, the beneficiary of fraud, as an accused, which is its right in law.

That landed the case again in March last – for the sixth time in eight years – in the highest court where it is pending for listing for nine months.

Here is the frustrating story of the decade long gruelling chase to bring the culprits to book, and where it stands now. 

Delay, by political clout

The daring CBI Inspector S B Shankar who uncovered the fraud was a simple man. He lived in a single bedroom apartment in Rajaji Bhavan in Besant Nagar in Chennai, cooking his own food, washing the utensils.

He rode on his rickety scooter everyday to the CBI office in Shastri Bhavan, 11 km away. Direct and indirect threats did not deter him. 

Later, in an act of revenge, a disgraceful attempt by some pliant CBI officers to fake a case of a lapse in some investigation to fix the honest inspector failed miserably.

Shankar had unearthed four facts which firmly fixed the Marans.

One, misusing his position as telecom minister Dayanidhi got installed off the record some 400 high-speed telephone lines in his new palatial home with almost similar numbers in his old ancestral house.

Two, all lines were kept fraudulently in the name of the Chief General Manager, Chennai Telephones, outside the billing system and so were free of cost.

Three, the 400 high-speed lines installed in the new home were connected by underground cable to the Sun TV network a short distance away and used for its show business. Four, the fraudulent phone system had caused a loss of Rs 440 crore to the public. 

The NIE brought out Shankar’s report on June 2, 2011, in an exposure headlined ‘Minister Steals a Telephone Exchange and Loots BSNL.’

The next day, blatantly lying he had only one line, not hundreds, Maran threatened the NIE with a damage suit for `10 crore. Challenging him to file it, the NIE wrote, ‘Welcome Mr Maran.’

Four days later, the NIE finally nailed Maran’s lies by publishing the photocopy of BSNL file notings, which established the existence of the fraudulent home telephone exchange and shut his mouth. 

With the CBI still unmoving, this writer mailed all evidence to the then CBI director A P Singh on 15.12.2012 and asked him to file an FIR.

Being of questionable integrity, which got exposed in the aftermath of the 2G spectrum case, he did not even acknowledge the mail.

This writer met other CBI officials and briefed them, but to no avail. Only after a writ plea in the Supreme Court did the CBI file the FIR. By then, the Marans’ political clout had delayed it by more than six years.

Delay, by vexatious cases

The CBI began hesitantly, gathered pace, moved and got Dayanidhi Maran’s anticipatory bail cancelled by the High Court in August 2015.

Maran forthwith moved the Supreme Court, got his arrest stayed and avoided custodial interrogation that is so necessary for the CBI to get at the truth.

Finally, after probing with its hands tied, the CBI filed a less than complete chargesheet in end-2016.

The Marans had other plans. Through proxies, they sought discharge by the trial court. By a perverse order in March 2018, the trial judge obliged them. Marans threw cocktails and abused the NIE and this writer in the vilest terms. But the joy they bought was short lived.

Bad for them, the CBI petition to overthrow the trial court order came before an upright, courageous judge, Justice Jayachandran.

His aroused judicial conscience exploded on the trial court. Justice Jayachandran who saw “error, illegality and perversity all over the trial court order” called it “perverse” more than once in his judgment.

The dictionary meaning of perverse is “turning away from what is right or good: corrupt”.

But despite the resounding slap, the Marans wouldn’t give up. Through proxies again, they headed to the Supreme Court, which threw them out in July 2018. The trial started in August.

In September again, the proxies moved the High Court, which showed them the door. They moved the highest court again in November. It bundled them out in January 2019.

Trial commenced again in March 2019. The proxies again challenged it in the High Court, which rejected it. They again moved the SC, which too closed the gate.

While all these proxy efforts failed except to delay, the present proxy effort might not just stop at delaying the case, but help the buccaneers escape altogether.

Paradox – further probe shut, Sun TV out, but trial on

The CBI, which had not done a complete investigation, began probing for further evidence for which it had undisputed right in law.

Headed by an honest director, the CBI had made an application to the trial court to probe further, to gather more evidence and to add Sun TV as accused – first wrongly kept out by the CBI thanks to Marans’ clout.

Marans’ proxies argued that as the CBI could not produce further evidence under the law, no further probe was needed.

But noting that more evidence could not be produced without probe, and further investigation was needed to add Sun TV as accused, the trial judge allowed CBI’s plea in a reasoned 26-page order in January last. Panicked, the Marans forthwith moved the High Court.

Strangely, the High Court ordered that further evidence might be produced during the trial but further probe was not needed.

The result was a total paradox – further probe is shut, Sun TV is out, but the trial should go on even if the CBI moved the Supreme Court.

The CBI rushed to the top court quickly against the paradoxical order, to get approval for its probe to add Sun TV as accused.

But nine months have passed and the case has not even been listed by the registry for hearing. Meanwhile, the trial is going on in Chennai.

The Marans who were trying to stop the trial earlier have begun furiously expediting trial without further probe and without Sun TV being added as accused.

The CBI desperately needs the case listed in the SC to get further probe okayed, add Sun TV as accused and to stop the trial till then. But the registry seems unmoving. 

Many commercial litigations filed later have been heard and disposed of. Being in power in Tamil Nadu, the Marans are racing to close the trial before the top court takes up the case.

If they succeed — they will if the CBI petition before the SC is not listed and heard — Sun TV will escape prosecution and the Marans might escape going to jail. Will judicial delay finally allow the Marans and Sun TV to escape?

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