In a significant judgment, the Supreme Court held that a ‘deemed university’ will come under the ambit of Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988.
Holding thus, a three-judge bench comprising Justices N V Ramana, Mohan M Shantanagoudar and Ajay Rastogi set aside a judgment of the High Court of Gujarat, which allowed the discharge of trustees of a deemed university from the prosecution of a corruption case (State of Gujarat vs Mansukhbhai Kanjibhai Shah).
“We are of the opinion that the High Court was incorrect in holding that a “Deemed University” is excluded from the ambit of the term “University” under Section 2(c)(xi) of the PC Act”, held the SC.
The case pertained to allegations of demand of bribe of Rs 25 lakhs by the trustees of “‘Sumandeep Vidyapeeth”, a deemed university, for permitting a student to appear for the examination of MBBS course.
In 2017, charge sheet was filed against trustees for offences under Sections 7, 8, 10 and 13 (1)(b) and 13(2) of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 read with Section 109 of Indian Penal Code, 1860.
Though the accused moved a discharge petition under Section 227 of the Code of Criminal Procedure before the trial court, it got dismissed.
Challenging that, they filed criminal revision petition before the High Court. The HC allowed the revision petition on the ground that trustees of a deemed university will not be ‘public servants’ as per Section 2(c)(xi) of the PC Act.
The State of Gujarat approached the SC against the HC verdict.
Questions before the SC
The SC considered the following questions
Whether the respondent-trustee is a ‘public servant’ covered under Section 2(c) of the PC Act?
Whether the accused-respondent can be discharged under Section 227 of CrPC?
Section 2(c)(xi) of the PC Act defines “public servant”.
As per the provision, “public servant” means :
“(xi) any person who is a Vice-Chancellor or member of any governing body, professor, reader, lecturer or any other teacher or employee, by whatever designation called, of any University and any person whose services have been availed of by a University or any other public authority in connection with holding or conducting examinations”;
The issue before the SC was whether a “deemed university” was included under “any university”.
Technical definition under UGC Act cannot be imported into PC Act
The SC rejected the submission made on behalf of the respondent that only ‘University’ as defined under the UGC Act can be included under Section 2(c)(xi) of the PC Act.
“It is a settled law that technical definitions under one statute should not be imported to another statute which is not in pari materia with the first. The UGC Act and the PC Act are enactments which are completely distinct in their purpose, operation and object”, observed the judgment authored by Justice Ramana.
It was held that an independent meaning needs to be provided for the term “University” as occurring under the PC Act.
The Court also noted that the definition under Section 2(c)(xi) was inclusive in nature and the emphasis of the provision is to provide a general definition of “public servant”.
The bench further adverted to the objective of the PC Act, which is to weed out corruption and bribery and to make the same applicable to individuals who might conventionally not be considered public servants.
Keeping in mind this objective, the court said, “it cannot be stated that a “Deemed University” and the officials therein, perform any less or any different a public duty, than those performed by a University simpliciter, and the officials therein”
“The object of the PC Act was not only to prevent the social evil of bribery and corruption, but also to make the same applicable to individuals who might conventionally not be considered public servants. The purpose under the PC Act was to shift focus from those who are traditionally called public officials, to those individuals who perform public duties. Keeping the same in mind, as rightly submitted by the learned senior counsel for the appellant-State, it cannot be stated that a “Deemed University” and the officials therein, perform any less or any different a public duty, than those performed by a University simpliciter, and the officials therein”
The bench also referred to the SC decision CBI v. Ramesh Gelli, (2016) 3 SCC 788, which held that Directors and Officers of a private bank before can be classified as public servants for prosecution under the PC Act.
In order to appreciate the amplitude of the word “public servant”, the relevance of the term “public duty” was noted.
“Public duty” is defined under Section 2(b) of the PC Act,as below:
2(b) ‘public duty’ means a duty in the discharge of which the State, the public or the community at large has an interest.
In this backdrop, the Court observed :
“Evidently, the language of Section 2(b) of the PC Act indicates that any duty discharged wherein State, the public or community at large has any interest is called a public duty”
On facts as well, the Court noted that a prima facie case was made out, as many incriminating documents were seized. The Court therefore added that the HC erred in making a “roving enquiry” while exercising revisional powers with respect to a discharge plea under Section 227, CrPC.
Justice Ajay Rastogi, in his separate but concurring judgment, noted :
“When the legislature has introduced such a comprehensive definition of “public servant” to achieve the purpose of punishing and curbing the growing menace of corruption in the society imparting public duty, it would be apposite not to limit the contents of the definition clause by construction which would be against the spirit of the statute”
Title : State of Gujarat vs Mansukhbhai Kanjibhai Shah
Case No : Criminal Appeal No.989/2019
Coram : Justices N V Ramana, Mohan M Shantanagoudar, Ajay Rastogi
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