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Trustee of a private trust running deemed university is a 'Public Servant' - liable for corruption under PC Act: SC

The SC on April 27, 2020 {State of Gujarat v. Mansukhbhai Kanjibhai Shah} held that presently, it can be stated that corruption in India has become an issue which affects all walks of life. In this context, it was observed by the SC that although anti­-corruption laws are fairly stringent in India, the percolation and enforcement of the same are sometimes criticized as being ineffective. It was held that due to this, the constitutional aspirations of economic and social justice are sacrificed on a daily basis. 

It was further held by the SC Bench, comprising of Justice N.V. Ramana, Justice Ajay Rastogi &  Justice Mohan M. Shantanagoudar, that the language of Section 2(b) of the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 (in short 'PC Act') indicates that any duty discharged wherein State, the public or community at   large   has   any   interest   is   called   a   public   duty. It was held that the   first explanation to Section 2 further clarifies that any person who falls in any of the categories stated under Section 2 is a public servant whether or not appointed by the government. It was further held that the second explanation further expands the ambit to include every person who de facto discharges the functions of a public servant, and that he should not be prevented from being brought under the ambit   of   public   servant   due   to   any   legal   infirmities   or technicalities.

It was held that there is no gainsaying that nations are built upon trust and it is inevitable that in a democracy one needs to rely on those with power and influence and to trust them of being transparent and fair. It was held that there is no doubt that any action which is driven by the self-interest   of   these   powerful   individuals, rather   than   the   public interest,   destroys   that   trust.   Where   this   becomes   the   norm, democracy, the economy and the rule of law, all take a beating, ultimately putting the whole nation at risk. It was held that Corrupt societies often   spring   from   the   examples   set   at   the   highest   levels   of government, but small­-scale corruption can be equally insidious. In   this   regard, it was observed that  the   PC   Act   was   formulated   to   bring   about transparency   and   honesty   in   public   life,   as   indicated   by   its objects and reasons.  

The questions which arose before the SC in present case were: i. Whether the   respondent-­trustee is a   ‘public   servant’ covered under Section 2(c) of the PC Act?; ii. Whether   the   accused­-respondent   can   be   discharged under Section 227 of CrPC?

It was held by the SC that 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. It was observed that 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. It was held that 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.

It was, therefore, held by the SC, 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. 

It was held by the SC that in the present case, on a prima­ facie evaluation of the statements of  Gaurav   D.   Mehta   (the   Vice­-Chancellor);   Mr. Pragneshkumar   Rameshbhai   Trivedi   (account   officer   of Sumandeep   Vidhyapith   University)   and   other   witnesses,   it appears that the present respondent was the final authority with regard to the grant of admission, collection of fees and donation amount.

It was held that the   charge   sheet   specifically   discloses   that   the   respondent allegedly was collecting certain extra amount over the prescribed fees   on   the   pretext   of   allowing   the   students   to   fill   up   their examination forms. It was held that therefore, paying the respondent the alleged amount was a condition precedent before filling up the forms, to appear for the examinations. It was observed, that specifically, in the complaint, it was alleged that the respondent had demanded an amount of Rupees Twenty Lakhs to be paid to the co-accused Bharat Savant, failing which the daughter of the complainant would not have been permitted to appear in the examination. It was held that the fact that there were a large number of cheques which were found during   the   raid   is   more   than   sufficient   to   establish   a   grave suspicion as to the commission of the alleged offence.

It was further held that the respondent has vehemently stressed upon the fact that he is admittedly a trustee of the “Sumandeep Charitable Trust” and has   no   connection   with   the   “Sumandeep   University”. It was held by the SC that it ought to be noted that the courts below have failed to analyze the connection between the trust and the University, as well as the relationship of the respondent with the university. It was held that prima facie, a grave suspicion is made out that the respondent was rendering his service by dealing with the students and the examination aspect of the University. Prima facie case is made out against the respondent.

It was further held that the jurisdiction of the Court, with regards to Section 227 of CrPC, is limited and should not be excercised by conducting roving enquiries on the aspect of factual inferences. 

Therefore, it was held by the SC that this case is not an appropriate one to have exercised the power under Section 227 to discharge the accused-respondent herein, having regards to the facts and circumstances of the case. The trial court was directed to proceed with the case expeditiously by the SC. Accordingly, the impugned judgment of the High Court was set aside and the appeal was allowed by the SC.

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