Not entirely right

Sarbendra Nath Shukla, the minister for Forest and Soil Conservation, Culture, Tourism and Civil Aviation, and Land Reform and Management, resigned Wednesday, following a protest lodged against him by the Commission for the Investigation of Abuse of Authority (CIAA) the day before. His sin was that he had made “unethical” testimony, affecting the dignity of the CIAA, in the Special Court as a witness for Rabindra Nath Sharma, a former finance minister charged by the CIAA with misappropriating nearly Rs.11 million by setting up fake informers and with using at least some of the money for buying MPs’ votes to help the then RPP-led government survive a no-trust motion. Shukla had testified that the charges against Sharma were “baseless” and “politically motivated.” Shukla had defended Sharma by saying that Sharma did not use the money for the purpose alleged during his ministerial tenure in 1995. The CIAA chief and commissioners had met Prime Minister Surya Bahadur Thapa, urging him to “take necessary action” against Shukla.

Though Shukla is quoted as saying that he resigned to “avoid the conflict between the Council of Ministers and the constitutional organ,” he would probably have given a different testimony if he had known that it would cost him his ministerial job. He was accused of trying to influence the case. But going by the law, a minister is not barred from making a testimony. It would be up to the court to decide on the matter, and if his testimony was wrong, the court could punish him for perjury. The CIAA and the Council of Ministers are two separate bodies with their functions, responsibilities and rights well-defined. It could well be argued that the CIAA as a plaintiff has prejudiced Sharma’s case by having his witness, who happened to be a minister, sacked just because it did not like his testimony. The CIAA may, in this instance, be criticised for acting as judge too, which it is not.

Shukla could have defended Sharma without questioning the CIAA’s intentions. He could not, however, be expected to defy the court orders for him to testify. As minister, he would have done better to avoid involving himself in this case in the first place. This would not have posed the moral question of whether a minister should testify in support of an accused against whom a constitutional body has filed a case of corruption. He had agreed to bear witness, perhaps, because he had been the RPP’s chief whip during the period concerned. To a certain extent, Prime Minister Thapa might have been in a dilemma because he happened to be the Prime Minister then, to save whose government the money was alleged to have been spent. In spite of all this, some other corrective step for setting a norm for the future would have been better.