A sensational trap and a curious exoneration: The Madal Virupakshappa case

The Karnataka High Court’s decision absolving former BJP MLA Madal Virupakshappa in a corruption case without scrutinising the investigating agency’s final report, is a setback to the anti-corruption law and agencies.
Madal Virupakshappa
Madal Virupakshappa
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On March 2, 2023, news broke out that Karnataka’s Lokayukta Police had trapped sitting MLA Madal Virupakshappa’s son Prashanth while accepting a bribe of Rs 40 lakh. Later that evening, the trap paled into insignificance when the Lokayukta Police raided Prashanth’s house and seized more than Rs 6 crore in cash. The First Information Report (FIR) named Virupakshappa as the first accused who instructed the bribe-giver/complainant to meet Prashanth in connection with official favours. The officers arrested Prashanth immediately and he was jailed pursuant to the orders of the Special Court. A few weeks later, Madal Virupakshappa was arrested soon after the Karnataka High Court rejected his plea for anticipatory bail. 

In a surprising turn of events, on December 20, the Karnataka High Court quashed the FIR and investigation against Virupakshappa. The court even opined that permitting further proceedings would amount to “abuse of the process of law, degenerate into harassment, and ultimately result in miscarriage of justice”. While the court has permitted the Lokayukta Police to continue the investigation against the other accused, the relief granted to Virupakshappa is a deviation from settled principles regulating the High Court’s power to quash cases, even before the trial begins.

What led to the trap and raid?

Examining the series of events that led to the trap and the subsequent raid is essential to appreciate why the judgement is problematic. Apart from being a Member of the Legislative Assembly representing Channagiri, Virupakshappa was the Chairman of Karnataka Soaps and Detergents Limited (KSDL), which is a government company. In his complaint to the Lokayukta Police, the complainant stated that his company was one of the bidders in the tender proceedings initiated for the procurement of raw materials by KSDL. The complainant and his acquaintance allegedly met Virupakshappa in connection with the tender and prompt payments for the materials supplied. The complainant alleged that during this meeting, Virupakshappa instructed them to meet his son Prashanth and finalise the ‘commission’ that they would have to pay. Interestingly, Prashanth was working as the Chief Accountant of the Bengaluru Water Supply and Sewerage Board (BWSSB), and not in KSDL.

When the complainant met Prashanth, he is alleged to have demanded a bribe of Rs 81 lakh. The complainant also alleged that Prashanth called him several times via WhatsApp and discussed the bribery. Eventually, the complainant approached the Lokayukta Police, who registered an FIR and trapped Prashanth soon after he accepted a part of the bribe. Thereafter, they raided Prashanth’s house and seized more than Rs 6 crore from a room. The ‘panchnama’ (report) prepared by the police stated that the room belonged to Virupakshappa. 

While rejecting Virupakshappa’s plea for anticipatory bail, the High Court observed, “It is also an admitted fact that the petitioner was the Chairman of the KSDL, but accused No.2 [has] nothing to do with the KSDL. In fact, accused No.2 is an accountant working at BWSSB and he has no business to make any demand and acceptance for himself except on behalf of the petitioner-accused No.1.”

Power to quash cases must be used sparingly

The main reason given by the High Court while quashing the case against Virupakshappa was that the complaint did not contain specific allegations about Virupakshappa demanding or accepting the bribe. The court also reasoned that he was the Chairman and the tender proceedings were supervised by “officers of the lower rung”.

However, both these reasons do not justify quashing the case. The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that High Courts must sparingly invoke their inherent powers to quash criminal cases that are under investigation. In 2021, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court recognised the following principles that ought to regulate quashing of cases: 

“> Courts would not thwart any investigation into the cognisable offences;

> It is only in cases where no cognisable offence or offence of any kind is disclosed in the First Information Report that the court will not permit an investigation to go on;

The first information report is not an encyclopaedia which must disclose all facts and details relating to the offence reported. Therefore, when the investigation by the police is in progress, the court should not go into the merits of the allegations in the FIR. Police must be permitted to complete the investigation. It would be premature to pronounce the conclusion based on hazy facts that the complaint/FIR does not deserve to be investigated or that it amounts to abuse of process of law.”

In fact, in March 2023, the Supreme Court went on to hold:

“It would be eminently desirable if the high courts maintain a hands-off approach and not quash a first information report pertaining to ‘corruption’ cases, specially at the stage of investigation … [The] proper course for the high courts to follow, in cases under the [Prevention of Corruption Act], would be to permit the investigation to be taken to its logical conclusion.”

The Karnataka High Court should have allowed the Lokayukta Police to investigate the case and take the case to its logical conclusion. It is pertinent to note that the Prevention of Corruption Act, 1988 and the Indian Penal Code recognise the concept of abetment of an offence. A person who instigates another person to commit an offence or engages in a conspiracy for the commission of an offence is liable to be punished even if he may not have played an active role in the commission of the offence. Investigative agencies have sufficient powers to initiate proceedings against conspirators and abettors of a crime even if the original complaint may not contain allegations against them. In any case, as discussed earlier, the complaint did mention that it was Virupakshappa who instructed the complainant to meet Prashanth and discuss the ‘commission’ in connection with tenders and release of payments.

Surprisingly, the High Court refers to a statement of KSDL’s General Manager (GM) to exonerate Virupakshappa. However, a close reading of his statement which has been reproduced in the judgement, would reveal that the GM had revealed before a judge that Virupakshappa and his son used to interfere in tender proceedings, administration of the company, and postings of employees. 

Supreme Court’s intervention

It is hard to discern why the High Court absolved Virupakshappa even before the investigation, much less the trial, had been completed. While this is not to suggest that Virupakshappa is certainly guilty of the offences, the High Court’s decision absolving Virupakshappa without scrutinising the investigating agency’s final report, is a setback to the anti-corruption law and agencies. This case calls for the Supreme Court’s intervention by permitting the Lokayukta Police to investigate the allegations against all the accused so that the trial does not revolve around a half-baked version of the crime.

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