Two lawyers, same drawback: In Punjab AG row, AAP’s turnabout within months

When the Charanjit Singh Channi-led Congress government appointed senior lawyer APS Deol the Advocate General (AG) of Punjab last September, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was among those to kick up a storm. The AAP raised objections as Deol had represented former state Director General of Police (DGP) Sumedh Saini who was the police chief during the 2015 sacrilege incidents and is an accused in the Behbal Kalan police firing case. The controversy eventually forced Deol to step down in November.

Months down the line, the AAP now finds the tables turned as it is under fire over the appointment of Vinod Ghai as the state AG. Ghai was appointed after Dr Anmol Rattan Sidhu resigned from the post on Tuesday, citing “personal reasons”. If the appointment goes through, Ghai will become the state’s fifth AG in 10 months and the third to have faced Opposition ire for allegedly favouring either the accused in the 2015 sacrilege incidents or for a clash of interests.

Ghai has not only represented Saini but also Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim, who is accused in the sacrilege case and has also been convicted of rape and murder. Ghai is also the counsel of former state ministers Bharat Bhushan Ashu and Vijay Singla. While the Vigilance Bureau is investigating Ashu in connection with alleged irregularities worth Rs 2,000 crore in grain-lifting tenders, the Bhagwant Mann government removed Singla from the Cabinet in May over corruption allegations.

The AAP — whose poll plank earlier this year, like the Congress’s in 2017, included the promise of justice in the sacrilege incidents and the Kotakpura and Behbal Kalan police firing cases — has drawn flak for choosing Ghai. According to political observers, this has undone whatever gains the party made when former Inspector General Kunwar Vijay Partap joined it following his resignation from the police department last year. Partap led a Special Investigation Team probing the police firing incidents but resigned after the Punjab and Haryana High Court quashed the SIT probe. While resigning, he alleged that then AG Atul Nanda did not properly prosecute the cases related to the incidents of sacrilege.

Though then CM Captain Amarinder Singh did not throw Nanda under the bus, mounting political pressure within his own party, the Congress, forced him out months later. Partap won the Assembly elections earlier this year on an AAP ticket, providing the Mann-led party political leverage on the sacrilege issue.

The controversy remained simmering and blew up again after Channi appointed Deol the AG. Soon, the AAP, then in the Opposition, raised the matter of Deol having represented Saini in a case of alleged corruption. The lawyer got the former DGP blanket relief from arrest in four FIRs. At the time, the Leader of the Opposition in the Assembly, Harpal Singh Cheema of the AAP, termed Deol’s appointment as AG a “conspiracy to deny justice” in the sacrilege cases.

“Legal ethics also does not allow a lawyer who is first fighting the case on behalf of the accused, to be able to fight against the accused on behalf of the government. Deol’s appointment as AG is a conspiracy to save the accused, which cannot be tolerated. All the Aam Aadmi Party MLAs are writing letters to the chief minister in this regard,” he said.

Cut to the present, Ghai’s appointment has resulted in pushback from Sikh bodies and the Congress. Preacher and Haryana Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee president Baljit Singh Daduwal on Thursday denounced it, saying, “Ghai remained an advocate of Dera chief Gurmeet Ram Rahim who is the main conspirator of the Bargari sacrilege incident.”

Daduwal said a delegation of Haryana and Delhi Gurdwara management committees would meet Punjab Governor Banwarilal Purohit to discuss the issue. He warned that if the AAP government went ahead with the appointment it should be ready to face protests from justice seekers. Behbal Kalan firing victim Krishan Bhagwan Singh’s son Sukhraj Singh has also criticised the government, saying the victims’ kin have no hope left in this government.

Congress MLA and All India Congress Kisan cell president Sukhpal Khaira said on Friday, “I have nothing personal against Vinod Ghai. But he has represented Sumedh Saini and Gurmeet Ram Rahim. Where are the ethics? Now he will represent the Punjab government in the same cases. The appointment exposed the bankruptcy of the state government. This appointment is wrong and can’t be defended.”

But, defending the government, AAP spokesperson Malwinder Singh Kang said, “The initial objections against APS Deol were raised by none other than the then Punjab Congress president Navjot Singh Sidhu. Also, there was a history of a close association of Captain Amarinder Singh and Charanjit Singh Channi with the Badal family. So, it is about the intention. Vinod Ghai is one of the best criminal lawyers in the High Court and the most competent. As far as a clash of interests is concerned, I expect he will dissociate from his old clients.”

The AAP leader went on to say, “All good lawyers have clients across party lines. Congress leader P Chidambaram is the lawyer of Akali Dal leader Bikram Singh Majithia in a drug case. The intention of the Punjab government is clear. Ghai will leave behind all such clients and cases. The Punjab government can also field other advocates if any situation of clash of interest arises. But Ghai’s competence is behind his selection. He was the best choice for the post.”

Banwarilal Purohit on Friday cleared Ghai’s appointment and sent back the file to the state government, said sources in the Raj Bhavan. But the government has not yet notified the appointment. Bhagwant Mann on Thursday told reporters that Ghai would soon formally take over as AG.

With Kanchan Vasdev, Chandigarh

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