It is most heartening to learn that in a latest, landmark and laudable judgment titled S. Sreesanth v. The Board Of Control For Cricket In India & Ors in Civil Appeal No. 2424 of 2019 (arising out of SLP (C) No. 3551 of 2018) delivered on March 15, 2019 authored by Justice Ashok Bhushan for himself and Justice KM Joseph, the Supreme Court has very rightly set aside a life ban imposed on former Indian cricketer S Sreesanth in connection with the 2013 IPL spot-fixing scandal and asked the BCCI Disciplinary Committee to take a fresh call on the quantum of his punishment under the Anti-Corruption Code. The Apex Court asked the BCCI to decide 36-year-old Sreesanth's punishment preferably within three months. It ordered that Sreesanth would get just 'one opportunity' to have his say on the quantum of penalty.
It cannot be lost on us that the Apex Court significantly has not disturbed the findings of guilt that were made by the disciplinary committee against the Kerala based cricketer S Sreesanth. It has, in fact, upheld the decision of the disciplinary committee of the BCCI on proof of charges against him. Also, it has held that the principles of natural justice were not violated in the disciplinary proceedings held against him under the Anti-Corruption Code of BCCI. It told him that, 'Cricket is a synonym for gentlemanliness, which means discipline, fair play, modesty and high standard of morality.'
It may be recalled here that it was in August 2017 that a single-Judge Bench of the Kerala High Court had lifted the life ban imposed on Sreesanth by BCCI and had set aside all proceedings against him initiated by the Board. But within a short span of just two months, a Division Bench of the Kerala High Court restored the ban allowing appeal filed by the BCCI against the single-Judge order. This came as a 'big shock' for the 35-year-old fast bowler who contended strongly that the life ban that was imposed on him was 'completely unfair' and Delhi Police 'continuously tortured' him in custody to extract confession of his involvement in the 2013 IPL spot-fixing scandal. Sreesanth who was arrested and later discharged by a trial court in July 2015 in a criminal case related to the alleged spot-fixing, claimed he had to confess his involvement in the alleged crime as police tortured him in custody and threatened to implicate his family in the case.
Before proceeding ahead, it would be instructive to look at the entire sequence of events that took place in Sreesanth's case. They are as follows: -
May 16, 2013: Delhi Police arrests three Rajasthan Royals players - S Sreesanth, Ankeet Chavan and Ajit Chandila for spot-fixing. BCCI suspends the arrested players.
September 13, 2013: BCCI bans Sreesanth and Chavan for life. Siddharth Trivedi guilty of not reporting an approach, banned for one year.
October8, 2013: Supreme Court proposes a three-member panel headed by Mukul Mudgal to probe the spot-fixing case.
March 25, 2014: Supreme Court asks BCCI President N Srinivasan to step down after son-in-law and Chennai Super Kings team principal Gurunath Meiyappan is caught in betting scandal.
November 17, 2014: Mudgal's report finds Srinivasan not guilty, but charges Raj Kundra, co-owner of Rajasthan Royals, for being in touch with illegal bookies.
January 12, 2015: Supreme Court appoints three-member panel headed by former CJI RM Lodha to further probe and decide on punishments to Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals.
July 14, 2015: Kundra and Meiyappan banned for life, Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals for two years.
July 25, 2015: Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA) court drops charges against Sreesanth, Chandila and Chavan.
May 19, 2016: Sreesanth contests state polls for BJP in Thiruvananthapuram and loses.
August 7, 2017: Kerala High Court's single Bench revokes BCCI life ban on Sreesanth.
October 17, 2017: Life ban restored by Division Bench of the court after BCCI appeals.
August 27, 2018: Supreme Court hears Sreesanth's plea.
March 15, 2019: Supreme Court rescinds Sreesanth's life ban and asks BCCI to reconsider it. BCCI CoA Vinod Rai informs that the issue would be taken up at the next meet of administrators.
It would be imperative to mention here that eminent and senior advocate Salman Khurshid who appeared for S Sreesanth very politely yet powerfully submitted that, 'In the context of facts and manner in which these things have happened, this court should consider that it (life ban on Sreesanth by BCCI) is unfair. He has suffered for the last five-six years. People want him to play cricket. He was extremely loyal to BCCI.' Khurshid said that it was not established that any spot-fixing was done in the match played between Indian Premier League teams Rajasthan Royals and Kings XI Punjab in Mohali in May 2013 and there was no evidence that the cricketer received any money for this. He also pointed out that, 'The team (Rajasthan Royals) and its owners were banned for two years only. It is completely unfair that this (life ban) has happened with him (Sreesanth).'
What's more, on the more serious issue regarding his alleged confession that was made before the police about his involvement in the alleged crime, his senior lawyer Salman Khurshid hastened to add that, 'The confession was due to continuous torture by Delhi Police. According to Sreesanth, police had threatened to implicate his family if he does not confess to the crime.' Khurshid vehemently argued that the 'standard of proof' against Sreesanth was nothing compared to the serious allegations levelled against him and the recorded telephonic conversations were not provided to him during the inquiry proceedings by BCCI's disciplinary committee. While referring to the recorded telephonic conversations, Khurshid said that there was no evidence to substantiate the claim that Sreesanth had received money for conceding 14 runs in an over during the IPL match in Mohali.
To put things in perspective, Salman Khurshid argued that as per allegations, Sreesanth was supposed to concede 14 runs an over but he gave away 13 runs and the commentary during the match clearly reflected that he had not bowled loose deliveries in that over. The senior counsel Khurshid also said that it was alleged that Sreesanth tucked a towel in his trouser to give an indication to bookies before the start of the over but the fact was he had used towel during matches since 2009. Khurshid also argued that Sreesanth used a towel during the match as weather was humid in Mohali and he was using the towel to wipe out sweat from his palm which is usual for bowlers. Khurshid was at pains to point out that nowhere in the world, life ban has been imposed on a cricketer like this.
As it turned out, the Apex Court held in para 57 that, 'In the present case life ban has been imposed on the appellant on offences under Article 2.1.1, 2.1.2, 2.1.3 and 2.1.4 (corruption), for which as per second column a minimum of five years and maximum of life time ineligibility is provided for. Whether in case where offence under Article 2.1.1, 2.1.2, 2.1.3 and 2.1.4 is proved, the disciplinary committee is obliged to award a life time ban. The answer has to be that life ban cannot be imposed in all cases where such offences are proved. When range of ineligibility which is minimum five years, maximum life ban is provided for, the discretion to choose either minimum or maximum or in between has to be exercised on relevant factors and circumstances.'
As things stood, para 58 then brings out that, 'The disciplinary committee's order dated 13.09.2013 does not advert to the aggravating and mitigating factors as enumerated in Article 6.1.1 and 6.1.2. Without considering the relevant provisions of Anti-Corruption Code the disciplinary committee has imposed life time ban which sanction cannot be held to be in accordance with the Anti-Corruption Code itself. The disciplinary committee had not even adverted to Article 6.1.1 and 6.1.2 which enumerates the aggravating and mitigating circumstances. When the Anti-Corruption Code itself mandates consideration of relevant factors and this Court in Board of Control for Cricket in India (supra) had laid down that the disciplinary committee of the BCCI is empowered to impose appropriate sanction in terms of Article 6 of the Code upon consideration of relevant factors, without considering the relevant factors imposition of maximum punishment cannot be sustained. Apart from factors as noted above the subsequent conduct of the appellant also shows obedience to BCCI. Initially when the life time ban was imposed on 13.09.2013, appellant has not even challenged the said order, it was only after the appellant was discharged from the criminal case on 25.07.2015 and when the appellant got opportunity to play and participate in the Scotland Premier League on e-mail was sent through Kerala Cricket Association on 11.01.2017. It was only thereafter when No Objection Certificate was not granted to the appellant and the BCCI refused to modify the ban, writ petition was filed in February 28, 2017 in the Kerala high Court.'
To be sure, it is then held in para 59 that, 'In so far as charges proved under Article 2.2.3, 2.4.1 and 2.4.2 the maximum sanction is of 5 years, the award of punishment of five years shall also satisfy the requirement under Code, which need no separate consideration for the purposes of this case. As per Article 6.3.2 all sanctions imposed on appellant shall run concurrently. As on date the period of 5 years sanction has come to an end.'
More crucially, it is then held in para 60 that, 'In view of the foregoing discussion we arrive on the following conclusions:
(1) In the disciplinary proceedings held against the appellant under the Anti-Corruption Code of BCCI the principles of natural justice were not violated.
(2) The conclusions drawn by the disciplinary committee of the BCCI on the basis of materials as referred to in paragraphs 12 and 13 of the order cannot be said to be suffering from any infirmity which may warrant judicial review by the constitutional courts. The constitutional courts in exercise of jurisdiction of judicial review will interfere only when conclusions of the disciplinary committee are perverse or based on no evidence. It is not open for the High Court or this Court to substitute its own opinion based on the materials on record on the proof of charges.
(3) The standard of proof in a disciplinary inquiry and in a trial of a criminal case are entirely different. In a criminal case it is essential to prove a charge beyond all reasonable doubt wherein in disciplinary inquiry under Anti-Corruption Code of BCCI the preponderance of probability is to serve the purpose.
(4) We although have upheld the decision of the disciplinary committee of the BCCI on proof of charges, which upholding of the decision of the disciplinary committee shall have no effect on the criminal appeal which is pending against the appellant against the discharge order. The conclusions and observations as recorded in the disciplinary committee under Anti-Corruption Code are entirely different from proof of criminal charges which require higher yardstick to prove.
(5) There was no legal impediment in Shri Srinivasan participating in the disciplinary committee proceedings dated 13.09.2013 as President. The appellant having not questioned the constitution of disciplinary committee even in the grounds of this appeal he cannot be allowed to challenge the constitution of disciplinary committee at this stage.
(6) Sanction under Article 6 of Anti-Corruption Code of BCCI is nothing but punishment on commission of the offences and akin to sentencing in criminal jurisprudence. The principles of sentencing as applicable in offence under the Indian Penal Code may not be strictly applicable to one of punishment/sanction under the Anti-Corruption Code but principles of sentencing as applicable in the criminal jurisprudence may be relevant for imposing sanction under the Anti-Corruption Code.
(7) In cases where offences under Article 2.1.1, 2.1.2, 2.1.3 and 2.1.4 are proved, the disciplinary committee is not obliged to award a life time ban in all cases where such offences are proved. When range of ineligibility which is minimum five years, maximum life time ban is provided for, the discretion to which, either minimum or maximum or in between has to be exercised on relevant facts and circumstances.
(8) The disciplinary committee order dated 13.09.2013 does not advert to the aggravating and mitigating factors as enumerated in Articles 6.1.1 and 6.1.2. Without considering the relevant provisions of Anti-Corruption Code, the disciplinary committee has imposed a life time ban on the appellant which sanction cannot be held to be in accordance with the Anti-Corruption Code itself.
(9) Due to subsequent events also, we are of the view that the disciplinary committee of BCCI should revisit the quantum of punishment/sanction to be imposed on the appellant.
Finally and perhaps most crucially, the Apex Court Bench then in para 61 concludes by holding that, 'In view of the foregoing discussion, we partly allow the appeal in the following manner:
(i) The order dated 13.09.2013 of the disciplinary committee only to the extent of imposing sanction of life time ban is set aside.
(ii) The disciplinary committee of the BCCI may reconsider the quantum of punishment/sanction which may be imposed on the appellant as per Article 6 of the Anti-Corruption Code. The appellant may be given one opportunity to have his say on the question of quantum of punishment/sanction.
(iii) The disciplinary committee may take decision as indicated above on the quantum of punishment/sanction at an early date preferably within a period of three months from today.
(iv) Appellant shall await the decision of the disciplinary committee and future course of action shall be in accordance with the decision of the disciplinary committee so taken. Parties shall bear their own costs.'
All said and done, this latest, landmark and laudable ruling has come as a big sigh of relief for S Sreesanth for his alleged involvement in the 2013 IPL spot-fixing scandal. For this full credit should be given to the eminent and senior lawyer - Salman Khurshid who elegantly and excellently argued his case in the top court and succeeded in persuading the top court to conclude that life ban was too harsh a punishment that was imposed on him by the BCCI and that it should be reconsidered! There can be no denying or disputing it!