26 November 1996
Supreme Court


Case number: W.P.(C) No.-000340-000340 / 1996
Diary number: 80123 / 1996
Advocates: Vs SANJAY KAPUR






DATE OF JUDGMENT:       26/11/1996




JUDGMENT:                       J U D G M E N T      AHMADI, CJI      Shir Tushar  Arun Gandhi, the Great Grandson of Mahatma Gandhi addressed a letter in the form of an appeal to one of us (the  Chief Justice of India) stating that he had come to know from  Press reports  about  the  existence  of  an  Urn containing the  ashes of  his  late  Grandfather  Shri  M.K. Gandhi, popularly  known as Mahatma Gandhi lying in a locker in the  State Bank  of India, Cuttack. On learning about the same he wrote letters to the Chief Minister and the Governor of Orissa  as well  as the  Chairman of  the State  Bank  of India, Cuttack  requesting them  to enquire  into the matter and, if  the Press  reports were  correct to  use their good offices to help him secure the Urn from the locker to enable him to  complete the  last rites  as per the Hindu religious practice. Unfortunately  he did not receive any reply to his letters from  the Chief  Minister or  the Governor of Orissa but the  Chairman of  the State Bank of India called him and assured him that he would ascertain the facts and inform him of the  outcome of  his  enquiry.  Sometime  thereafter  the Chairman verbally  informed him about the existence of a box stated to  contain the  ‘Asthis’ of  Mahatma Gandhi  kept in safe deposit  in the  year 1950 by the then Secretary to the Chief  Minister  of  Orissa.  This  verbal  information  was followed by  a letter from one Shri Mehrotra wherein he gave details of how and when the Urn was deposited with the Bank. In his  letter of  8th March,  1996 Shri  Mehrotra states as follows:-      "(i) A  sealed wooden box measuring      approximately 18"  x  20"  said  to      contain an urn containing the ashes      of  Mahatma  Gandhi  was  deposited      with   our    Cuttack   Branch   on      29.11.1950 by the then Secretary to      the  Hon’ble   Chief  Minister   of      Orissa as  s Safe  Deposit Article.      Safe  Deposit   Receipt  No.  30/21      dated the  29th November  1950  was      issued by the Branch.      (ii) The  box is kept by the Branch



    with due care and reverence.      (iii) In  December 1994,  a  letter      was addressed to the Chief Minister      of Orissa  and discussions  took up      with the  Secretary  to  the  Chief      Minister for withdrawal of the Safe      Deposit Article,  but  no  response      was received from them."      It was  further added  that since the box was deposited by the  State Government,  they alone  could decide  on  its disposal.      After receipt  of this letter the petitioner once again addressed a  letter to  Shri J.B.  Patnaik, the  then  Chief Minister of  Orissa, Shri  G.Ramanujam, the then Governor of Orissa and  the Chief  Secretary of  the State and requested them to  help him  in securing  the box  to  enable  him  to complete the last rites as per the Hindu religious practice. He did  not receive  any response  to his  letters and so he visited Bhubaneswar  on 21st  March, 1996  and met the Chief Minister who, says he, responded by saying that it was a big hoax. On  further enquiry  as to why he considered it a hoax he was  told that  according to  the State Bank of India the Secretary of  the  then  Orissa  Chief  Minister  Shri  Naba Krushna Choudhury had kept the box in a safe deposit in 1950 when there  was in  fact no  such post of Secretary to Chief Minister in  existence. He  was told  that there  was only a Private Secretary  to the  Chief Minister  in those days and the Government  also did  not have any record of the deposit of the  said box  with the  State Bank  of India.  The Chief Minister is  even reported  to have  remarked that the State Bank of India was upto some mischief and so he would order a CBI enquiry into the entire matter.      The Petitioner  then stated  that he was taken aback by what the  Chief Minister informed him and was also surprised that a  responsible officer  of the  State Bank of India was prepared to stick his neck out on such a sensitive issue and felt hurt  that he  did not  realise the  seriousness of the matter. The  Chief Minister  is  reported  to  have  further stated that  he was proposing to order a CBI enquiry so that the ashes  could be  chemically tested  to ascertain if they really belonged  to Mahatma  Gandhi. He was informed that he would  be   duly  informed   at  the   conclusion   of   the investigation by  the CBI.  In fact by the letter dated 23rd March, 1996  the  Commissioner-cum-secretary  to  the  State Government wrote  to the General Manager (Operations), State Bank of India, Bhubaneswar that the State Government did not accept that the box contained the ashes of Mahatma Gandhi or that the  State Government had, through its official, placed it with  the Bank  for safe  custody. He also stated that it was open  to the  State Bank of India to dispose of the said box in any matter it considered appropriate.      In  the   meantime,  according   to   the   petitioner, considerable public  opinion was  created. He then proceeded on fast  and ultimately  the Government  relented and stated that the  Bank could  do as  it  pleased  with  the  box  in question. After  the Government thus withdrew the petitioner broke  his   fast  and  approached  the  Bank  officials  in Bhubaneswar to  cooperate and  put an end to the controversy but unfortunately  in the meantime several organisations and individuals jumped into the fray and complicated the matter. The State Bank officials, therefore, informed the petitioner to secure  court orders  on the  strength whereof they could part with  the possession  of the  box. He, therefore, wrote the letter  dated 26th May, 1996 in the form of an appeal to the Chief Justice of India.



    After this  letter was  received, the  PIL Cell  of the Supreme Court  addressed letters to the State Bank of India, Cuttack as  well as the Government of Orissa in this behalf. From the replies received by the PIL Cell it transpired that the State  Bank of  India was in possession of the box since many years and the urn bore the inscription "it contains the ashes of  Mahatma Gandhi".  The State  Bank  of  India  also informed the  PIL Cell that till date no claim had been made by the  Government of  Orissa for  its delivery.  After this exercise was  undertaken by  the PIL  Cell of this Court, it was directed  that the  letter be treated as a Writ Petition under Article 32 of the Constitution. It was, therefore, put up before  the Court  on the judicial side on 10th May, 1996 on which  date we  directed notices to issue to the Union of India, State  of Orissa, as well as the State Bank of India, Cuttack returnable  within 8  weeks. They  were directed  to file their  counters in  the form  of affidavits  within the said  time   so  that   the  Court  could  give  appropriate directions in the matter.      Respondents 2 and 3 entered an appearance. On behalf of Respondent No.3  Bank an  affidavit was filed wherein it was stated that  the record  of the  Bank revealed  that on 29th November, 1950  a sealed  wooden box  marked ‘Secretary  HPM Orissa’ stated  to contain  the ashes  of Mahatma Gandhi was deposited by  the Secretary to the Chief Minister of Orissa, Cuttack and  that it  bore a  wax seal  with the  words "HPM Orissa". The  affidavit then  deals with the events that had followed  once   the  matter  had  come  to  public  notice. Reference has  also been made to the visit of the petitioner to Cuttack  which we  have already mentioned hereinbefore. A xerox copy  of the entry in the Safe Deposit Register of the Bank has  been annexed  to the affidavit. The correspondence that had  ensued between  the Bank  and the State Government has also been appended tot he affidavit. The matter was also raised in the Rajya Sabha.      On behalf  of the  State of  Orissa  Shri  F.M.  Panda, Additional  Secretary   in  the   Home  Department   of  the Government of  Orissa has  filed a counter affidavit and has stated that  the Government  of Orissa  had already informed the General  manager  (Operations),  State  Bank  of  India, Bhubaneswar by  letter  dated  23rd  March,  1996  that  the deposit of the wooden box said to be containing the ashes of Mahatma Gandhi  purported to have been made by the Secretary to the then Chief Minister of Orissa as recorded in the said Deposit Register  of the Bank is not reflected in any of the records of  the State Government and hence the Commissioner- cum-Secretary to  the Government  of Orissa could not accept that the said box containing the ashes of Mahatma Gandhi had been deposited  by the  Government for  safe custody.  Since this raised  a doubt as regards the genuineness of the claim of the  State Bank  of India  it was  left open to the State Bank of  India to  dispose of the said box in such manner as they deemed appropriate. It further stated that the Register of the bank did not bear the signature of the then Secretary to the Chief Minister and that at the relevant point of time there was no such post in existence nor did the bank possess any  letter  from  the  concerned  officer  supporting  such deposit. It  was also  difficult to  visualise how two years after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi his ashes could be available for  deposit with the Bank. In these circumstances the State  of Orissa was unable to positively respond to the enquiries made by the petitioner as well as others including the media  in this  behalf. The  Government of  Orissa  had, therefore, left  it to the Bank authorities to deal with the box in  the manner they thought proper as it did not want to



get involved  with the disposal of the ashes. In other words the Government  of Orissa  has left it to this Court to pass such orders as it deems appropriate in regard to disposal of the ashes  contained in  the urn purporting to be of Mahatma Gandhi.      After the pleadings were completed and the stand of the State Bank  of India  and the  State of Orissa became clear, this Court  issued notice  on 2nd  September,  1996  to  the petitioner with a view to ascertaining from him how best, in the circumstances,  could the  ashes contained in the urn be disposed of. The petitioner stated that he would leave it to the Court to decide on the mode of disposal of the ashes.      From the  above two  things clearly surface, namely (i) on 29th  November, 1950  an urn  kept in  a  box  stated  to contain the  ashes of  Mahatma Gandhi was deposited with the State Bank  of India  and (ii)  no one except the petitioner has claimed the same so far. It is also clear that the State of Orissa  has left the question of disposal of the ashes to the sole  discretion of the Bank since it does not desire to get involved  therein. It  is also  evident  from  the  Safe Deposit Receipt  that the Secretary to the Chief Minister of Orissa at  the relevant  date had deposited the urn with the Bank. There was no need for the Bank to make any false entry in their  register and since the entry is an old one of 1950 made in  regular course  of business  of the Bank we fail to see why  it should  be viewed with suspicion. Merely because the designation  is stated  to be  ‘Secretary’ to  the Chief Minister and  not ‘Private  Secretary’ which post admittedly existed then, is not a strong point to doubt the genuineness of the  entry. If  the Government records do not contain any note or  if no such note is traced is no ground to doubt the entry in  the Bank’s  register. But be that as it may, since the box  contains an  urn with  ashes and  no one  else  has claimed it  after more  than four  decades we see no harm in directing the  disposal  of  the  ashes  as  prayed  by  the petitioner.      In the  result we  deem it  proper to  direct that  the Hon’ble Chief  Justice will  nominate the  Registrar of  the High Court  or a  Senior Judicial  Officer to take charge of the box containing the urn in the presence of the petitioner and a high level officer of the Bank after drawing up a memo regarding its  physical condition  and then seal the box and keep it in Safe Deposit and thereafter on the same day or on any other  appointed date  to be  fixed in consultation with the Bank  official and  the petitioner, they shall carry the ashes to  a mutually  agreed upon  site on  the River Ganges (the Ganga) for being disposed of with reverence and dignity behaving  the   occasion.  After   the  same  is  done,  the Registrar/Judicial Officer  will submit  a  report  to  this Court addressed  to the  Registrar General  who will include the same as a part of the record with a note that it will be permanently preserved.  A copy of the same will be kept with the Bank  for its record also. This writ petition will stand so disposed of with no order as to costs.