May 9, a “black day” for Indian Judiciary

May 9, 2017 will go down in country’s judicial history as a “Black day”. Nation’s judiciary stood exposed of its shortcomings and deep structural maladies. A bench of seven judges of the Supreme Court sentenced a brother judge Justice C S Karnan of Calcutta High Court to jail for six months declaring him guilty of “contempt of court” and ordered that he should be taken into custody “forthwith”.

(Satish Misra)

(Satish Misra)

This is the first time that a sitting high court judge has been sent to jail on charges of contempt. The bench, headed by Chief Justice J S Kehar also barred the media from publishing or reporting the orders passed by Justice Karnan. “We are of the unanimous opinionthat Justice C S Karnan has committed the contempt of this court, of the judiciary and also the judicial process,” said Justice Kehar. The apex court asked the West Bengal Director General of Police to implement the order “forthwith”. Karnan, who is due to retire in th3e second week of June, is set to spend the last month of his tenure and five months thereafter in jail.

While it took many unpleasant incidents and Karnan’s recalcitrant behavior over last few years to come down the lowest point of country’s judicial administration but ills that afflict the judicial system are indeed very serious. Karnan was elevated to the Madras High Court in 2009. He came to media attention when he approached the National Commission for Scheduled Castes inn 2011 accusing his brother judges of discriminating against him because he was a Dalit.

In 2014, he walked into a courtroom where a Supreme Court division bench was hearing a PIL on names recommended for the post of judges, and complained that the selection of judges was “not fair”. The court came down on his conduct heavily terming it “uncharitable” and “indecorous”.

The then Madras High Court Chief Justice R K Agarwal urged the then CJI P Sathasivam to transfer Karnan to some other court. Karnan then approached the National Commission of Scheduled Castes again. A year later, Karnan created another controversy when he suo moto stayed the order of the then Madras High Court Chief Justice Sanjay Kishen Kaul on selection of civil judges. The Supreme Court had to intervene and stayed his order.

In February last year, he stirred another row when he stayed the then Supreme Court Chief Justice T S Thakur’s order of transferring him to Calcutta High Court. He also went public with his criticism of the apex court and alleged that he was the target because he was a Dalit. He sent letters to the President Pranab Mukherjee, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress president Sonia Gandhi among others.

The Madras High Court Registrar General approached the Supreme Court for restraining Karnan from taking suo moto action. The top court responded by staying all administrative and judicial order passed by the judge after the date on which he was recommended for transfer. The apex court left to the Madras High Court Chief Justice to decide whether to assign any work to Karnan.

At the beginning of this year, Karnan turned belligerent going public with a list of 20 “corrupt” sitting and former High Court and Supreme Court judges. The Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice of India summoned Karnan to explain why he should not face contempt of court proceedings.

Karnan appeared before the Supreme Court and demanded restoration of his judicial work, but the court refused to entertain his plea.

Last month, Karnan ordered registration of cases under the SC/ ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act against Chief Justice Kehar and six other judges for allegedly discriminating against him for being a Dalit.

Earlier this month the Supreme Court had ordered a medical test on Karnan to ascertain whether he was mentally sound. Karnan had refused to undergo the medical test.

There is no doubt whatsoever that “episode Karnan’ is bizarre and the lowest point of Indian judiciary but it is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg because country’s judicial system suffers from many ills. The Karnan case is a clear symptom of dysfunction.

Tragi-comedy that wasenacted in the Karnan drama clearly points out that while the collegium system has been unable to prevent someone of his nature entering the top rung of the judicial office, it is equally true that internal discipline is absent in the system.

The apex court’s gag order on the media from reporting Karnan’s purported orders and comments only reflects the sense of unease and insecurity about the sordid episode. The court through its order has put restriction on the freedom of expression or right to free speech. It is an unsavory situation that judiciary has allowed itself to become an instrument to restrain expression.

It goes to prove that country lacks an efficient system to investigate and prosecute judicial misdemeanor. Impeachment in parliament has not worked in the past. Often enough political class does not have requisite courage to rise above partisan considerations. Huge backlog of cases, existing vacancies in lower courts High Court, and the Supreme Court and lack of infrastructure are some of the reasons for delayed justice. It has resulted in erosion of people’s faith in the judiciary. The government is responsible for making courts suffer but shortsighted clannish approach of those operating the judicial system is equally responsible for the prevailing chaos.

Long delays in justice delivery system, existence of  rampant corruption at all levels of judiciary, lack of transparency in the conduct of judicial administrative system, disconnect between executive and judiciary as demonstrated in the impasse over the National Judicial Appointments Commission for replacing the present collegium system are some of the ills.  .

For last couple of years, the executive and judiciary have been on the confrontationist path. While the judiciary is zealously defending its turf and protecting its constitutional position, the executive is not at all hesitant to gain an upper hand. Time has come when the judiciary and executive must rise about its narrow interests to find ways to shape the judicial system in a fashion that ensures speedy justice to people in a free and fair manner. In order to cleanse the system to make the judicial system responsive and in the reach of the poor, deprived and marginal sections of society concerted and determined efforts need to be undertaken.


Dr. Satish Misra is a Veteran Journalist & Research Associate with Observer Research Foundation.