“What’s in a name” questioned Shakespeare. I think justice Karnan would disagree with the great poet and dramatist of the bygone era. And really it is in the name. Justice Karnan, much like the first Kuru warrior who choose deliberately to be on the wrong side to oppose the caste discrimination, perhaps the first such fight in the recorded history, had taken the fight on to himself.
Well, for the records, he chooses to accuse the then chief justice of Madras High Court. Justice Karnan has accused Justice Kaul, who was the CJ of Madras HC of exercising bias against him in allocating only ‘insignificant and dummy’ cases, while juniors to him were handling significant ones. The matter escalated when Justice Karnan accused Justice Kaul and other judges of Madras High Court of indulging in corrupt practices. As a consequence, he was transferred to Calcutta HC, but Justice Karnan exercising his judicial authority vested with him due to his judicial position ‘stayed’ the transfer. When a bench of Supreme Court vacated the stay, he ordered Police Commissioner of Chennai to register a case against the judges who were on the Supreme Court bench that has vacated his stay, under ‘atrocities on SC/STs’ act.
After a one-to-one meeting with the then CJI TS Thakur, Karnan backed off and left for Kolkata. However, the transfer has not dampened the spirit of Justice Karnan. He continued to write letters to CJI, Union Law Minister and the Prime Minister about the corruption in Madras High Court. Attorney General Mukul Rohtagi felt the accusations raised by Justice Karnana were disparaging. And so, Supreme Court has initiated contempt proceedings against Justice Karnan, suo moto.
In his reply to the contempt notice, Justice Karnan flayed the logic adapted by the Supreme Court and termed it as only the bias against a Dalit Judge by a Court controlled by the upper classes. He reminded the Supreme Court that there is no provision in the law that empowers Supreme Court to enforce punishment against a sitting Judge of High Court. But, the point to note here is that he is not backing off from any proceedings against him, but he wanted the Supreme Court to refer his case to Parliament, just as per law.
If the entire episode is compared to a great python that twisted itself around our judiciary, lack of internal transparency in the Judicial administration and the use/abuse of SC/ST atrocities act would be the two tongues that flicker terrifying the onlookers.
If the grouses of Justice Karnan, when he raised first against Justice Kaul, way back in 2015 were addressed in the proper manner, the situation would not have escalated and denigrated into the murky affair that it has now became. Was there any evidence in Karnan’s allegations that justice Kaul had discriminated against him? If so, why there was no action against Justice Karnan? If Jutice Kaul was clean, accusations by Justice Karnan amount to indiscipline, accusing the chief justice and spoiling his image intentionally. Much to its own ‘annoyance’ on the lethargy in the ‘executive’ branch of Indian government, the revered judiciary did nothing and acted only when Justice Karnan raised ‘corruption’ charges against not one but many judges of Madras High Court. Still, no action. The only action by the Supreme Court, the administrative authority over all High Courts was to ‘transfer’ the erring justice Karnan to Calcutta High Court.
Well, the courts have time and again questioned ‘transfer’ as a punishment. Then, why justice Karnan was punished with a transfer? This is considering Karnan was at fault.
This was the result of deciphering the acts of both Karnan and Supreme Court in his transfer, self-stay and vacation. Meanwhile, what is intriguing is why Justice Kaul and other judges, whose reputation was at stake as they were incriminated by Justice Karnan have not registered a complaint against Justice Karnan.
When Karnan took his fight against the corruption in Madras High Court to the Law minister and Prime Minister, CJI has considered it ‘contempt’ and this consideration happened suo moto. The question is if all accusations by Karnan were false implications, why no action was taken against him much earlier? If what he was saying has even one percent truth, why his allegations were not inquired further. Is this the way Supreme Court want ordinary citizens to believe in them, all the while hiding their own black sheep under black coats?
Considering how the allegations against former CJI Balakrishnan, who also happened to be a dalit were overlooked despite there was abundant evidence available spread across newspapers, the then establishment has not acted against him. Same treatment of handling with kid gloves was given to Ashok Ganguly, former judge of Calcutta High Court, when there were allegations of sexual exploitation against him. Reports of corruption against Dinakaran, another former High Court judge were too not acted upon.
The larger question is why the Supreme Court turns a blind eye to the corruption that is intrinsic in judiciary? All that is discussed so far was about the corruption at higher judiciary. The bottom is more thick like an oil sludge and much darker. If the skin at higher echelons is allowed to be thick, at the bottom, it must have solidified. And, even after seven decades of independence, judiciary remained only establishment that remained opaque in the way judges are selected. While the politicians are now trying to bring transparency (whether by choice or by force or simply to avenge their opponents) into all establishments of the government, why judiciary remained adamant in practising a system that was not in the line with the changed scenario of Indian society. And, this lack of transparency is practised in the name of the much-abused word in free India “Autonomous”.
If the judiciary acknowledges changing values in the society and accepts ‘live in relationships’ and equate them with the institution of marriage in disbursing alimony, why the same judiciary stops all forms of reforms within? Certainly, not that they don’t understand the reason. Maybe they know it more.
The second aspect of this issue is the appropriate utilisation of Prevention of Atrocities Act. Now, when cornered, like many before him, Jutice Karnan took out the ultimate weapon in his arsenal. He now not only accused Justice Kaul of Madras HC, but entire Supreme Court as ‘reeking’ with caste bias. At least in his case, he truly appears as a victim, as he has no money even to hire a top lawyer to plead his case in the Supreme Court. As per Mathews, the president of National Lawyers for Judicial Transparency, Justice Karnan had become incommunicado, after his reply to Supreme Court Registrar General. Apparently he is in depression. The only negative against Justice Karnan so far, technically is that he has so far not vacated his bungalow in Chennai nor returned case files of Madras HC.
The point here is why Justice Karnan chose to accuse Supreme Court of discriminating against him only due to caste basis. How the CJI would see this accusation is interesting. After convicting many persons over years under the same act, how the CJI can exonerates himself above the law. This ‘prevention of atrocities act’ along with the ‘anti-dowry’ law were mostly abused than used in a proper way. Though genuine discrimination should be strongly dealt with, how the judiciary finds whether the accusation is correct or not, especially when the judiciary takes the words of the ‘victim’ to deliver justice.
It may be easy for the Supreme Court to answer the first question, by choosing to request the parliament to impeach Justice Karnan. But, by doing so CJI JS Khehar would be putting the ball in the court of parliament, much to the smile of Narendra Modi who wanted to push NJAC. Maybe that is the reason why the Supreme Court issued notice under ‘contempt of court’ rather than recommending for Karnan’s impeachment. This issue may at least help the nation by making the judiciary a bit more transparent.
But, dealing with the second issue is going to be a water mark affair for the judiciary, as this is the first time, the higher echelon of judiciary is accused by one of its own members, of being a discriminative one. The judgement or ruling that Justice JS Khehar would give in this case, will be the new benchmark in dealing with similar cases, as is the norm in legal circles. If Justice JS Khehar chooses to sweep the case by pushing it under the mat, while Justice Karnan is impeached and kicked out of the system, he would be doing a great injustice to the justice itself. It is time the Supreme Court explain how to deal with the law, when it is used in an abusing way.