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The arrest of former Calcutta High Court Chief justice C S Karnan for contempt of court, for instance, had grabbed headlines in recent times as he became the first Indian judge to be sent to jail in India. Another case of a direct attack on Chief Justice himself came way back in 2009 when Karnataka High Court judge D V Shylendra Kumar fired a salvo at the then Chief Justice of India K G Balakrishnan for not making his assets public stating that “he is more like a serpent without fangs, who can only hiss, but not bite”.
However, Friday’s protest in public by the four senior most judges Jasti Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, Bhimrao Lokur and Kurian Joseph is the first instance in which a group of judges are raising allegation against Chief Justice. Currently, there are 25 sitting judges and seven out of the full strength of 31 are retiring this year. Chelameswar is set to retire in June. Justices Lokur and Joseph will retire in December.
Earlier, there were reports alleging Misra had intervened to ensure only judges of his choice heard a sensitive case about corruption involving a retired high court judge. But, Karnan’s case was the most controversial so far. In January 2017, Karnan wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi flagging the names of 20 judges alleging corruption. Even though he failed to provide any evidence, he urged the government to investigate the matter. After a series of allegations in public, including an unprecedented order by him sentencing India’s chief justice, and seven other judges of the Supreme Court, to five years in prison, the top court even barred the media from publishing Karnan’s statements. Later, he was arrested in June 2017.
Also, Chelameswar had a clash in November last over assignment of a sensitive case. Two petitions seeking a special investigation team (SIT) to look into allegations contained in a first information report (FIR) filed by the CBI were listed before two different benches. While one bench referred the petition before it to the Chief Justice for setting up an “ appropriate” bench, the bench presided over by Chelameswar directed the petition before it to be heard by a five-judge bench of senior judges. Within hours, Chief Justice Dipak Misra rose from the constitution bench he was presiding over and set up a five-judge bench which annulled the Chelameswar order. Misra asserted that it was the prerogative of the Chief Justice to set up a constitution bench and he can pick the judges to fill it. The order was passed in the jam-packed court room of the Chief Justice amid shouting matches by the men in black.
Old timers remember an instance of the 1980s’ in which one judge stormed out of the court while hearing a case because his senior colleague was dominating the court and the junior was not given any say. While walking out, Justice E S Venkataramiah, who later became the chief justice, uttered unkind words about his senior, embarrassing the bar and making front page headlines. Later he called the media and explained that he was not against the senior but only wanted brother judges to be heard.
However, controversies over comments by judges are not new. For instance, then chief justice R M Lodha had gone all out in 2013 against the government observing that the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is like a “caged parrot speaking in its master’s voice”.
And then, Justice Markandey Katju had said “hang the corrupt to the lamp posts” while hearing a bail plea connected to fodder scam. Another recent comment by a judge that raised eyebrows was by Justice Mahesh Chandra Sharma of Rajasthan High Court, stating that cow should be declared the national animal.