Justice Pasayat stands out for his remarkable rulings
by V. Eshwar Anand
It s very rarely that one recalls a Supreme Court Judge’s services to the nation after he demits office. While most judges are outstanding and have served the nation with high professional integrity and rectitude, some stand out for their innings. And Justice Arijit Pasayat is one of them.
Justice Pasayat, who attained the age of 65 years on May 10, 2009, was a bold, upright and fearless judge. He never tolerated injustices in the system and took the lawbreakers, high or low, to task. His rulings reflected his abiding faith and confidence in the system and an earnest desire to stem the rot and help the litigants.
Justice Pasayat was a staunch upholder of the rule of law. He firmly believed in the supremacy of the Constitution and the protection of the constitutional dharma at any cost.
He proved his mettle in Constitutional, Taxation and Commercial matters. He was sincere and hard working both as an advocate and judge. He joined the Orissa High Court as an Additional Judge in March 1989. He took over as the Chief Justice of the Kerala High Court in September 1999. After a short stint, he was shifted to the Delhi High Court. He was appointed to the Supreme Court in October, 2001.
He averaged nearly 300 judgements a year, a unique feat that is difficult for a judge to accomplish. Just a day before his retirement, i.e. on May 9, 2009, he delivered 29 judgements and cleared all the pending work. Early this year, he surpassed Justice K. Ramaswamy’s record of 2,255 judgements. One reason for Justice Pasayat’s success in this regard was that he had, like Justice Ramaswamy, a long innings of eight years in the Supreme Court.
He was deeply worried about the drawbacks in the criminal justice system. However, he tried to introduce some semblance of order in the system in his own humble way. He was not merely interested in giving judgements; issuing directives and guidelines to the authorities, in his rulings, with a view to improving the system was his hallmark.
Significantly, the common man and the poor litigant always occupied a special place in his heart. As the Chairman of the Supreme Court Legal Services Committee and the Executive Chairman, the National Legal Services Authority, he played an important role in expediting the justice delivery system. Equally important is his role in streamlining the Lok Adalat system as an alternative dispute redressal mechanism. Owing to heavy backlog of cases in the courts, he used to tour the states to streamline the Lok Adalat machinery.
Justice Pasayat’s tenure will always be remembered for his landmark judgements. It is common knowledge how justice was derailed in Gujarat in the Best Bakery case during the post-Godhra violence. The trial court acquitted all the 21 accused and the Gujarat High Court later upheld it.
However, on a petition seeking a fair trial from Zaheera Sheikh, who lost her close relatives in a Vadodara bakery in March 2002, Justice Pasayat and Justice Doraiswamy Raju ordered a retrial of the case, that too, outside Gujarat. “The acquittal of the accused is no acquittal in the eyes of the law and no sanctity or credibility can be attached to the so-called findings”, he ruled.
Justice Pasayat’s even-handed approach can be gauged by the fact that he did not spare Zaheera Sheikh when she was found changing her statements with impunity. After the Registrar-General’s inquiry found her guilty of perjury, she was convicted and sentenced to one-year imprisonment. He felt that it was only by sending her to jail that the judiciary’s credibility could be preserved.
Interestingly, Justice Pasayat called Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi the ‘Modern day Nero’ for his government’s failure to come to the rescue of post-Godhra riot victims. He minced no words in lambasting the government for its failure to uphold the rule of law.
Very recently, Justice Pasayat kicked off an avoidable controversy by directing the Special Investigation Team to investigate a petition against Mr Modi, his Cabinet colleagues and top police and administrative officers for their role in post-Godhra riots. The judgement was well-intended, but doubts were raised about its timing, especially when the nation was in the election mode. Mr Modi called the Supreme Court order “a Congress conspiracy”.
Mr Fali S. Nariman, eminent jurist, in an article in The Tribune (April 29), said that “the April 27 order will, certainly, influence people as how they will cast their vote.” He rightly suggested that judges should defer cases with “political overtones” during elections. As both the judges — Justice Pasayat and Justice Ashok Ganguly — are not amenable to any kind of pressure or influence and their integrity is unimpeachable, this ruling should have been given much earlier keeping in view Justice Pasayat’s superannuation.
His concern for the common people was unparalleled. He took the political parties to task for destruction of property, public and private, during agitations sponsored by them and held them accountable by making them liable for damages. He laid down elaborate guidelines to be followed by the state governments to deal with such incidents.
He was a “No-nonsense judge”. He was never lenient to those charged with serious and heinous crimes like rape and murder. He was of the view that such people should be sternly dealt with by awarding maximum punishment. Significantly, he strengthened the existing parameters and guidelines laid down by the court for awarding the death penalty in the rarest of rare cases of murder.
He was also part of a Constitutional Bench of the Supreme Court which decided upon the constitutional validity of the reservation to the Other Backward Classes in professional institutions like the IIMs and the IITs. He was of the view that quotas cannot continue in perpetuity and there must be a cut-off date to end reservations.
In another important ruling, he ordered compulsory registration of marriages for all religions. He fixed accountability on the states and UTs in this regard after some states had provided for mandatory registration only for the members of the Hindu community.
Justice Pasayat will always be remembered for his rulings on reforms in the educational institutions. Maintaining that political parties have no right to use colleges and universities for political purposes, he streamlined the students’ union elections. His directive on banning ragging in colleges, checking alcoholism in among the students and stopping UGC funding to those institutions found wanting are salutary.