Justice Katju: A colourful judge with a social conscience
DHANANJAY MAHAPATRA IN THE TIMES OF INDIA
Two decades ago, the Supreme Court set exacting standards for judges. In All India Judges Association case, the SC had said in 1992, “The conduct of every judicial officer should be above reproach. He should be conscientious, studious, thorough, courteous, patient, punctual, just, impartial, fearless of public clamour, regardless of public praise, and indifferent to private, political or partisan influences.”
It added, “He should administer justice according to law, and deal with his appointment as public trust, he should not allow other affairs or his private interests to interfere with the prompt and proper performance of his judicial duties, nor should he administer the office for purpose of advancing his personal ambitions or increasing his popularity.”
It is difficult to test Supreme Court judges against the 1992 norms. Most maintain a discernable degree of discipline in demeanour, dealings and decisions while deciding cases.
But Justice Markandey Katju was different. During his five-and-a-half year stint as an SC judge, he was an enigma — lovable yet distasteful, respectful yet disdainful, courteous in one moment and rough in the next. In his court room, polite conversations could suddenly turn into a vicious diatribe.
How does one describe a personality like Justice Katju? Could his judgments and observations in the court give a clue? It is said judges speak through their judgments. But did he conform to this? Difficult to say.
Coming from the renowned Katju family of Allahabad, he was a first divisioner throughout his academic career. Probably that – getting first division in every examination he appeared in — was the only thing that was constant for him. Everything else was fluid and dynamic.
Justice Katju was a staunch advocate of judicial restraint. He was against public interest litigations which invited judiciary to foray into the domains of executive and legislature. But, he did not flinch in converting innocuous petitions into PILs and kept giving directions to the chief secretaries.
To the credit of the man, he seldom hid his feelings and always wanted to do something for society that would leave a lasting impression. If he did a thorough job before rejecting a mercy killing plea advanced on behalf of Aruna Shanbaug, who had been leading a vegetative life in a Mumbai hospital for last 38 years after a violent sexual assault, then his efforts towards rehabilitation of sex workers will be remembered fondly for a long time in the red light districts across India.
When many feared to dwell openly about incidents of corruption in higher judiciary, Justice Katju jolted the judicial community by boldly recording in a judgment “something is rotten in Allahabad High Court” and referred to sons and kin of sitting judges becoming multi-millionaires in a short span of time.
He gave the impression of being a stickler for rules and laws, but went against a constitution bench judgment to advocate revival of anticipatory bail provision in Uttar Pradesh.
Justice Katju often ridiculed counsel for not reading the petition and the questions of law involved in it. But he himself was found wanting when he ruled that “mere membership of a banned organisation” was no offence though the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) clearly provided that it was a punishable offence.
English may be the language of the court but it did not prevent Justice Katju from frequently lapsing into Hindi. On social issues, his judgments began with an Urdu couplet.
No advocate dared challenge his knowledge either in law or in Urdu. Justice Katju loved engaging lawyers in light banter, but threatened to dismiss the petition if the counsel proved equal to the task in a debate that spilled off the judicial ring.
There was seldom a dull day in his court room. His retirement brought an end to a colourful tenure of an enigmatic judge. When a senior advocate’s comment was sought on Justice Katju’s retirement, he said, “Thank God, India does not follow the US Supreme Court system.”
In US Supreme Court, a person is appointed judge for life. In India, Supreme Court judges retire on attaining the age of 65 years.
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