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After an unusually long silence, Justice Markandey Katju has made it to the headlines, again. And for three days the sensational revelations made by him in his blog ‘Satyam Bruyat: Speak the Truth’ ruled the airwaves, newspapers, even rocked Parliament as he railed against three former Supreme Court chief justices for failing to stand up to political pressure and for rescinding their original decisions. The case in point is the extension of a ‘corrupt’ additional judge’s tenure in the Madras High Court and for later confirming him as a judge before finally transferring him out to the Andhra Pradesh High Court.
Cloaked in opaqueness, the lordships are unaccustomed to being questioned about their actions and the curt former SC judge is demanding they answer. But in choosing to speak up now, nine years after the fact and when the main character of the sordid saga is no more, the question being asked is—why now?
Some people have suggested that had he spoken out in 2004-05, his progress to the Delhi HC and to the Supreme Court and beyond would have got stymied. That he did bring the issue to the attention of then chief justice of India R.C. Lahoti (requesting him to conduct an IB inquiry) dispels that rumour. But there is another rumble swirling around the learned Katju—whose three-year tenure as chairman of the Press Council of India comes to an end in October this year—about how he wishes to continue at the helm. As of now, there is no way of finding out the outcome of that one.
The collegium, under attack from one of its own, has got the BJP-led NDA government going, which comes as no surprise. Coming less than a month after the Gopal Subramaniam fiasco, Katju’s attack will only help the NDA firm up its resolve for an alternative appointment system, which many fear would lead to greater political control in the selection of judges. Already, law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, it is learnt, has requested the chairman of the Law Commission, Justice A.P. Shah, to re-examine the whole process of judges’ appointments. The latter has come on record saying that “accountability cannot be at the cost of the independence of the judiciary”.
Katju has focused his attack on three ex-chief justices, namely R.C. Lahoti, Y.K. Sabharwal and K.G. Balakrishnan. All three, it is learnt, were aware of the adverse remarks against the additional judge and were, perhaps, also aware that the adverse entries had been deleted. But who deleted them? Before Katju’s arrival in 2005, there were at least two chief justices who were aware of the allegations levelled against the additional judge, whose proximity to the DMK party has been the crux of the issue.
The “corrupt” additional judge has by now been identified by the media as the late S. Ashok Kumar, who had ingratiated himself to the DMK dispensation after his defence of the party patriarch M. Karunanidhi when he was arrested in 2001. Katju does not mention the name of the then acting chief justice of the Madras HC either, about whom he writes, “by a single stroke of his pen he deleted all those eight adverse entries against the corrupt judge”. Former SC judge Ruma Pal, who was part of the collegium under chief justice Lahoti, says categorically that “the collegium had said no to Kumar”. Katju’s charge is that Lahoti went against the collegium after initially agreeing with them.
So, who was the judge who deleted the adverse remarks and when were they entered into the records? Justice K. Narayana Kurup, currently the Kerala State Police Complaints Authority chairman, was the acting chief justice of the Madras High Court between November 1, 2000 and December 12, 2001, and remembers meeting Ashok Kumar on several occasions. “As the seniormost judge, many district judges and lawyers would come to meet me with their grievances. I do recall Ashok Kumar mentioning that a judgement delivered by him was being opposed by the then Jayalalitha government. I was aware of the adverse entry made against him in this regard,” recalls Kurup. But he’s quick to add, “I was an outsider and Kumar’s name was recommended after I retired.”
In fact, after Kurup, Justice Subhashan Reddy was sworn in as the CJI of the Madras High Court in 2002. After taking over, Reddy recommended 11 names for appointment as additional judges after consultations with fellow judges. Ashok Kumar’s name was one of them. Says Reddy, now the Andhra Pradesh Lokayukta, “I sent the names of eight district judges and three advocates for appointment as additional judges. All eight judges and an advocate were approved by the SC collegium. Ashok Kumar’s name was also on the list,” says Reddy. “There was nothing adverse in the confidential records of the man who served as district judge.”
In another controversial case, the advocate on the list was N. Kannadasan, who later became TN additional advocate-general. His confirmation as judge was put on hold by the collegium for a while as there were adverse remarks against him too. But the NDA regime was under pressure from the DMK to accept his candidature. The SC collegium later approved his name, under duress, it is said. Whether this was pressure from within or political pressure from outside is not clear. But it’s learnt that serious doubts were raised about Kannadasan’s candidature also by the highest office in the country.
By Anuradha Raman in New Delhi