The last week witnessed a selective targeting of two popular non-Congress state governments and its leaders by Justice Markandey Katju, a retired judge of the Supreme Court, presently the Chairperson of the Press Council of India.He released a draft report on behalf of the Press Council of India alleging that media in Bihar was not independent. He followed it up with an article in The Hindu attacking the Gujarat Government and its' Chief Minister Narender Modi.
Though initially known for his scholarship Justice Katju was never a conventional judge. His utterances, both during his tenure as a Judge and thereafter are clearly outlandish. Dignified comment is alien to him. His attacks on non-Congress governments whether in West Bengal, Bihar or Gujarat seem more in the nature of thanks-giving to those who provided him with a post retirement job.
I have held a strong view that Judges of the Supreme Court and the High Courts must not be eligible for jobs in the government after retirement. In some cases the pre-retirement judicial conduct of a judge is influenced by the desire to get a post retirement assignment. However, we are still operating under a system where various tribunals and other quasi-judicial assignments are filled up with retired judges. The Chairman of the Press Council of India has always been a retired judge of the Supreme Court. He deals with issues relating to the freedom of Press, possible encroachment of the said freedom and also hears complaints relating to lack of professionalism in media reporting and comment. The Chairman of the Press Council discharges a statutory job. His job requires fairness, impartiality and political neutrality. Additionally a Judge, whether sitting or retired, is expected to conduct himself with sobriety, dignity and grace. He cannot be loud, crude, outlandish or behave like a megalomaniac. When Judges discharge judicial functions nobody can attribute a motive to them. Even criticism of judgements has to be couched in a language of restraint. Criticism can be academic not personal. It is a fundamental principle in the conduct of Judicial or Quasi Judicial functions a Judge should refrain from involving themselves in political controversies. If he desires to get into a political activity or a political debate, he should cease to hold his Judicial or Quasi-Judicial office. In any case his views are liable for the same level of scrutiny and comment as is applicable to politicians.
Justice Markandey Katju has failed every test on which a Judge whether sitting or retired could be judged. The choice of his subjects and targets is motivated by his political preferences. He is extraordinarily soft on those who provided him a post retirement job. I am yet to read a comment from him which prefers meritocracy over dynasty as an instrument of leadership creation. Obviously,such omments would embarrass those who desire to legitimise India as a Dynastic Democracy The crusader in Justice Katju subjects himself to self-censorship when UPA's corruption from the 2G spectrum allocation to the coal block allocation are to be commented upon. When confronted with favourable comments by large sections of domestic and international community praising the change of polity in Bihar and the emergence of development as the centre stage agenda of politics, Justice Katju chooses to target Nitish Kumar and the Bihar Government for lack of Press freedom.
His recent criticism in a signed article in The Hindu against the Gujarat Chief Minister Narender Modi reads more like a personal tirade. His political bias is clear from the fact that on the burning of the Sabarmati Express in Godhra he writes " There is still a mystery of what happened in Godhra". Is Justice Markandey Katju trying to hold a brief for those who have been convicted for setting the train on fire resulting in the death of innumerable people and injuries to many others. Can a former judge of the Supreme Court presently holding a statutory assignment ignore the fact that the trial court has convicted a large number of accused in the case and their appeals are pending ?
He then comments on the fact that Narender Modi has not been prima facie held liable by any judicial authority. He prefers bazaar gossip over judicial verdicts and observes "I do not want to comment on our judiciary but I certainly do not buy the story that Shri Modi had no hand in 2002." He then continues his tirade against Modi and Gujarat by underplaying the economic development in Gujarat. He observes-" Giving concessions to big industrial houses and offering them cheap land and cheap electricity can hardly be called development if it does not raise the life of the masses."
He then selectively quotes statistics to substantiate his point. Professor Jagdish Bhagwati and Dr. Arvind Panagariya in their recent publications have observed that Gujarat inherited low levels of social indicators at the time of Independence and it is the change in these indicators where Gujarat has shown impressive improvement. The literacy rate has risen from 22 percent in 1951 to 69 percent in 2001 and 79 percent in 2011. The infant mortality rate per 1000 has fallen from 144 in 1971 to 60 in 2001 and 41 in 2011. He looks at Gujarat with a jaundiced eye.
Justice Katju finally concludes his article with a political appeal. He observes "I appeal to the people of India to consider all this if they are really concerned about the nation's future,otherwise they may make the same mistake which the Germans made in 1933".I concede to Justice Katju the right to hold his political views, but can the occupant of a job whose functioning is quasi-judicial openly participate in political activity. His appeal is political. He appears to be more Congress than the Congress party. If a sitting Judge of the Supreme Court participated in politics so openly and issued a political appeal he would be liable for impeachment. If a Civil Servant did the same he would be liable to be dismissed from service. Should not a former judge who currently occupies a quasi judicial office as Chairman of the Press Council of India, either quit before actively participating in politics or be sacked. Retired judges must remember that the rental for occupying a Lutyen's bunglow post retirement has to be political neutrality not political participation.