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Justice Karnan, a judge on the run who will go down in judicial history

S Murari | Updated on: 13 May 2017, 21:05 IST
(AFP Photo)

A cartoon strip in an English daily shows baffled policemen outside Justice C S Karnan’s chamber, wondering what to do as he has “given himself anticipatory bail” to prevent arrest by the Supreme Court for contempt.

It’s no joke. In 2016, when he sought to be transferred out of the Madras High Court to Kolkata, he stayed the order and issued notice to fellow judges, threatening action under the Prevention of Atrocities of Dalits Act.

It came as no surprise that he invoked the same act to award jail term to a seven-judge bench of the Supreme Court when it was forced to initiate contempt proceedings against him after he failed to appear before it, nor tender an apology.

It was only when he refused to take a medical test when a team of doctors reached his Kolkata residence that the apex court took the unprecedented step of awarding him six months imprisonment. 

As he refused to plead insanity, the judges held he knew what he was doing and so was responsible for his actions.

On the run

Thus Karnan has become the first high court judge to be given prison term by the apex court. Worse, he flew out of Kolkata fearing arrest and took refuge in a Chennai guesthouse, only to check out before the Kolkata police could reach him.

The last clue the police have got is a mobile signal from Tada, a border town in Andhra Pradesh, leading to speculation that he might have gone to Srikalahasti, a temple town which he visits often.

By making himself scarce, he has become a judge on the run, an absconder, never heard of in the annals of judicial history.

Now that the apex court has refused to suspend his arrest, it is only a question time before the law catches up with him.

From the recall petition filed in the court on his behalf by a lawyer, it is apparent that he intends to go down fighting. While his lawyer has adopted a conciliatory position by pleading that the act allows the contemnor to tender an apology even after he has been found guilty, Justice Karnan has said he is not under the disciplinary jurisdiction of either the CJI or the seven-judge bench, and that he could be impeached only by an order of the President. 

Impeachment is seldom resorted as it involves calling the judge before the bar of a joint sitting of Parliament. If Parliament is not satisfied, a resolution has to be adopted by two-third majority and forward to the President asking him to withdraw his pleasure under which the judge holds office.

A defiant judge

Only two judges, ironically both from the Madras High Court, who came close to being impeached. They were Justice Veerasamy and Justice Ramasamy, both accused of corruption.  Before that stage was reached, the two put in their papers. A third judge, Justice P D Dinakaran, who was also accused of corrupt practices, was also allowed to resign.

In Karnan’s case, he is the one who incited the trouble, first by accusing fellow judges in the Madras High Court of corruption and then writing to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi against 20 judges.

Never before has the sanity of a judge has been called into question. More so, that a criminal lawyer with not much experience in the bar was elevated to the bench also makes a mockery of the collegium system.

Regrettable decisions?

The collegium that selected Karnan comprised then Madras High Court Chief justice A K Ganguly and Justices S J Mukhopadhyaya and P K Misra. Last year, Justice Misra has since said: “I feel ashamed of being part of that collegium in which Justice Ganguly recommended his name. Justice Karnan should have been impeached long ago.

Justice Ganguly said: “I don’t remember who recommended his name. I do not want to comment on his arrest.”

A judge who was part of the selection process has cited reports that Karnan was close to then Chief Justice of India K G Balakrishnan’s brother K G Baskaran. Justice Balakrishnan, a Dalit, also faced accusations that he had amassed wealth disproportionate to his known sources of income.

Justice Balakrishnan has, however, said: “I met Karnan only after his selection. During my tenure as CJI, some 300 HC judges were selected. The CJI has no personal mechanism to look at the background of judges being selected to high courts.

In 2011, Karnan wrote to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) alleging he faced caste-based harassment from other judges at the Madras High Court. 

Among the Madras High Court Chief Justices Karnan challenged were Sanjay K Kaul, and M Y Eqbal. Justice R K Agarawal, who succeeded Justice Eqbal in 2012, wrote to then Chief Justice of India P Sathasivam, accusing Justice Karnan of acts unbecoming of a judge and sought his transfer after the judge allegedly barged into his room and shouted at him. Then in 2015, Karnan threatened contempt of court proceedings against then Chief Justice Kaul.

As Justice Karnan is due to retire on 11 June, one view is that the judges should have ignored his ra

It was following such incidents that Justice Karnan was transferred to Kolkatta High Court.

Obviously, the Justice is suffering from persecution complex and has overplayed the Dalit card. And Dalit leaders like Ram Vilas Pawan and Mayawati at the national level and those in Tamil Nadu like Thirumavalan have stayed away from him.

As Justice Karnan is due to retire on 11 June, one view is that the judges should have ignored his rants and allowed him to fade into oblivion. Already the seven-judge bench has said no orders of his Karnan’s should be enforced and the media should not report on his comments.

Chances are the judges may let him off if he tenders unconditional apology. But the damage has already been done, to the image of the judiciary.

First published: 13 May 2017, 21:05 IST