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Judge touched Modi's feet, but no reason to doubt entire Allahabad HC

Vivek Katju | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:50 IST
The visit
  • PM Narendra Modi recently visited the Allahabad High Court
  • The Court is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year
The controversy
  • Judges were lining up to take selfies with the PM
  • One judge even touched Modi\'s feet
More in the story
  • Why has this assumed significance?
  • Why one judge\'s actions should not raise questions about the entire court

It is doubtful if Prime Minister Narendra Modi or any of the judges and lawyers who interacted with him during his recent visit to the Allahabad High Court were aware its centenary celebrations held in November 1966. Or of the dignified and restrained exchange of contradictory views that took place during the inaugural session of this great judicial institution.

But it is worth recalling, for it exemplifies the tradition of independent thought and fearless expression of the bench and bar of the Court.

Also read- Judiciary must draw its own 'Lakshman rekha': Arun Jaitley

The centenary address

In his magnificent address at the centenary celebrations, President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan recalled folklore about a great intellectual debate in the eighth century CE on the respective merits of the paths of knowledge and rituals.

He spoke about how Ubhaya Bharati was an ideal judge, because she was unswayed by affection for her husband Mandana Mishra, and judged in favour of Adi Shankaracharaya.

The President had said: "Pure objectivity and fidelity for truth, these were the only things that weighed with her."

President Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan had addressed the Allahabad HC centenary celebrations in 1966

He then went to say: "When I heard my friend the Chief Justice talk about the glories of Allahabad in ancient times, I was reminded of a verse which says, 'Do not talk to me of ancient glories, let me know of what you are at present doing'. It is not necessary for us to take pride in our past".

This was not a mild rebuke. The Advocate-General, Pt KL Misra, a lawyer of wide learning and erudition, spoke after the President.

With deference, he said, "Mr President, I have received your warning that we must not refer to our past. But it is not easy to think of the present without reference to the past, for, the present evolves out of the past and projects into the future".

Misra then went on to refer to the Allahabad's role in "standing against tyranny and oppression".

A long tradition of independence

The judges and lawyers of the Court did not confine their independence only to words, but showed it in their conduct and through their judgments. This was so during the British rule too. During World War II, the Chief Secretary, on instructions of the Governor, wrote to the Registrar of the Court, complaining that its orders were hampering the government's war efforts.

This was because it was becoming common for District Administrations to lodge cases against wealthy individuals under the Defence of India Rules. The Court was routinely dismissing them on appeal; hence, the Chief Secretary's letter.

Chief Justice John Gibb Thom instructed the Registrar to warn the Chief Secretary that if he wrote again on the subject, a notice of contempt would be issued.

Thom had served in the British Army in World War I, and had won the Military Cross for gallantry. But that did not deter him. The Chief Secretary's apology letter came soon.

Standing against emergency and Indira

The High Court stood fearlessly during the emergency, giving relief against draconian administrative orders. Chief Justice KB Asthana, in a memorable judgement, delivered in Hindi so that it was widely understood by the people, held that the right to life could not be abridged during an internal emergency.

Generally, the judges of the Court led quiet, if not reclusive, lives, keeping away from the high and mighty in the land. Certainly, there was no awe when it came to judicial decisions.

This was best illustrated in Justice JML Sinha's judgement, when he unseated Indira Gandhi. Sinha had kept the judgment to himself; his family members too did not know what it would be.

Chief Justice KB Asthana & Justice JML Sinha delivered decisions against Emergency & Indira Gandhi

I recollect meeting his son two days before the decision was delivered. He had come to talk to me about the competitive examinations, in which I had fortunately succeeded that year.

During our conversation I asked him what was then on everyone's mind: "Kya karenge uncle? (What will uncle do?)"

He said: "Kuch pata nahin. Batate hi nahin hain (No idea. He doesn't say anything)".

Two days later, I was present in court and recall the hush before Sinha read the conclusion of his order, "the petition is allowed", and the clamour thereafter, as history was made.

Current context

Fast forward to the present. There can be no objection to Modi's visit to the Court during the year it celebrates its 150th anniversary even, though an election petition is pending against him.

There is no indication that he said anything that can be construed as unworthy behaviour, on his part, in his interaction with the judges or the lawyers.

Yes, the judge who touched his feet (who reportedly does not originally belong to Allahabad) must introspect if his conduct was in keeping with the high office he holds.

Must read- Allahabad HC judges click selfies with PM Modi, one even touched his feet

If old traditions were upheld, then the group photograph taken on the occasion would have sufficed. But we live in the age of the selfie, and obviously judges have not been able to avoid the contagion.

There is no reason to believe that the judge hearing the Modi election petition will not act to uphold the court's tradition of integrity and impartiality while deciding the case.

Edited by Shreyas Sharma

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First published: 16 June 2016, 9:40 IST
Vivek Katju @CatchNews

Vivek Katju is a retired diplomat who has served as India's ambassador to Afghanistan, Myanmar and Thailand.