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Justice Sethna: the man who lit a house fire among Gujarat judges

Darshan Desai | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 3:41 IST

The man

  • B J Sethna has questioned land allocation to judges
  • His allegations have sparked a war in the Gujarat HC
  • But the ex-judge is no stranger to controversy himself

The manner

  • He retired in 2007, but overstayed in his official bungalow by 3 years
  • He upheld the acquittal of all accused in the Best Bakery case
  • In 2007, Sethna allegedly assaulted fellow judge P B Majmudar

Justice B J Sethna's letter questioning allotment of land to 27 judges has sparked a sordid war in the Gujarat High Court.

You can read about it here: Shame & Awe: how Gujarat's judges are busting each other over houses

The war suggests a disturbing collusion between the judiciary and the Gujarat government. And a dread sense of the compromises that have been made.

Shockingly, at one point during the court hearing, the Acting Chief Justice VM Sahai reminded the state's advocate general how many times the government had approached the courts for favours and said: "Shall I open the Pandora's Box?"

This is deeply dismaying for ordinary citizens. The Supreme Court has now stepped in and said it will hear the case.

Justice Sethna's letter, therefore, has landed him in the centre of a raging scandal.

It's of a pattern. In his time, the former judge has been in several controversies, some juicy, many quite troubling.

Who is Justice Sethna?

  • He is a former judge of the Gujarat High Court. He twice served as acting chief justice in March 2006, first for five days and then for a week.
  • In 2007, he was transferred out to the Sikkim High Court, but he refused to go and resigned.

Why is he in the news now?

  • Sethna, along with Justice K R Vyas, a former judge of the Gujarat and Bombay High Courts, recently wrote a letter to Acting Chief Justice V M Sahai.
  • They alleged irregularities in the allotment of land to 27 sitting and retired judges by the Gujarat government in 2007. The letter did not strictly seem about the principle at stake.
  • Both Sethan and Vyas had also asked for plots, but neither got one.
  • Sahai converted the letter into a PIL and, just days before his retirement on 12 August, issued notices to the 27 judges.

Justice Sethna left the court in 2007, but overstayed in his official bungalow by 3 years. He's still there

  • In the court on 11 August, the state's Advocate General Kamal Trivedi asserted that Justice Sahai was out for vendetta because he too wanted a piece of land but was denied.
  • Justice Sahai hit back, saying Trivedi had approached him for favours in several state government cases. "Do you want me to open a Pandora's Box and convert all that into PILs?"

Why is Sethna a controversial person?

Sethna's time on the bench, and after, hasn't been exemplary by any standard. Here are some of the controversies that have kept him company over the years:

  • He left the court in 2007, but not the bungalow in Bodakdev, Ahmedabad, that came with the job. He overstayed by nearly three years.
  • Then, he landed a job as chairman of the 'Commission of Inquiry for Religious Polarisation', which enables him keep the house for five more years.

"Three chief justices of the Gujarat HC - Y R Meena, K S P Radhakrishnan and S G Mukhopadhyaya - gave Justice Sethna four extensions to stay in the bungalow," former president of the Gujarat HC Advocates Association Yatin Oza told Catch.

"Now, he is staying there as chairman of the polarisation commission. Nobody knows how long the term of the commission is. It's supposed to look into all communal incidents in the state since 1947."

Justice Sethna didn't respond to repeated requests for comment from Catch.

  • This row though pales in comparison to the controversy over his judgment in a 2002 Gujarat riots case.

He upheld a fast-track court's acquittal of all 21 accused in the Best Bakery massacre case.

His ruling was rejected by the Supreme Court, which also ordered a fresh trial by a special court in Mumbai. The accused were finally punished.

  • In January 2007, Sethna allegedly assaulted fellow judge P B Majmudar.

Majmudar complained to the chief justice, but stopped short of going to the police.

Sethna denied the allegation, and countered that Majmudar had a grudge against him: he had passed a critical order against Majmudar's lawyer son in April 2006.

The complaint had earlier been heard by Majmudar himself, Sethna said, which amounted to unethical practice.

Justice Sethna was reprimanded by the SC for hearing a case which he himself had once advocated

His superiors weren't convinced and transferred Sethna to the Sikkim HC. He protested the transfer, even writing to the Chief Justice of India for a probe into the incident. When nothing came of it, he retired.

Majmudar was simultaneously transferred to the Rajasthan High Court, and he went quietly.

  • A few years after he was named a high court judge in November 1990, he was reprimanded by the Supreme Court for hearing a case which he himself had once advocated.
  • In 1997, the Gujarat HC Advocates' Association accused him of "behaving badly" with the bar, following which he was transferred to the Rajasthan HC.
  • In Rajasthan, he again landed in trouble when, in September 1997, he issued a contempt notice against Chief Justice M G Mukherjee.
  • He did so after Mukherjee transferred a criminal case that Sethna had partly heard to a division bench. The contempt order was stayed by the Supreme Court on a special leave petition filed by Mukherjee himself.
First published: 17 August 2015, 1:18 IST
Darshan Desai

The writer is Editor, Development News Network, Ahmedabad, and Director, Centre for Media Research Training and Advocacy