Justice Karnan and The Challenge He Posed to An Exclusionary Judiciary

In 2017, Karnan wrote that he was pained to note that the media had been omitting crucial parts of his communications regarding his allegations of caste discrimination.

Justice Karnan
Courtesy: Swapan Mahapatra, PTI

Justice C.S Karnan recently extended his support for Prashant Bhushan, who was convicted for contempt of court by the Supreme Court. Justice Karnan described the proceedings against Bhushan as being unconstitutional.

Contempt proceedings against Bhushan had started on grounds of two tweets he had posted in June this year.

The first tweet said: “When historians in the future look back at the last six years to see how democracy has been destroyed in India even without a formal Emergency, they will particularly mark the role of the SC in this destruction, and more particularly the role of the last four CJIs.”

The second tweet said: “The CJI rides a Rs 50-lakh motorcycle belonging to a BJP [Bharatiya Janata Party] leader at Raj Bhavan, Nagpur, without wearing a mask or helmet, at a time when he keeps the SC on lockdown mode denying citizens their fundamental right to access justice!”

After Bhushan was convicted, thousands of lawyers across the country extended their support for him, with protests being organized by lawyers associations in different cities, and more than 1,500 lawyers writing to the Supreme Court against the decision. The Court gave Bhushan multiple chances to reconsider his statement and apologize, which Bhushan denied, hence standing by his opinion.

In 2017, Justice Karnan had become the first serving judge to be convicted for contempt of court. In stark contrast to the widespread support garnered by Bhushan today, the media, judges, and lawyers, including Bhushan himself, had welcomed Justice Karnan’s conviction in 2017.

After being appointed as a judge in the Madras High Court in 2009, Justice Karnan wrote to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) in 2011, alleging discrimination and victimisation by fellow judges as he was a Dalit. In 2014, as a Division bench was hearing a PIL on a matter relating to the appointment of certain judges, he came to the courtroom and said that the selection for the division bench was unfair. He also wrote to the joint registrar of the Right to Information section, alleging irregularities in the appointment of district judges and sought details of the selection process in order to file a complaint before the President of India.

First the Chief Justice of the Madras HC, and then all 20 judges of the Madras HC, asked the CJI to transfer Karnan to a different court saying that he was “difficult to work with”. Contempt proceedings against him began after he wrote to the Prime Minister in 2017, naming “an initial list” of 20 sitting and retired Supreme Court and High Court judges, accusing them of corruption and casteism.

Justice Karnan’s statements or accusations never went into the public domain as the Supreme Court barred the media from publishing and broadcasting Justice Karnan’s statements. Justices J Chelameswar and Madan B Lokur who have now endorsed the resolution expressing solidarity with Bhushan were part of the bench of judges that convicted Justice Karnan.

In 2017, Justice Karnan wrote that he was pained to note that the media had been omitting crucial parts of his communications regarding his allegations. He wrote, “For example, I have often mentioned in my communications that I am a victim of caste discrimination by some erring judges and such violations attract a jail sentence with a fine on the perpetrators”.

While many in solidarity with Prashant Bhushan have pointed out the arbitrary nature of the law of contempt and argued that it is an undemocratic and archaic law, Bhushan has recently defended his support for Justice Karnan’s conviction under the same law.

Justice Karnan refused to comment on Bhushan’s statements about him and the inequality in support, instead, focusing on the law itself. He said that the law of contempt goes against the principle of free speech and said that the different ways in which the two cases have been dealt with reveal inconsistencies in the functioning of the Court itself, further highlighting the arbitrary nature of the law. In fact, even during his own conviction, in 2017, he had made a petition in front of the Delhi High Court, challenging the constitutional validity of the Contempt of Courts Act itself.

An allegation that Justice Karnan had made in 2015, against Justice AK Ganguly, accusing him of sexually harassing an intern in the courtroom, which was dismissed at the time as part of Justice Karnan’s “difficult nature” was later found to be true by a fact-finding committee. Justice AK Ganguly suffered no consequences.

It is important to remember the conviction of a Dalit judge who had repeatedly attempted to critique the judicial system for its exclusionary nature and the dominance of upper castes. The conviction was preceded by years of sidelining, isolating, and making light of Justice Karnan’s statements, chalking it up to his personality and calling him “difficult”.

While Prashant Bhushan’s brave statements have been published on every news portal, Justice Karnan’s communication to the public was stifled. While he may not have maintained the existing standards of ‘decorum’ of the Court while making his allegations, it is important to consider the ideological argument he had attempted to make, and note that practices promoting lack of transparency and internal deliberations of the court are to the advantage of the system. It is for this reason that even in Prashant Bhushan’s case, the Supreme Court is deliberating on an ‘internal mechanism’ to deal with complaints in order to keep them from reaching the public. Now, as we see the law of contempt being misused, rather than glorifying one man’s fight against it, it is important to question the arbitrary nature and vagueness of the law itself, which can be used to target anyone who challenges the practices of the Court.

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