Justice C.S. Karnan

A controversial career

Print edition : June 10, 2017

A digital banner of the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi in support of Justice Karnan on the Ulundurpet-Tiruchi main road in Tamil Nadu. Photo: T. Singaravelou

Since his elevation as a judge to the Madras High Court in 2001, Justice C.S. Karnan has been involved in many a controversy relating to allegations of discrimination against him because he is a Dalit.

The raging controversy on the stand-off between Justice C.S. Karnan and the seven-member bench of the Supreme Court, while causing embarrassment to the country’s higher judiciary, has also left a deep scar on the institution.

The beginnings of the current controversy can be traced to the elevation of 65-year-old Chinnaswamy Swaminathan Karnan from the Bar to a judge on the bench of the Madras High Court on March 30, 2009, after he had served as a lawyer in the Madras High Court for more than a decade. He was made a permanent judge two years later.

Until then no one seemed to have heard about him. His elevation to the bench surprised many then. Justice Karnan, a Dalit hailing from a village in Cuddalore district in Tamil Nadu, has been in the limelight since then for courting controversy.

In the view of many observers of the judiciary, only a thin line separated his unusual behaviour from an abnormality. The unpredictability in his character is too obvious to be missed. The latest was the claim of “mental frustration” in his letter to the apex court after he was transferred to Kolkata. Besides, when he appeared before the Supreme Court in person in response to a contempt notice, he told the bench that he “has lost his physical and mental balance”. And he has always used his caste identity to claim victimhood and intimidate fellow judges and extricate himself from embarrassing situations his actions created.

When he was serving on the bench in the Madras High Court in 2011, he accused brother judges of harassing him since he was a Dalit. He sent a written complaint against a few fellow judges and the then Chief Justice of the Madras High Court, R.K. Agarwal, to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC), accusing them of “harassing and victimising” him since he was a Dalit.

“This is the first time in the annals of the Indian higher judiciary that a serving judge preferred a complaint against brother judges on the charge of caste discrimination,” said a senior lawyer in Chennai.

“It was to subjugate me. I was ridiculed,” he said in his complaint to NCSC Chairman P.L. Punia, who forwarded it to the then Chief Justice of India, Justice S.H. Kapadia. He even convened a press conference in his chamber, an unprecedented incident in the Madras High Court. These acts also led to an agitation by a few in support of Justice Karnan on the court premises then.

His letter to the NCSC Chairman, dated January 6, 2014, talked about how he, as a portfolio judge for Karur district in Tamil Nadu, was prevented from inaugurating the combined court buildings in Kulithalai town. He alleged that Chief Justice Agarwal had changed his portfolio to Sivagangai district just four days before the inauguration of the court buildings, which was scheduled for June 8, 2013. “As such, His Lordship R.K. Agarwal has prevented me from any active role at Kulithalai… and displaying a form of discrimination without assigning any reason. Section 3 (1) (x) of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, become applicable [against Agarwal],” he said in his letter.

In a piquant situation

Now the top court finds itself in a piquant situation with Justice Karnan raising the issue of caste bias against a few senior Supreme Court judges, too, who found him guilty of contempt. He told the Delhi media the other day that he was “ashamed of being born in India and would not hesitate to move to a country where caste discrimination does not exist”.

Dalit lawyers rallied behind him and, along with a few activists, attempted to stage a road blockade at Anna Salai, Chennai, on May 16, demanding withdrawal of the Supreme Court’s sentence against him. They were arrested and enlarged on bail later.

Justice K. Chandru, former judge of the Madras High Court, said using the Dalit card as a weapon was incorrect. “Justice Karnan knows very well that whenever his conduct is questioned, he could use the Dalit card. It is a weapon of convenience. You must understand that there were Dalits among the judges who complained against him. The wife of a Dalit judge filed a petition against him. Every time this Dalit card is pulled out, things are hushed up. If you look at his conduct over the last five years, it is clear something is seriously wrong,” he told Frontline.

Many other serving judges and senior lawyers, who did not wish to be named, endorse Justice Chandru’s views. But a Madurai-based lawyer, W. Peter Ramesh Kumar, who was sentenced to six months’ imprisonment for criminal contempt by the Madras High Court and is a close aide of Justice Karnan, reiterated that the senior judge had suffered the worst form of discrimination based on birth in the Madras High Court. “But the Chief Justices of both the Madras High Court and the Supreme Court never treated it seriously. He is a whistle-blower in the institution, for which he is being harassed,” Peter Ramesh Kumar said.

During a brief interaction with this correspondent in Chennai some time back, Justice Karnan, talking about the problems he faced, claimed that he had the moral right to interfere in what he felt were “important socially and legally relevant issues”. He said: “I have a responsibility to do. The society to which we all belong to needs to be respected. If a system remains insensitive, it is our responsibility to set it right. Exactly that is what I have been doing in the judiciary too.”

In January 2014, the collegium was about to finalise names for the posts of additional judges for the Madras High Court when a public interest litigation (PIL) petition was filed against it. A Division Bench was hearing the case when Justice Karnan, who was a serving judge then, stormed into the court hall. After terming the system “autocratic”, he claimed that the “selection is not fair” and threatened to file an affidavit in this regard.

The judges on the bench were taken aback. “The sudden unfamiliar incident made us fume inwardly on this raw unconventional protest that was unexpected, uncharitable and ungenerous and, to say the least, it was indecorous,” stated Justice Agarwal, in the letter he wrote to the Chief Justice of India, Justice P. Sathasivam, about the incident and other related issues involving Justice Karnan, who, he urged, should be shifted from the Madras High Court. The Chief Justice alleged that the judge had barged into his chamber after “hurling a volley of invectives”.

Justice Agarwal wrote further: “In fact, some of my brother judges are afraid of him. The conduct of Justice Karnan, as the present incident shows, is not only unbecoming of a judge but also tends to undermine the dignity of the Chief Justice and brings a bad name to the institution.” But Justice Karnan was not one to lie low. He preferred yet another complaint to the NCSC and asked the Chief Justice of India not to oblige Justice Agarwal’s demand [to transferr him] until he (Justice Karnan) had established “the veracity of my allegations”.

In a letter addressed to the Chief Justice of India and the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court, Justice Karnan explained: “As such, it is my bounden duty to establish the veracity of my allegations. Therefore, my presence in the Madras High Court was absolutely essential.”

He alleged that “gross violations” had been committed in preparing the list of 12 persons recommended for the posts of additional judges to the Madras High Court. The selection, he said, was “not conducive to court decorum and proper administrative norms” and added that he would “substantiate this view by detailed explanations on each of the misdemeanours”.

Synonymous with controversy

By then Justice Karnan had become synonymous with controversy. Just prior to his complaint to the NCSC, in 2015, the important portfolios Justice Karnan held in the Madras High Court were withdrawn, which infuriated him further. He went on long leave after he was allotted “insignificant or dummy” portfolios. In the same year, he also accused a brother judge of sexually assaulting an intern in his chamber.

Justice Karnan’s spat with the then Chief Justice Sanjay Kishen Kaul, now a judge in the Supreme Court, assumed folklore proportions when the former, on April 16, 2015, stayed the Chief Justice’s administrative order with regard to the selection of civil judges, which the Madras High Court stayed the next day. Interviews were slated from April 15.

But Justice Karnan initiated suo motu proceedings and stayed the entire recruitment process. He sought the selection list of the names of district judges with their biodata, the list of judicial officers who conducted the examination and evaluation, and the names of the members of the selection committee, from the Joint Registrar, RTI Section, Madras High Court.

Not satisfied with this, in a letter addressed to the joint director of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in Chennai, Justice Karnan instructed him to inquire into the educational qualifications of the then fellow judge Justice V. Dhanapalan who was a selection committee member. However, a three-member bench of the Supreme Court, headed by the then Chief Justice of India H.L. Dattu, moved by the Madras High Court Registry, restrained him from interfering with the process of selection of civil judges.

The apex court had to step in on more than one occasion to bail out other judicial officers who faced Justice Karnan’s fury and also at every time he chose to act in ways considered to be either unethical or eccentric. But he perhaps outdid himself when the then Chief Justice of India T.S. Thakur recommended his transfer to the Calcutta High Court. He, in yet another act of defiance, stayed it through a suo motu judicial order (February 15, 2016). He sought a written statement from the top court on the reasons for his transfer.

The Supreme Court Bench led by the present Chief Justice, J.S. Khehar, however, stayed all orders issued by Justice Karnan from February 12, 2016, the date he received the transfer order to Kolkata, before authorising the Madras High Court to strip him off his judicial and administrative powers. His reaction was terse. “Mine is a separate constitutional office. How can the apex court interfere in my office without hearing me? Parliament is the competent authority to decide [on this],” he claimed.

But what he did after that did not come as a surprise to anyone. Realising the gravity of the situation, he backtracked on his belligerent stance and conceded that he passed an “erroneous order” [stay order] because of “mental frustration resulting in the loss of mental balance since I was disturbed through various incidents”.

In his letter addressed to Justices Khehar and R. Banumathi, he said he had been disturbed since some fellow judges in the Madras High Court had “ridiculed” him. He said he did not name the judges who “indulged in such ugly pranks” in order to uphold the “sanctity of the judiciary and maintain communal harmony”. He, however, assured the judges that in future he would foster a “harmonious attitude to one and all”.

Summoned for contempt

But the Supreme Court stuck to its order of transferring him to the Calcutta High Court, especially after the Chief Justice of India received a petition from a batch of 21 judges levelling serious charges against Justice Karnan who by then had dispatched letters to the President, the Prime Minister and senior Ministers alleging corruption among former and current judges in the country. This prompted the top court to summon him for contempt, the first in the history of the judiciary against a sitting High Court judge.

Justice Karnan appeared before the seven-member bench on March 31 and offered an apology but wanted his judicial and administrative powers restored. “Arrest me and punish me if you want. Restore my job,” he told the bench, which, on May 9, sentenced him to six months’ imprisonment.

Justice Karnan was transferred to the Calcutta High Court on March 11, 2016, and not long before he found himself embroiled in a fresh controversy. In June 2016, during the hearing of the high-profile case of the collapse of the Vivekananda flyover in Kolkata, which claimed 27 lives, Justice Karnan had a spat with Justice Ashim Roy in open court. Justice Roy was the senior judge of the Division Bench which was looking into the bail application of the officials of IVRCL, the company that was commissioned to construct the flyover.

Controversy in Kolkata

On May 20, 2016, the Division Bench comprising Justices Roy and Karnan refused bail to the 10 IVRCL officials accused in the case; however, Justice Karnan signed in favour of the accused 18 days later, claiming that he had a change of heart after going through the papers again in his chamber. Justice Roy objected to this, pointing out that such decisions should be taken in open court, and a heated debate ensued.

Soon after the incident, the Calcutta High Court Bar Association held a general body meeting in which the lawyers decided to boycott the court of Justice Karnan. Suranjan Dasgupta, the secretary of the Calcutta High Court Bar Association, said: “Earlier, Justice Karnan had misbehaved with two of the advocates, including the Chief Public Prosecutor. Justice Karnan had told the prosecutor, who is a very senior lawyer, that if he continued to argue, he would complain against him to the Bar Council of West Bengal and the Bar Council of India and see that his licence is cancelled. This, along with the fact that he had an open tiff with a senior judge, led us to decide to boycott the court of Justice Karnan.”

The boycott lasted for two days and then Justice Karnan met the representatives of the lawyers and the matter was resolved. “Justice Karnan wanted to meet us, so I went and met him along with my office-bearers. He was very polite and courteous and said that that it was a misunderstanding and that he did not have any hard feelings towards lawyers and his brother judge; he regretted what he had said and did not mean to hurt anyone’s feelings and the matter was sorted out,” said Dasgupta.

After the incident, Justice Karnan was given charge of a single bench, and, according to lawyers, performed his functions well. “He was a good judge and was known to be relief-minded—meaning he tried to provide relief to those who had turned to the court with their problems,” a senior lawyer of the Calcutta High Court told Frontline.

According to highly placed sources in the Calcutta High Court, after Justice Karnan passed a stay order against the Chief Justice of India’s order transferring him to the Calcutta High Court from the Madras High Court, a section of influential lawyers raised objections with the then Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court, Manjula Chellur. “We had said that we did not want such a controversial judge in the Calcutta High Court. But at the Chief Justice’s request, we relented,” a senior advocate told Frontline.

With Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay in Kolkata

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