20, Dec 2017 | CJP Team
Justice CS Karnan, an outspoken critic of discrimination in the judiciary, was released today from Kolkata’s Presidency Jail after serving a six month jail term for contempt of court! The whole issue of this senior judge and his consistent protestations of caste bias in the judiciary has been a serious one. Justice Karnan first made such serious allegations, which hit the headlines first when he accused his fellow colleagues in the Chennai High Court of caste discrimination since he was a Dalit. He also alleged that a fellow judge ‘deliberately’ touched him with his foot because he was a Dalit.
The judge, who whipped up a storm when he rebelled against the Supreme Court and the judiciary, is the first sitting High Court judge to have been ever been sentenced to jail. Three years before the Madras High Court ruled against him, in 2011, he became the first judge of a High Court to move the National Commission for SCs and STs, complaining of harassment by fellow judges.
This is and was a serious accusation that has not really been seriously addressed by the higher judiciary. Justice Karnan had accused his fellow colleagues in the Madras High Court of caste discrimination since he was a Dalit. The extent of discrimination alleged included an incident where a fellow judge ‘deliberately’ touched him with his foot as he was a Dalit. In January 2014, Karnan intervened in a courtroom where a two-judge bench was hearing a PIL on the selection of judges. He made serious allegations stating over the unfair and biased appointment of judges and warned of filing an affidavit on the issue before the court. It was this that prompted the Madras High Court to approach the Supreme Court seeking the transfer of the temperamental judge. Then Chief Justice of India CJ Sathasivam ordered the transfer of Karnan to Calcutta High Court. An enraged Karnan then put a stay order on his own transfer order and demanded a response from the CJI.
Tragically, a bench of the Supreme Court, led by Justice Kehar, then directed the Madras HC to stop assigning cases to Karnan and eventually he had to make his way to the Calcutta HC. Soon after the demonetisation move was announced, on January 2017, Justice Karnan wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, listing 20 sitting and retired Supreme Court and High Court judges who had indulged in corruption and demanded an investigation into this by central agencies. Following the explosive letter, then CJI Justice Khehar and six other judges filed a suo motu contempt case against Karnan and suspended all his judicial and administrative work till he appeared before the top court.
In response to the notice, Calcutta High Court judge, Justice CS Karnan had written to the Regsitrar General of the Supreme Court, contending that the unprecedented suo motu contempt notice issued against him affects his fundamental right to equality and dignity and is also a violation of the principles of natural justice. He argued that the courts have no power to take such a step against a sitting high court judge. Issuing a contempt notice without even hearing him smacks of ill-will. This signed letter, dated June 9, 2017, contains his official letterhead as a judge of the Calcutta High Court.
Even after the SC notice, however, Karnan gave the court hearing a miss and demanded Rs 14 crore as the compensatory amount from the seven-judge bench, alleging caste-based discrimination. Thereafter, on March 10, the SC issued a bailable warrant against the 62-year-old judge and requested him to furnish a psychological report to prove he was “mentally fit”.
Karnan then ‘directed’ that the seven-judge bench to appear at his residential court for insulting him in an open court. He further issued bailable warrants against the seven judges and directed the Airport Authority of India to restrain them from flying abroad and convicted the bench under the SC/ST Act for five years.
The apex court then sentenced Karnan to six months in jail for contempt of court on May 9. However, Karnan evaded arrest and hopped on from one state to another. He was finally nabbed from Coimbatore on June 20 and taken to Kolkata’s Presidency Jail.
Who are the Others Held Guilty of Contempt?
Justice CS Karnan had to serve a six month jail term for contempt of court. In 1992, then chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Kalyan Singh (of the Bharatiya Janata Party(BJP) had to serve a single day in jail for the offence of not honouring his commitment made on affidavit before the Supreme Court that he would protect the Babri Masjid from demolition.
What is Contempt of Court?
These are sections of the Indian Constitution and law that we need keep in mind when understanding this question are Article 19(2), 129 and 142 of the Indian Constitution, the Contempt of Court Act, 1975 and the Rules thereof (1975).
A 2006 amendment to the 1971 Act clarifies that the court may impose punishment for contempt only when it is satisfied that it substantially interferes, or tends to substantially interfere with the due course of any judicial proceeding; or interferes or tends to interfere with, or obstructs or tends to obstruct, the administration of justice in any other manner. While the expression ‘scandalising the court’ has been borrowed from the UK, the British Parliament itself abolished the offence of scandalising the court via statute in 2013.
Contempt is chiefly civil or criminal. Civil contempt refers to willful disobedience of an order passed by a court. Criminal contempt implies any act or expression that scandalises or tends to scandalise, or lowers or tends to lower the authority of judicial proceedings. Criminal contempt implies any act or expression that scandalises or tends to scandalise, or lowers or tends to lower the authority of any court or prejudices, or interferes or tends to interfere with, the due course of any judicial proceeding; or r interferes or tends to interfere with, or obstructs or tends to obstruct, the administration of justice in any other manner.
Feature Image courtesy PTI