A gentleman judge: Tribute to Justice S Ranganathan

Former Delhi High Court judge Justice RV Easvar pens a tribute to his mentor, Justice S Ranganathan, who passed away on the intervening night of January 19 and 20.
Justice S Ranganathan
Justice S Ranganathan

Former judge of the Supreme Court of India, Justice S Ranganathan breathed his last on the intervening night of January 19 and 20, 2022 at Chennai after a brief illness. He was 94 years old.

Justice Ranganathan was born in 1927 and enrolled as an advocate of the Madras High Court in 1952. Later, in 1954 he was appointed as the standing counsel for the income tax department along with CS Rama Rao Sahib, which assignment he held with great distinction and presented the cases of the income tax department fairly and objectively. He was appointed as a Judicial Member of the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal in 1964 and had his first posting at Calcutta, which, at that point of time, was the premier centre for interesting tax disputes. He served the Tribunal with great distinction and exhibited remarkable erudition and learning in his orders. He was elevated to the post of the President of the Tribunal in the year 1974. After three years as President, he was elevated as a judge of the Delhi High Court in 1977.

Justice Ranganathan’s tenure for about 11 years in the Delhi High Court saw him render several erudite judgments on all the branches of law, including criminal law. In the year 1987, he was elevated to the Supreme Court of India, where he served till 1992. After retirement, the Government of India appointed him as the first Chairman of the Authority for Advance Rulings. Under his able leadership, the Authority was able to fulfil the expectations of the tax payers and the income tax department admirably. He also revised the treatise on income tax law authored by AC Sampath Iyengar.

The qualities Justice Ranganathan exhibited as a judge were a model for judges and members of quasi-judicial tribunals. His orders were elaborate, but not unnecessarily so; not a word or a thought was wasted, and he wrote was only that which was apposite or pertinent to the dispute. The structuring of the judgments was so meticulously built, brick-by-brick, with one concept seamlessly merging into the other and logically flowing from the other. It was a pleasure to read them.

He really went deep into the issue, and would invariably trace the legislative history of the statutory provisions which had to be dealt with, and set them out with a clarity and precision that was not easily attainable. I have found it impossible to either add or remove or change a word in his judgments, or put a gloss on them as judges sometimes tend to do. His judgments were faultless products, crafted after a deep, serious and objective study of the facts and the law, aided by arguments of counsel.

Several senior counsel in Calcutta have told me that Justice Ranganathan never had reservations about deciding the matter on the basis of a point that was not argued. To him, nothing that is relevant to the decision-making process should be ignored merely because it was not argued! During my stint in Calcutta as a Judicial Member of the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal, I have come across many of his long orders which were hand-written, apparently because of shortage of stenographers!

My first appearance in any court was before a Bench of the Tribunal at Madras presided over by him. I was asked to take an adjournment in the matter, which Justice Ranganathan (then President of the Tribunal) smilingly refused and asked me to tell the Bench whatever I knew about the case, which was precious little! I nervously and incoherently said a few words, and with plenty of encouragement from him, was able to continue for 15 minutes or so. At the end of the arguments, he announced that he was accepting my arguments! I have never heard him use strong words while on the bench. His demeanour concealed his learning and erudition, and patience he had in abundance.

I also want to share another experience long thereafter, during my tenure as judge of the Delhi High Court. This happened sometime in 2013 or so, when I was the company judge. It was a matter which was bereft of authority, but it was well argued by both the sides and I was unable for a long time to decide it. I did some deep research myself and through my law researchers, and came across a judgment of Justice Ranganathan when he was judge of the Delhi High Court on the company side, and it was pat on the point. When I went through the judgment line by line, I found that he had referred to an English case rendered a few months or so earlier in which the point was considered. I think he wrote the judgment some time in 1986 or so, and at that time, we did not have such access to judgments from England or other countries as we have today, and one had to depend wholly on the printed law reports. It showed how much pains he had taken to pick out an English judgment rendered a few months or so earlier, and I am astounded at the type of research he must have done to find it! I had no difficulty following it respectfully, particularly when it was a judgment of the same court.

During my interactions with him, he was so caring and concerned about my work, and it was difficult to draw him to speak about his judgments, however hard I tried! Even when I narrated my experience at the Delhi High Court about how I found his judgment in the company law matter and followed it, he just smiled and said nothing. As a person, he was self-effacing, never talked about himself or his work. In all the obituary messages sent by former judges of the Delhi High Court, what was remarkable was that every one of them had mentioned, apart from his learning and erudition, about his humility as a quality which always stood out.

May Justice Ranganathan’s soul rest in peace!!!

Justice RV Easvar is a former judge of the Delhi High Court.

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