A tribute to the late Justice Mohan Shantanagoudar

Justice Shantanagoudar will long be remembered for his effortless simplicity and unmatched sagacity.
Justice Mohan Shantanagoudar
Justice Mohan Shantanagoudar

In his speech at the full court reference on his assumption of the office of Chief Justice of the Kerala High Court on September 22, 2016, Justice Mohan Shantanagoudar cited Confucius:

“So simple it is to live; so simple it is to love; so simple it is to smile; but so difficult it is to be simple.”

Justice Shantanagoudar’s persona was synonymous with simplicity; it came very innately to him and not as an imbibed virtue. Barely a few years ago, people had spotted him relishing his favourite Avalakki (flattened rice dish) or Ras Bhaji (vegetable dish) in Hotel Mohan Vilas. With no aura or opulence attached his persona, even at the height of his career, it was so easy to interact with him on a spectrum of topics ranging from conundrums of criminal jurisprudence to the mouth-watering Girmit (version of bhel puri) recipe of LEA Canteen in Dharwad.

Mohan Shantanagoudar was born in Chikkerur village, Hirekerur Taluka of Haveri District on May 5, 1958 to Mallikarjunagouda and Indira. His father was an advocate in Dharwad and was a part-time teacher at University College of Law in Dharwad. Malikarjunagouda’s command over the Court Fee and Suit Valuation Act was so remarkable that many students from colleges attended his classes. Mohan Shantanagoudar enrolled with the State Bar Council in 1980 and joined the chambers of IG Hiregoudar, the legendary advocate of Dharwad whose office was akin to a law university.

Shantanagoudar soon thereafter shifted to Bengaluru to join the chambers of Advocate Shivaraj Patil (as he then was), who later adorned the Bench of the Supreme Court. He set up his independent practice in 1984. In 1991, he was elected to the State Bar Council and later became its Vice-President (1991-93) and then the President (1995-96). He served as State Public Prosecutor (1999-2002) before being appointed as an Additional Judge on May 12, 2003 and as a Permanent Judge on September 24, 2004. Justice Shantanagoudar served as the President of the Bangalore Mediation Centre from September 2015 to June 2016. He was the guardian judge of the Karnataka State Legal Services Authority (KSLSA). He was elevated to the Supreme Court on February 17, 2017.

Justice Shantanagoudar’s robust application of common sense, clubbed with his experience as a practicing lawyer, helped him swiftly clasp the crux of a case. The empathy within him was such that he unendingly encouraged junior advocates to argue their cases to the fullest of their heart’s content. Justice Shantanagoudar never formed an opinion until he heard both sides thoroughly.

Additional Advocate General for Karnataka, Aruna Shyama recollects an instance when Justice Shantanagoudar had almost shut the fate of one of his cases after a detailed argument. But he granted yet another opportunity to the youngster to convince him. Finally, on being convinced of the merit, Justice Shantanagoudar was so gracious that he changed his views and allowed the petition. Such instances are not uncommon in his Court, even when he sat in the apex court, where the fate of a case is sealed within a few seconds.

It is not uncommon that two or even three first class train tickets are booked for VVIPs having regard to privacy. Dr. Chidananda Reddy S Patil, former Principal of University College of Law Dharwad, recollects Justice Shantanagoudar’s firm insistence that only one ticket be booked for him as he didn't want luxury at the cost of a government-run educational institution. Dr. Patil recollects that even at the height of his judicial career, Justice Shantanagoudar preferred a government-owned clunker over a luxurious private taxi when he was invited to be a guest.

Justice Shantanagoudar made it a point to attend law fests and moot court competitions of even small and nondescript colleges. He heard the arguments of young advocates with rapt attention as though he was on the seat of the Supreme Court.

His effortless simplicity never came in the way of taking fearless decisions. He passed a dissenting judgement in the Indore Development Authority case. In his historic judgement of February 2020 in Sakkubai v. State of Karnataka, the apex court ordered for the demolition of all illegal structures in Hampi that were constructed in violation of law. This judgment paved the way for the protection of the historic heritage of Hampi from the onslaught of mushrooming illegal structures. He authored the judgment in the case of M Ravindran v. Intelligence Officer, which reaffirms the often disregarded and indefeasible right of an accused to be released on default bail.

In the Nandan Biomatrix case, he held that entering into a buyback transaction would not preclude a farmer from taking benefit as a “consumer” under the Consumer Protection Act, 1986. In this judgment, he painstakingly chronicled the plight of farmers and the crisis engulfing the agricultural sector in India. In his verdict in the Taj Mahal Hotel case, it was held that a hotel-owner cannot contract out of liability for its negligence or that of its servants in respect of a vehicle of its guest in any circumstance. Once possession of the vehicle is handed to the hotel staff or valet, there is an implied contractual obligation to return the vehicle in a safe condition upon the direction of the owner. The Amitabha Dasgupta judgment authored by him lays down comprehensive guidelines on management and operation of bank safety lockers. The verdict also directs Reserve Bank of India (RBI) to come out with comprehensive guidelines on this aspect within six months. Besides this, he was part of several Full Bench and Constitution Bench judgments of seminal importance.

Justice Shantanagoudar had instituted a memorial lecture to commemorate his father at Vidyavardhaka Sangh in Dharwad. On his request, the famous Kannada writer and poet Jayant Kaikini penned a beautiful theme song for KSLSA. During the previous lockdown period, Justice Shantanagoudar had made considerable contributions, anonymously, to the COVID-19 relief work, particularly in Bengaluru and North Karnataka.

On March 15, 2020, Justice Shantanagoudar was Chief Guest at the convocation of Karnataka State Law University held in Dharwad. In his key note address, he emphasized the importance of trial court practice for youngsters. This was perhaps his last public function.

Justice Shantanagoudar will long be remembered for his effortless simplicity and unmatched sagacity.

The author is an advocate practicing at the Karnataka High Court.

Bar and Bench - Indian Legal news