Dr Justice S Muralidhar: India’s Lincoln Lawyer and the boldest judge the Supreme Court never had

As the years passed, Muralidhar J quietly acquired the reputation of being the gold standard for propriety and hard work.
Chief Justice S Muralidhar
Chief Justice S Muralidhar

My first brush with Dr Justice S Muralidhar, Chief Justice of the Orissa High Court, was in the early 1990s when he came to our campus and took a few classes on the “Auto Shankar” case, in which he was the lawyer. He took us through in graphic detail, how the killer went on a rampage and the legal landmines that the case traversed.

Those were heady days at NLSIU! Youth and the arrogance of being a student of the “Harvard of the East” blinded me to this man’s brilliance, commitment to detail and absolute lack of ego. We have had Sandra O’ Connor and the Chief Justice of India come to campus for talks. Even Ram Jethmalani had come to teach us criminal law. So why should we even give this young Chennai lawyer with jet black hair the time of the day?

Murali was forgotten, only to re-enter my life when I joined the chambers of Senior Advocate Indira Jaising. He and Justice Ravindra Bhat, both then upcoming Advocates-on-Record, would regularly brief her. While she insisted that unlike her Bombay juniors who called her Indu, I should stick to “Ma'am”, when it came to her briefing counsel, I ventured into the familiar world of first names. So ‘Murali’ he was.

In those days, Jaising used to bring out a monthly legal magazine. The unwritten rule was that as her junior, I had little choice but to “contribute” articles. It was then that I made a pleasant discovery. Murali was a regular reader and would share his feedback on what I wrote. In fact, during the pandemic, when I got back into writing regularly, the reticent Murali would on occasion send a message in appreciation, rekindling old memories.

Justice Muralidhar was a heavily briefed lawyer whose calling card was his simplicity. It was widely known that his “chamber” was his Blue Maruti Omni Van that used to be parked in the Supreme Court parking lot.

I was surprised to find out in 2006 that he was being elevated as a judge of the Delhi High Court. The first challenge was to transition from addressing him as Murali to referring to him as ‘His Lordship’. Hence, I was quite miffed with him when a few years later he put out a notice that lawyers should desist from addressing him as “Milord” or “His Lordship”.

The gentle, yet much-needed subversion of the colonial edifice had begun! 

While I attacked him with “do you know we lawyers use ‘Milords’ just as a filler to catch our breath or to formulate the argument, why are you taking it so seriously?”, I was conscious of the important point he was making. He even did away with the practice of a court usher liveried in colonial outfit pulling his chair in court so that his Lordship could take his seat!

As the years passed, Justice Muralidhar quietly acquired the reputation of being the gold standard for propriety and hard work in the Delhi High Court. Lawyers knew that they could not mess around with him.  He could be firm and give a counsel a dressing down of a lifetime, all the while smiling and being polite.  

I recount bearing witness to Justice Muralidhar's human side. He and his wife - the one and only Usha Ramanathan - rescued and took into their care the old and infirm Professor Lotika Sarkar. The aged legend had “gifted” away her own house to certain people who claimed to be taking care of this childless lady after her husband had passed away. I was indeed surprised, but felt extremely privileged that they chose me to be the counsel for Latika in court. A suit was filed to declare the gift deed invalid. Those of you who have read my book will already detect an element of familiarity with an anecdote I wrote about. Let's leave it at that. 

What was inspirational was that Justice Muralidhar and Usha took care of Lotika di till she passed away peacefully, having spent her last days enveloped with selfless love and compassion, which is rare even from one own family and blood relations. At her cremation, Justice Muralidhar broke down like a son who had lost his own parent. I know Lotika di wanted to recognize the couples’ role by providing for them in her will.  This was resolutely opposed by them.  I am yet to meet people so committed to propriety as these two.

In fact, often this commitment went to extents that bordered on the extreme. Usha, with her campaign to protect privacy rights, never owned a cellphone. During this case, I once needed to urgently get in touch with her and had no option but to call Justice Muralidhar on his phone. He politely told me off for that. He was hesitant to use the official phone for the private purpose of his wife - an irritating and yet admirable virtue in the present age! Usha too would come to my office driving her own car, careful never to exploit official perquisites for private ends.

I guess I was destined to be somehow connected to Justice Muralidhar in every significant turn of his illustrious life. The last one came around midnight in February 2020, when I was about to go off to sleep. His private secretary called and informed me that I had to attend a special hearing that was being held at Justice Muralidhar’s residence to urgently save injured people trapped in the North-East Delhi Riots. I was the only government lawyer they had managed to contact.

The midnight hearing is truly something to remember for a lifetime. After the hearing was over and orders were passed, the publicity shy and reticent Justice Muralidhar said something which I found out of character and it was only later that I understood how far-sighted it was. 

He said,

“Sanjoy, you can brief the press reporters about the order.” 

I asked him, “Should I tweet about it too?”  

He answered in the affirmative. The rest is history. As the news of the High Court’s intervention went viral, the riots ebbed. His Lordship had not only saved those 19 lives by his order, by ensuring its timely dissemination, he had put an end to the carnage altogether! Countless lives were saved by his action that night, supported by another stellar judge of the High Court - Justice Anoop Bhambani

Justice Muralidhar was aware of the price he would have to pay for his courage.

His transfer to Chandigarh was expedited. It is said that but for the efforts of Justice Rohinton Nariman, he was destined to languish there. 

As he is set to demit office as Chief Justice of the Orissa High Court, Justice Muralidhar has a bright career as a senior counsel and an arbitrator awaiting him, should he so choose. It is his choice. 

Justice Ruma Pal, after her retirement, chose to only teach school children how to play the piano.

It is not Murali’s loss at all. He has earned his mention in the books of history as one of the most courageous judges India has had in recent times. 

If anything, it is a loss for us, the Bar and the Bench. 

The shameless capitulation of the Collegium, which could not even ensure that he was allowed to preside as Chief of a chartered High Court, when the executive just junked their recommendation to transfer him to Chennai, is another nail in the coffin of judicial independence.

Justice Muralidhar at his historic jam-packed farewell hosted by the Delhi High Court Bar, had said to a thundering applause,

Whatever they take from me, they cannot take away one title and that is ‘A Former Judge of the Delhi High Court’”. 

I now feel there is yet another title he richly deserves - “The boldest judge the Supreme Court never had”.

Sanjoy Ghose is a Senior Advocate of the Delhi High Court.

Disclaimer: The views are expressed are that of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Bar and Bench.

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