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A few days after his 56th birthday, Justice Vishnu Gajanana Sabhahit was summoned to the ‘highest court’, in an act of gruelling injustice. His Lordship still had many years of yeoman service to render and many cases to hear and dispose.
By Aditya Sondhi
A few days after his 56th birthday, Justice Vishnu Gajanana Sabhahit (pictured) was summoned to the ‘highest court’, in an act of gruelling injustice. His Lordship still had many years of yeoman service to render and many cases to hear and dispose. And those who have had the privilege of appearing before him would know that these disposals would be just, firm and swift. Not one to suffer fools, His Lordship would cut short flippant arguments with a shake of his hand and a curt ‘Aagodila ri!’ (Can’t be done!) Of course, his sharp sense of humour was a perfect antidote for his stern exterior. Often, His Lordship’s wit would be straight-faced and take the counsel aback. But the twinkle in his eyes would, only slightly, give away the jovial remark and quickly lighten up the court’s atmosphere.
Many of us were initially intimidated to appear before His Lordship as he enjoyed a reputation of being a no-nonsense judge with a short fuse. But this was only a half-truth. What we realized by spending time in his court was that he meant business and expected the counsel to be prepared to go on with their cases without seeking unnecessary adjournments. Moreover, his grasp was such that he expected concise, accurate submissions without any frills. Though this was a challenge for us, no doubt, adapting to His Lordship’s expected style of advocacy made us better professionals. More so, it made us realize that he was a kind, equitable judge who had the best interests of the institution at heart. He believed justice delivery was very much dependant on firm decision-making that let the parties know where they stood. And never was he swayed by personalities or histrionics.
A workhorse on the bench, His Lordship had equal comfort with civil, criminal, company, writ and tax matters. His board would often be discharged by the end of the day and never was there any wastage of time or energy. Most recently, His Lordship was heading the division bench dealing with tax appeals, and by noon he would take up final hearing matters and proceed to dispose them after due consideration. Even on 12 Dec 2011, he was in the midst of a hearing matter when he excused himself, apologetically, to return to his chambers only to suffer a massive heart attack. He was known to have a heart problem, but that never deterred him from working, literally, round the clock.
A gold-medalist from Government Law College, Dharwad, His Lordship was appointed to the district judiciary in 1988 and was elevated to the high court in 2000. He delivered various landmark judgements in matters relating to disqualification from public office. A lesser known fact is that his judgements on the company side were as far-reaching, particularly relating to jurisdiction of the high court to try offences against directors of companies in liquidation. It only shows that he was adept with any branch of law, and had a quick, clear grasp of legal principles.
I happened to visit His Lordship’s chamber twice last week in connection with a tax seminar that was proposed to be held in January 2012. He commented tongue-in-cheek that I had gained a lot of weight, unlike him who was ‘just skin and bones’. He laughed heartily at himself which was another trait that was unique to him. His Lordship was of the view that we should have the seminar on ‘taxation of e-commerce and software’, and asked me return to his chambers with a note on 12 December at 5:00 pm so we could meet the (Acting) Chief Justice for his concurrence. As I waited outside his chambers on the 12th, I was informed by the Registrar General that as he was indisposed, the meeting stood adjourned. Shortly thereafter, we learnt that he was no more.
One feels a sense of acute shock on His Lordship’s demise. It is a personal loss to all counsel who appeared before him, and indeed, to the court. A second generation judge from the temple-village of Idagunji, it is tragically ironic that His Lordship’s father Justice G N Sabhahit also passed away in his chambers. But then, what better way for a soldier to depart, than in harness?
It is a rare privilege to have been able to have appeared before His Lordship, and particularly poignant for some of us who appeared before him on his last day in court. He left us in his inimitable style – quickly, unobtrusively, and decisively.
Justice Sabhahit, may you ever rest in peace.
Aditya Sondhi is an advocate practicing in the High Court of Karnataka.