Bombay High Court Chief Justice Dipankar Datta: Spotlight this week

Chief Justice Datta recently presided over some key political and administrative matters, passing interesting remarks and directions.
Chief Justice Dipankar Datta
Chief Justice Dipankar Datta

Spotlight is a series where we shine the, well, spotlight on lawyers, judges and legal experts who made news over the past week.

A much-needed truce in the intensifying controversy between the Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (MSRTC) and its striking workers’ union was called for by the Bench of Bombay High Court’s Chief Justice Dipankar Datta this week.

Thousands of such workers have been on strike since October 2021 demanding, among other things, being treated at par with State government employees and the merger of MSRTC with the State government.

Before it passed a slew of directions in the matter, CJ Datta remarked a couple of days before that,

Let the workers come back to work. Let them not miss their livelihood and in the broader picture, let the public not suffer.”

At the helm of a chartered High Court in the country, CJ Datta's Bench has adjudicated on several key matters recently.

Who is Chief Justice Datta?

The judge was born on February 9, 1965. His father late Salil Kumar Datta was a former judge at the Calcutta High Court. His brother-in-law, Justice Amitava Roy, was a judge of the Supreme Court,

Justice Datta completed his LL.B. at the University of Calcutta, as part of the first batch of the five-year law course in 1989.

He then enrolled as an advocate on November 16, 1989, practising mainly in the Calcutta High Court and the Supreme Court of India besides other High Courts in constitutional and civil matters.

Justice Datta was the junior standing counsel for the State of West Bengal from May 16, 2002 to January 16, 2004 and a counsel for the Union of India from 1998 onwards.

He represented several educational institutions including the University of Calcutta, School Service Commission and West Bengal Board of Secondary Education.

He was a guest lecturer on Constitutional Law of India at the University College of Law, University of Calcutta, from 1996 to 1997 and from 1999 to 2000.

Calcutta High Court
Calcutta High Court

He was elevated as a permanent judge of the Calcutta High Court on June 22, 2006 and then appointed as Chief Justice of Bombay High Court on April 28, 2020.

Important verdicts and observations

Not long ago, CJ Datta had noted,

If it is personal liberty, lives are being lost, then we will intervene. Why is this political battle in High Court>

The observation was in the context of a politician’s public interest litigation challenging the amendment to the rules for election of the Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly.

The Bench headed by Justice Datta had earlier heard another petition in the matter. Interestingly, both politicians were asked to deposit ₹2 lakh and ₹10 lakh, respectively, to prove their bona fides.

Uddhav Thackeray and Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari
Uddhav Thackeray and Governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari

Both petitions were finally dismissed with an observation that citizens were suffering owing to the manner in which the State and the Governor had been functioning.

The unfortunate part is this that the two highest functionaries (Governor and Chief Minister) do not trust each other. You both please sit together and sort this out between yourselves. Erase all these differences. Your ramblings do not take the State forward. There is always the other side of coin. We all read. The governor and CM are not on the same page.... Who is suffering?” It remarked.

In February this year, while dealing with a plea for filling up of the post of the Chairperson of the Debts Recovery Appellate Tribunal (DRAT), CJ Datta questioned how much was being spent on the judiciary. He said,

We read that the current budget is booster for economy, where is booster for judiciary?”

In August last year, CJ Datta was heading Bombay High Court's Goa Bench, which refused to initiate contempt of court action against a person for allegedly uploading contemptuous videos on YouTube and WhatsApp against members of the district judiciary at Goa.

The order noted that the power of contempt had to be "only sparingly exercised" and not to protect the dignity of the Court against insult or injury, but to vindicate the right of the people so that the administration of justice is not perverted, prejudiced and obstructed.

Last year, the issue of malnutrition made its way to the Bench of CJ Datta, when the State was warned of “stern action” in case of any such deprivation-relation deaths.

He also made a remark on politicians getting the COVID-19 vaccine at home, at a time when citizens were running from pillar to post in search of the same. Unimpressed with such instances, the Bench asked,

If the Prime Minister (Narendra Modi) can go to the vaccination centre and get vaccine, then why cannot Maharashtra leaders do the same?”

Road to Chief Justice

In an unusual gesture, two days after the Central government issued a notification on his appointment as Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court in 2020, Datta left his Kolkata residence on April 15 to undertake a two-day journey by road to Mumbai amid the COVID-19 lockdown, for the swearing-in ceremony.

He travelled first from Kolkata to Bhubaneswar, and then from Orissa to finally rest at Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh on the night of April 25.

The following day, he travelled to Solapur, Maharashtra via Vijayawada and eventually arrived in Mumbai for the oath-taking ceremony.

Why is he in the Spotlight?

Recently, during the hearing of the case between the employees' union and the State transport authority of Maharashtra, CJ Datta at one point remarked,

In a fight between the lion and the lamb, it is the lamb which is to be protected.”

On April 8, the detailed order of the Bench headed by Chief Justice Datta came as a boon for the striking employees, who were granted protection from criminal prosecution and permitted to resume their duties. They would, however, not be entitled for back wages.

Please do not embarrass us. You go to Delhi, approach Supreme Court," his Bench said on April 4 when a PIL sought filling up vacancies in the Bombay High Court. After some deliberation, the Bench decided to hear the case after a few weeks.

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