Man of integrity; drove his own car to private functions: Lawyers, judges on Justice Akil Kureshi
The name of Justice Akil Kureshi will go down in history as the centre-piece around which discussions on supersession and non-elevation of judges, as well as the opacity of the Collegium system, will take place.
It is a shame that he will be remembered most because of this, given how highly his peers at the Bar and the Bench speak of his integrity and competence as a judge.
Even as the Central government did not want him in Supreme Court, the Collegium watched and did nothing, for reasons best known to it. When contacted, one of the members the Supreme Court Collegium that recommended Justice Kureshi's transfer to the Bombay High Court in 2018 was reluctant to reveal discussions that there were held in confidence.
He, however, said,
"It is a loss to the Indian Judiciary that Justice Akil Kureshi was not appointed as a judge of the Supreme Court."
Given the lack of transparency that has come to be associated with the system of judicial appointments in India, it was anyone's guess as to why Justice Kureshi was transferred all around the country, as opposed to being elevated to the apex court.
On his part, Justice Kureshi in his farewell speech at the Rajasthan High Court referred to the government's "negative perception" of him as a "certificate of independence."
However, he did add that what bothered him was that he received no official communication regarding the change in Collegium decision to appoint him Chief Justice of Tripura High Court instead of Madhya Pradesh High Court.
"What was of greater significance to me was the perception of judiciary, which I have not been officially communicated," he said.
Bar & Bench spoke to lawyers and former judges on Justice Kureshi, his tenure as a judge and the controversies he was the subject of. Here is what they had to say.
Justice (retd) Govind Mathur
Former Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court, Justice Govind Mathur said that Justice Kureshi will always be remembered as a judge who embodied the best qualities of a classic judge
"I met Justice Akil Kureshi only once, but a judge is known by his judgments. I know him very well through his judgments. His commitment to social issues is unparalleled. As the Tripura High Court Chief Justice, he took up the case of trafficking of a 14-year-old girl in 2020 suo motu; he also directed a probe into a woman and her husband’s suicide following some leaked videos, when the accused tried for moral policing. He also took up a PIL on the State government’s handling of COVID-19."
As Chief Justice of Rajasthan High Court, Justice Kureshi dealt with certain important matters pertaining to the environment, Justice Mathur added.
"He ensured complete court hours for judicial work, though as Chief Justice he had the heavy responsibility of judicial administration also," Justice Mathur said.
Senior Advocate Dushyant Dave said that Justice Kureshi was not elevated to the Supreme Court because of pressure from the executive and unfair treatment meted out by successive Collegiums.
"If anyone deserved to be elevated the most, Justice Akil Kureshi was the one. Yet, he suffered grave injustices due to the executive pressures and mostly on account of treatment meted out by successive Collegiums of the Supreme Court."
Justice Kureshi was an outstanding judge from all angles; very competent, hardworking, sincere, courteous, honest, and above all, independent, Dave added.
Speaking about the controversial change in plans to transfer Justice Kureshi to the Tripura High Court instead of the Madhya Pradesh High Court, Dave said that the Collegium, "far from protecting him as per their own law in the Second Judges case, capitulated, first transferring him to Tripura and then not recommending him for well deserved elevation to the Supreme Court."
"It is a sad commentary on the institution resulting in disservice to the institution and the Rule of Law. Hope this will never be repeated,” Dave said.
Senior Advocate and President of the Gujarat High Court Advocates’ Association Asim Pandya said that Justice Kureshi was a gentleman whose integrity cannot be doubted.
"He was a gentleman and an honest judge; one cannot doubt his integrity. He had all the qualities of a good judge, but unfortunately he was not elevated to the Supreme Court," Pandya, who was himself overlooked for elevation to the Gujarat High Court, said.
Recalling his appearances before Justice Kureshi when he was a judge of the Gujarat High Court, Pandya said,
"I have appeared many times before him, and the best was that he was well prepared about the case in comparison to the lawyer and used to read every file before the case."
He added that Justice Kureshi's family was close to Mahatma Gandhi and that the former judge applied Gandhian principles in his personal life too.
"I remember he used to drive his own car when he was invited to private functions and would not even go with his own driver provided by the High Court," Pandya recollected.
Senior Advocate Sanjoy Ghose said that Justice Kureshi was set to join a select club of the best Supreme Court judges India never had.
"Justice Kureshi retires to join a select club of the best Supreme Court judges India never had. Make no mistake that when future generations shall recall the darkest hour of India’s judicial independence and capitulation to executive caprice, it would be Justice Qureshi’s saga and the dignity with which he handled it," Ghose said.
Senior Advocate Sanjay Hegde said that it was not a surprise that Justice Kureshi was not elevated to the Supreme Court.
"Justice Kureshi's retirement without further elevation to the Supreme Court, is not a surprise. Many a good judge and Chief Justices have not made it to the Supreme Court, but their judicial record is not less luminescent by the omission.
Justice PD Desai from Gujarat, Justice MC Chagla from Bombay and many others, did not take their seat in the Supreme Court, but the world of Indian law owes much to them. I wish Justice Kureshi a long and happy retirement from judging, but hope he continues to engage with the law, in whatever capacity he chooses to," Hegde said.
Oza said that Justice Kureshi was a judge of outstanding merit and it was the most unfortunate that he was not elevated to the Supreme Court.
"He was a judge of outstanding merit and a man of high integrity. It was a most unfortunate incident that he was not elevated to the Supreme Court and it is a loss to the country. I never had any personal touch with him, but I only met him once," Oza said.
Senior Advocate Nidhesh Gupta said that Justice Kureshi was a judge of impeccable and uncompromising integrity and it is a loss for all that he was denied elevation to the Supreme Court of India.
Gupta recalled an incident from the Bombay High Court in Justice Kureshi's courtroom.
"I was appearing before Justice Kureshi. While I was waiting for my case, a matter involving the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) came up for hearing. An objection was raised on behalf of the BCCI that there was an interim order passed by the Supreme Court restraining the High Court from passing any orders in the case. The lawyers for the other side demonstrated that their case did not fall within the scope of of the orders passed by the Supreme Court.
Justice Kureshi patiently heard both sides and and passed an eminently fair and just order while exercising jurisdiction under Article 226 of the Constitution of India. My immediate impression was that here was a judge who was willing to put his neck on the line and not take a safer route."
The land matter that I was appearing in was was a very complex case. I was not at all surprised to notice that the Justice Kureshi had read the file in its entirety. I was asked a couple of very pertinent questions and on my answering them notice was promptly issued, he added.
Lawyers and judges who were asked to defend Justice Kureshi's non-elevation declined to comment.