Supreme Court's Justice Hemant Gupta: Spotlight this week

Oral observations made by the Supreme Court judge during the hijab case and other hearings sent social media into a tizzy.
Justice Hemant Gupta
Justice Hemant Gupta

All eyes were on the Supreme Court this past week as new Chief Justice of India UU Lalit kicked off his tenure by listing some crucial constitutional challenges for hearing.

The most attention, however, was on the court of Justice Hemant Gupta, who made some oral observations that sent social media into a tizzy.

The seventh senior-most judge of the apex court, who is currently presiding over the much-followed hijab case, has also authored some noteworthy verdicts in the recent past.

Who is Justice Gupta?

Justice Gupta was born on October 17, 1957 in a family of legal professionals. The judge’s grandfather was a prominent civil lawyer, who voluntarily left practice at the prime of his professional career. His father retired as Chief Justice of Punjab and Haryana High Court in 1991.

He enrolled as an advocate in July 1980, practicing at the High Court after spending the initial years of his career arguing before the district court. He mainly dealt in civil cases and later served as an Additional Advocate General for the State of Punjab from 1997 to 1999.

Punjab and Haryana High Court
Punjab and Haryana High Court

He was appointed as a judge of the Punjab & Haryana High Court on July 2, 2002. At the High Court, he was a member of the Computer Committee for over 10 years, during which the High Court saw complete computerisation and digitisation of its entire records of judicial files.

Justice Gupta was the executive chairman of the State Legal Services Authority, Chandigarh from July 2012 till January 2016. He was transferred to the Patna High Court on February 8, 2016 and was appointed its Acting Chief Justice on October 29, 2016. He was appointed as Chief Justice of Madhya Pradesh High Court on March 18, 2017 and was subsequently elevated to the Supreme Court of India on November 2, 2018.

He is due to retire on October 16 this year.

Notable verdicts

The Bench headed by Justice Gupta recently held that Non Banking Financial Companies (NBFCs) regulated by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) will not fall under the purview of the statutes enacted by a state government.

The Court, however, said that NBFCs play a very vital role in contributing to the financial health of the country and, therefore, to say that the RBI has no power over the interest rates charged by them would strike at the very root of the statutory power vested in the RBI.

As part of a Bench also comprising Justice (retd.) L Nageswara Rao, Justice Gupta authored a judgment which held that the natural born children of a person, who was subsequently adopted, have the right to inherit his share in the property of the adoptive family.

He also authored a judgment while on the Bench with Justice DY Chandrachud and held that the court cannot impose a sentence less than the minimum sentence and that the provisions of Article 142 of the Constitution cannot be resorted to impose a sentence less than the minimum sentence.

Why is he in the Spotlight?

Justice Gupta made some remarks during the hijab case hearing and another case on bonded labourers, that might have ruffled some feathers, to say the least.

Here are some instances from the hearings:

If you say right to dress is a fundamental right then right to undress also becomes a fundamental right.
Justice Hemant Gupta

Context: When Senior Advocate Devadatt Kamat, representing a petitioner seeking the right to wear hijab, cited the 2014 NALSA judgment of the Supreme Court to contend that right to dress is recognised as a fundamental right under Article 19(1)(a) he was told that the same could not be taken “to illogical ends”.

Please do not compare with Sikhism. It has been completely ingrained in Indian culture.
Justice Hemant Gupta

Context: Advocate Nizamuddin Pasha, appearing for one of the petitioners in the hijab case, argued that if hijab was a part of a Muslim girl’s religion she could not be stopped from coming to school as even Sikhs wothat re turbans. The judge said that a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court has held that wearing turban and kirpan, as a part of the '5 Ks', was allowed for Sikhs and that a comparison to Islam may not be proper. The comment followed Pasha's illustration that like the 5 Ks in Sikhism, there were 5 pillars of Islam.

Sorry, only 4 per cent pay taxes
Justice Hemant Gupta

Context: Senior Advocate Sanjay Hegde, arguing for one of the petitioners in the hijab case, made a pitch for equal educational opportunities to all those paying taxes. But the lawyer was told by Justice Gupta that only 4% of the total population paid taxes.

Do you know who are bonded labourers? They are not bonded…They take money and eat the money and then resign.
Justice Hemant Gupta

Context: Perhaps the most atypical of Justice Gupta's comments this week came during the hearing of a PIL moved by late activist Swami Agnivesh in 2012 seeking a probe into the allegations of rape and other atrocities faced by a woman bonded labourer. The Bench was informed by the counsel of the petitioner that many such women were survivors of sexual harassment but hadn’t been compensated in the last 10 years.

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