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I am clutching at straws trying to see the first ever high court judge to be slapped with contempt charges in positive light. Is the Supreme Court’s and the media’s demonization of Justice CS Karnan warranted or is there a side to him that is unbeknown? And more importantly, what are the larger issues that surround this bizarre chain of events?
To find out, I must travel to Chennai and meet one man who has stood by the former Madras and Calcutta High Court judge through the mess that resulted in his being sent to prison for six months.
That man is Peter Ramesh Kumar, former President of the Madurai Bar Association.
Sporting a T-shirt with a Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) logo on it, Kumar is someone who wears his heart on his sleeve. He is no stranger to controversy himself, having just served a six-month sentence for contempt of court.
Birds of a feather, indeed.
The son of a District Collector, Kumar is a first-generation lawyer. He initially did law with a view to becoming a politician. But “God’s plan” was for him to become a lawyer, and so he did. He is proud at having completed 25 years in the legal profession.
“I have done a lot of cases for the LTTE, as well as cases related to the Naxalbari movement and Maoists. I also fought cases for fishermen in Tamil Nadu, given the plight they face in the Bay of Bengal.”
Having been elected as President of the Madurai Bar Association for eight terms, he has been at the forefront of many controversial struggles, the most prolonged of which is the bid to make Tamil an official language of the Madras High Court.
“This is the third time I am facing contempt. All three times, I was fighting for Tamil to be one of the official languages of the High Court. At present, five Hindi-speaking states, apart from English, have Hindi as the official language. Kerala, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu have asked for similar demands.
But this is being opposed by the Supreme Court, the Parliament and the government for reasons best known to them. We at the Madras High Court have been fighting for this cause for the past 37 years.
We do not ask that Tamil replace English, but have it as the second official language. This will help parties-in-person coming from rural areas of the state to present their case in their local language without the help of an advocate. Unfortunately, I was slapped with a six-month sentence.”
It was not so much the substance of the claim that landed him in jail, but rather the form of protest. In September 2015, when tensions at the Madras High Court reached fever pitch, prompting then Chief Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul to demand for CISF protection on the campus, Kumar had barged into a courtroom and challenged the judges to take action against him. The Court promptly obliged, sentencing him to six months’ imprisonment, noting that his behaviour had “grown from bad to worse”.
Fresh out of his stint in jail, Kumar found a new cause to champion, a more challenging one. That of defending Justice Karnan and his actions.
His association with the convicted judge began twenty years ago, when Karnan was still a trial lawyer.
“I met him around 20 years back. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I have been advocating for two or three controversial High Court judges. One of them is Justice Kannadasan, who was thrown away from the High Court by not extending his term as an additional judge.”
By way of background, Kannadasan was one of the subjects of Justice Markandey Katju’s post-retirement revelations. The former Supreme Court judge had alleged that Kannadasan was appointed due to pressure from the Prime Minister’s office. Once Katju became Chief Justice of the Madras High Court, he would launch an IB investigation into Kannadasan’s dealings and scupper his chances of being appointed as a permanent judge.
Coming back to Karnan, Kumar claims that the very appointment of the judge was shrouded in controversy.
“Nobody knows that Karnan was not elevated by the Madras High Court. He was directly elevated by the Supreme Court by Chief Justice KG Balakrishnan. The High Court did not even shortlist him. As he belongs to the SC/ST community, Justice Balakrishnan specifically elevated him, as was done in the case of Justice N Arumugam.”
There are claims to the contrary, however. Justice PK Misra, who was part of the High Court collegium headed by Justice AK Ganguly at the time Karnan was appointed, had gone on record to apologize for recommending Karnan’s name for elevation.
At this point, Kumar reveals a side of his client that was hitherto unheard of.
“He is highly temperamental, but he is a very kind-hearted person. As far as I know, he did not take home his salary as a judge for the last eight years. He distributed his salary to law college students, the people of the suppressed sections of society and those lawyers who find it difficult in the profession. Even when he was transferred to Calcutta, he donated almost his entire salary to charity.
He has been the same as a lawyer, as a judge, and now as a convict. I am being told that he is sharing his room with other prisoners and sharing the good food that is being served to him.”
Painted in this light, Karnan hardly seems like the man who would launch an attack against judges of the Supreme Court the way he did. Though Kumar admits that what his client did was uncalled for, he says that Karnan’s actions stemmed from the fact that he was backed into a corner.
“A boxing match is going on, and one of the boxers picks up a knife and starts stabbing the other boxer. Should the other boxer get killed or himself pick up a knife and fight back? What the Supreme Court has done is absolutely wrong. What Karnan has done may not be right. But if what the Supreme Court has done is right, then what Karnan has done is right, and vice-versa.”
But surely, two wrongs don’t make a right?
“You either die or defend yourself. That was Karnan’s issue. After eight years of judgeship, being punished twice for making the same allegations is wrong. He has been making these allegations throughout his career. For this reason, he was transferred to Calcutta, and for the same reason, his portfolio was removed twice. And the fourth punishment is the six months’ imprisonment slapped on him. Can you punish a person four times for the same offence?”
On one hand, Kumar defends his client as any lawyer worth his salt should. On the other hand, he admits that the whole fiasco could have been avoided, but for the apex court’s course of action. A person defending Karnan would necessarily have to walk this tightrope.
“Yes, that could have been avoided. But if you beat a cat and keep all the doors and windows closed, it will become a tiger. That is what has happened in Karnan’s case. He was not given a ray of hope. When he appeared before the Court and apologised, promising to withdraw all his allegations, (Chief Justice) Khehar and co. did not take any interest. It is an unfortunate incident for the Indian legal system.”
He further claims that Karnan was not merely playing the Dalit card by launching a complaint under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act against Supreme Court and high court judges.
“To be very honest with you, right from the Supreme Court to the high courts across the country, these tensions exist between members of the Bar and amongst the judges. It is very much there.”
To date, Kumar insists that an investigation into Karnan’s charges should take place.
“For all the charges, there has to be a Committee and an in-house procedure. There can also be an arbitration-like process done in camera. The Bar Associations and the Bar Council should be involved, and so should the state machinery. That would require Parliamentary assent.”
Despite this, he is resigned to the fact that no amount of advocating can get Karnan out of jail now.
“Karnan stays inside till December, because nobody is going to sympathise with him and it is a seven-judge Bench judgment. The President is not going to interfere, because that’s how things work nowadays in India.”
So, what does the dishonoured judge plan to do once he serves his sentence?
“He is already planning to set up a law academy for the deprived sections of society where they will be taught how to conduct cases and how to write exams and succeed. So, God willing, he will start this project from 2018 onwards.”
Kumar’s own sentence has taken a toll on his practice; he has had to relocate to Chennai from Madurai as a consequence. Regardless, there remains an air of defiance about him.
“Throughout my career, I have fought for deprived advocates, honest civil servants and people whom the whole world stands against. There is immense pleasure for a lawyer to take up a case which is going to be very hard for him. That has driven me.”