If asking a question is an indication of the court's mind, good luck to the lawyers: Justice Hemant Gupta

The now retired Supreme Court judge is loath to discuss contentious issues, as he looks forward to what he hopes will be a change in routine for the better.
Justice Hemant Gupta
Justice Hemant Gupta

Justice Hemant Gupta recently demitted office after spending nearly four years as a Supreme Court judge.

While Justice Gupta spent most of his career at the apex court under the radar, he recently came into the spotlight for his comments made in the Hijab matter, a case in which he ultimately upheld the Karnataka High Court verdict that effectively banned the wearing of Hijab in educational institutes in the State.

During his tenure, he passed other notable judgments, including ones striking down the reservation for Marathas, and holding that Non-Banking Financial Companies (NBFCs) regulated by the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) will not fall under the purview of laws made by the State government.

After his retirement, Justice Gupta claims that he "cannot do anything else but work relating to judicial determination."

In this telephonic interview with Bar & Bench's Debayan Roy, the now retired judge is loath to discuss contentious issues, as he looks forward to what he hopes will be a change in routine for the better.

He does, however, have a reply for those who thought that his mind was made up before delivering his verdict in the Hijab case.

Edited excerpts follow.

Debayan Roy (DR): After 42 years in the legal profession, how does it feel to not have to dress up for court this morning?

Justice Hemant Gupta (HG): It is a great feeling, as a routine followed for the last 42 years has undergone a change, may be for the better. I think it will take a couple of days to realize that the routine is not the same.

DR: You hail from an illustrious legal background. Was law always the goal or did you aspire to do something else?

HG: When I was a student in a school, my dream was to be an engineer, but by the time I entered college - then called pre-university - I focused on law.

DR: Do you think live streaming of court proceedings aids in increasing judicial accountability?

HG: I would not like to comment upon something which has been done by my peers in the Court.

DR: How do you look at the continuous breach of the 50% ceiling set for reservations? Especially in the context of the Maratha reservation judgment.

HG: Once the matter stands decided, the implementation of the order does not fall within purview of the Court.

DR: In one of your most important dissents, you had held that a law cannot be struck down only because it was possible to be misused, and that courts cannot dictate what should go into a law. Do you think the courts have often overstepped their domain?

HG: I would not like to comment upon the said question. The view expressed is part of the judgment and nothing more is required to be said.

DR: After the Hijab judgment, there have been statements from senior lawyers that the questions posed by the Bench during the hearing made it clear that you would not strike down the ban. Is it true that a judge makes up his mind before hearing a case?

HG: I cannot speak for the senior lawyers, but if asking a question is an indication of the mind of the Court, good luck to the lawyers. In fact, I have changed my view in the process of dictating order many times, if a particular aspect skipped my attention or a different view was not canvassed or not brought to notice.

DR: In your Hijab verdict, you have stressed on the importance of uniformity in school uniforms. Is it practicable to have such uniformity pan-India, considering the vast cultural, linguistic and religious diversity of our country?

HG: It is not for me to comment upon hypothetical questions. We have decided a limited question based upon a Government Order of the State of Karnataka.

DR: You recently drew criticism for your remarks on bonded labourers being part of a racket, and that only 4% of Indians pay taxes. Do you want to respond to it?

HG: I do not want to say anything in respect of remarks made in the course of arguments. However, factually you can verify that how many per cent of people pay taxes. In respect of bonded labour, my remarks were based upon my practical experience at the Bar.

DR: Of late, judges and their judgments are being widely critiqued on social media. Do you think there is a need to curb such conduct?

HG: It is often said that one is at liberty to criticize judgments and not the judges, but it is the choice of the person in the era of free speech and expression to criticize the judge as well. Good luck to those who criticize judges.

DR: Having served as the highest law officer of a state, a High Court judge and finally a Supreme Court judge, which role do you hold closest to your heart?

HG: I have enjoyed each assignment as it came my way. Each role is separate and distinct and cannot be compared. My intention was to enjoy the role assigned to me.

DR: What are your post-retirement plans?

HG: Having worked for 42 years with the judiciary, I cannot do anything else but work relating to judicial determination.

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