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The High Court judge rose to the limelight for all the wrong reasons when he began throwing accusations of caste discrimination, corruption and ill-treatment against his brother judges as well as sitting and former judges of the Apex Court.
After being confirmed as a permanent judge of the Madras High Court in March 2011, in November the same year, he accused fellow judges of having harassed him on account of his being a Dalit. Accusations in the same vein were also leveled against then Chief Justice of the High Court, Sanjay Kishan Kaul in 2014.
In the same year, he barged into a courtroom while it was in session and objected to a list of names proposed for elevation to the High Court. In 2015, he wrote a letter to Chief Justice Kaul, expressing his objection to being handed dummy cases to adjudicate. As his behaviour became increasingly difficult, he was transferred from the Madras High Court to the Calcutta High Court in 2016.
This did not serve to slow down the downward spiral of Justice Karnan. He would then “stay” his own transfer order, eventually culminating in an unprecedented intervention by the Supreme Court to hold a sitting High Court judge for contempt.
The final straw was an open letter addressed to the Prime Minister in January this year, in which he accused several sitting and former judges of being corrupt.
Even as contempt proceedings were initiated against him, Karnan went on the offensive as he issued a slew of orders against the Supreme Court judges who were set to decide on his fate.
Adding to the list of firsts, Justice Karnan proceeded to impose a range of punishments on Supreme Court judges – including imprisonment, payment of fines and passport impoundment – depending on the perceived culpability of the judges. His unabashed antics even lead the judges to briefly consider the possibility that Karnan may be mentally unstable.
Justice Karnan was eventually held guilty for contempt of court and sentenced to a six-month imprisonment term. Even as the public thought the drama would see an end at this juncture, Justice Karnan abruptly went into hiding. He was able to stay under the radar for a little over a month, before his arrest in June from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu.
This is not to say that the judge has diminished in relevance after his imprisonment. Apart from the dismissal of at least one petition filed for his early release, Justice Karnan has also hinted at the possibility of publishing a biographical book, touching upon the subject of Judicial Reforms – a topic that has assumed renewed significance among members of the Bench and Bar over the course of this saga.
It remains to be seen whether the controversial judge will pursue his crusade against the higher judiciary after cooling his heels in jail for six months. If his closest aide, Peter Ramesh Kumar is to be believed, Karnan J aims to pursue a noble cause after getting out. Kumar was quoted as saying in an earlier interview,
“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.”
Only time will tell whether his biographical account will add to the bizarre narrative that has, for better or worse, left its mark on the nation’s legal history.