Freedom of Expression

Unprecedented Appearance of Former Judge Katju in Supreme Court Ends in Fireworks

The court dismissed the review petition in the Soumya case before turning its ire on Katju for the language used against the bench in his Facebook post.

Former judge Markanday Katju. Credit: Reuters

Former judge Markanday Katju. Credit: Reuters

New Delhi: On a day which is bound to find its place in the annals of Indian judicial proceedings, an unprecedented exchange of words was witnessed between a sitting and a former Supreme Court judge who had been invited to make his submissions in a case. At the end of the brief exchange, former judge Markandey Katju was escorted out of the courtroom by security staff even as the bench headed by Justice Ranjan Gogoi issued a contempt of court notice to him.

The incident was a fallout of Justice Katju’s Facebook post, in which he had not only criticised the judgment of the bench in the Soumya case but also done so in a way that was “scandalous” – according to attorney general Mukul Rohatgi, who was asked for his opinion by the bench during Friday’s proceedings. The broader lawyer community, however, appears divided on the issue.

While Justice Katju was being escorted out, some lawyers reportedly protested the action saying “wrong, wrong, wrong”. On the other hand other, senior advocate Kamini Jaiswal found fault with Katju: “Freedom to express is always there, but the language should be in order. Nobody denies the fact that judgments are open to criticism. Criticising a judgment or its critical analysis can never be considered contempt, but it is the language that you use (that decides the course of action).”

This said, the proceedings in the Supreme Court on Friday were historic to say the least. The Wire had earlier reported how Katju’s appearance in court was without precedent. The former judge was summoned following a Facebook post in which he had stated that the court had erred by “not holding” the accused, Govindachamy, “guilty of murder” in the Soumya case.

In his post on September 17, Katju had also accused the bench of going by “hearsay evidence” that Soumya jumped off the train instead of being pushed out by Govindachamy.

Before leaving for the court, Katju had tweeted how he had prepared for the Soumya case.

He also commented that, “On going through the papers I am even more convinced that the SC made a grave error in holding the accused, Govindachamy, not guilty of murder and setting aside the death penalty. I will give my reasons in Court”.

In the apex court, as India Today reported, “Katju and Rohatgi argued against the judgment delivered in the Soumya rape case for over an hour”. The Supreme Court bench had asked Justice Katju to come and argue as to why he thought the judgment was flawed.

The bench first dismissed the review petition in and then produced the post written by Katju and it to Rohatgi.

The trouble, according to The Hindu, started immediately afterwords. After dictating the order in the Soumya case, Justice Gogoi asked Katju, who was sitting in the front row, to stand up.

Justice Gogoi then handed over photocopies of his Facebook post to Rohatgi and asked him to read them and give his opinion on the underlined portions. According to The Hindu, “as soon as Justice Katju took a cursory glance at them, Justice Gogoi asked him what he had to say” to which Justice Katju replied: “This is a free country. I have a right to say what I want.”

Rohatgi then told the court that the contents of Justice Katju’s Facebook post were “scandalous”. At this, Justice Gogoi said, “Well, we are issuing contempt notice against Justice Katju.”

At this juncture, The Hindu reported, Justice Katju told Justice Gogoi: “First learn to be modest. This is not the way Supreme Court judges should behave. Don’t provoke me.” To which, Justice Gogoi replied: “You are provoking us… Is there nobody here who will escort Justice Katju out of this courtroom?”

And just as security personnel came in to escort Katju out, “lawyers in the courtroom started chanting ‘wrong, wrong, wrong’.”

Justice Katju also reminded the bench that he had been invited to come by the court itself. “I came here on your invite and I am sorry it has come to this”. At this Justice Gogoi while passing the contempt order said: “We are sorry too.”

Before being escorted out, Katju said: “Don’t give me threats, Mr. Gogoi. Don’t try to be funny with me”. He later also told the media that he was not scared of the contempt order.

While the former Supreme Court judge is known for his outspoken and bold nature, advocate Kamini Jaiswal criticised his demeanour in this case. “Have you read his blog See the language. There is a method of speaking. Whatever he said was scandalous to the whole court. He has not committed contempt of one person, he has committed contempt of the court. And being a retired judge of the Supreme Court, the least you can do is respect the institution that has given him his own position in life. Today, he is Katju because he was a judge of the Supreme Court. Who would know Katju otherwise?” she remarked.

What is not clear is why, if the bench thought Justice Katju’s Facebook post was tantamount to contempt of court, it waited so long to issue notice.

Noting that the bench had called Justice Katju “to hear him out on his views in which he said the court is wrong and on the question of reviewing that judgment”, Jaiswal said that “even today he committed contempt while he was there”.

Asked what was wrong with Justice Katju’s conduct, she asserted: “You don’t address a judge as Mr. Gogoi. He was not attending a dinner at Justice Gogoi’s. He was addressing a judge. You are addressing a bench.”