New Delhi: The gazette notification effecting the transfer of Justice S. Muralidhar from the Delhi high court on Wednesday couldn’t have been more curiously timed.
On the day the judge held three key hearings on the Delhi riots and passed orders that annoyed the Modi government at the Centre, the law ministry issued a notification formally shifting him from the crucial Delhi high court to the Punjab and Haryana high court.
The notification is dated February 26, 2020, and comes 14 days after the Supreme court collegium decided to recommend Justice Muralidhar’s transfer. The collegium took two other transfer decisions on February 12 as part of the same resolution: to move Justice Ranjit More from the Bombay high court to Meghalaya, and Justice R.K. Malimath from Karnataka to Uttarakhand.
Separate notifications for the transfers of Justice More and Malimath were also issued by the law ministry on Wednesday night.
Earlier in the day, Justice Muralidhar presided over three sittings where urgent pleas relating to police inaction in the Delhi riots came up.
Order directing police to protect riot injured and ensure transfer to hospital
Justice Muralidhar and Justice A.J. Bhambhani held an emergency sitting at 1 a.m. on Wednesday following an urgent plea from counsel representing the Al Hind Hospital in Mustafabad, North East Delhi.
The hospital asked the court to direct the Delhi Police to help it shift over 20 persons injured in the riots to the government-run GTB hospital where they could receive proper treatment. The police did not respond to its call for help and only escorted the patients out when the high court bench ordered them to do so.
Hearing on police failure to file FIRs against BJP leaders for hate speech
Also on Wednesday, Justice Muralidhar pulled up the Delhi police and solicitor general Tushar Mehta for not following the Lalita Kumari guidelines on registering an FIR when complaints were brought to it about inflammatory speeches made by BJP leaders Kapil Mishra, Anurag Thakur, Parvesh Varma and others. These guidelines mandate the registering of an FIR if a cognisable offence is disclosed, or else a time-bound enquiry.
The hearing was on an urgent petition filed by social activists Harsh Mander and Farah Naqvi.
Despite a strong protest by Mehta, the judge ordered the police to respond by Thursday on whether they intend to file FIRs or not.
Hearing compares 2020 riots to Delhi in 1984
Justice Muralidhar’s third hearing on the riots – a continuation of the early morning one – saw the police confirming that all the patients of Al Hind Hospital had been shifted to safety.
“This shows that a lot can happen when the authorities are willing to take action. It’s an actual demonstration of how police officers are waiting for the orders to act”, he said.
In his final order, he directed the government to ensure displaced riot victims are provided temporary shelter and that medical treatment and counselling are also ensured for them.
Chief Justice was on leave, returns Thursday
These matters landed on Justice Muralidhar’s docket by happenstance as the chief justice of the Delhi high court, Justice D.N. Patel was on leave. The second senior judge, acting on behalf of the chief in his absence, handed the hospital’s late night writ to Justice Muralidhar.
Mander and Naqvi’s plea for registration of FIRs against BJP leaders was taken up by Justice Muralidhar in the chief justice’s absence as the petitioners sought an urgent hearing. Solicitor general Mehta contested the urgency and wanted the matter deferred till Thursday, when he said the chief justice would return, but Justice Muralidhar would not agree.
It is not clear if Chief Justice Patel is cutting short his leave to return to court on Thursday or was scheduled to return that day anyway.
Time taken from collegium decision to gazette notification
The Centre’s decision to transfer Justice Muralidhar on Wednesday is bound to raise questions about whether his orders in the Delhi riots matters hastened his exit.
While there is no fixed time for the Centre to act on a collegium recommendation for the transfer of high court judges or even the appointment of new ones it is not unusual for several weeks to elapse.
An immediate transfer is unusual
Advocate Sanjoy Ghose also pointed out that transfer notices usually give a date – about two weeks from when the notification is issued – for the transfer to take place. The notice on Justice Muralidhar, however, mentions no date, which suggests his transfer is effective immediately.
A few transfer notifications of recent times would demonstrate that always the judge is given reasonable time to assume office in the transferred posting. The language of Justice Muralidhar’s transfer notification transferring him with immediate effect is unprecedented! pic.twitter.com/TV6Z8iDLRK
— sanjoy ghose (@advsanjoy) February 27, 2020
The high court bar association had protested Justice Muralidhar’s transfer last week.
The Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms (CJAR) said the “rushed manner” in which the transfer notification was issued by the Centre “cannot be ignored”, saying the transfer has nothing to do with “public interest” and “everything to do with punishing an honest and courageous judicial officer for simply carrying out his constitutional duties”.
The statement says the move seems to have been influenced by Justice Muralidhar raising “tough questions about the conduct of sitting Ministers of the Union Government, MLAs and other high officials”.
According to LiveLaw, the statement compares the transfer of Justice Muralidhar to the “punitive transfers undertaken during Emergency by the then Congress government, against High Court judges who had simply done their constitutional duty. It resembles the petty vindictiveness of a government which superseded Justice HR Khanna for Chief Justiceship for authoring a dissent in ADM Jabalpur v Shiv Kant Shukla.”
Supreme Court Bar Association president Dushyant Dave also expressed concerns at “the manner and haste” in which the transfer was done, calling it “absolutely malafide and punitive”.
Senior Advocate Sanjay Hegde told LiveLaw that while it is “technically correct” that the Centre acted upon the Collegium’s recommendation, the timing of the transfer order, coming immediately after his hearing into the Delhi riots, “coupled with the request from SG to defer the hearing of matter by a day makes the govt action look suspect”.