Retired Supreme Court judge Markandey Katju now has the dubious distinction of being the first judge to have a PIL seeking action against him for allegedly saying fugitive diamantaire Nirav Modi will not get justice in Indian courts because 50 per cent of judges (in the higher judiciary) were corrupt and the government interfered in the judiciary and the investigative agencies. No judge has excoriated the judiciary of which he was once a part as severely as Markandey Katju, making him the darling of the media.
In 2015, Katju was flayed in the Rajya Sabha for calling Mahatma Gandhi a British agent and Subhash Chandra Bose a Japanese stooge, who were responsible for splitting India which he wanted to reunite as chairman of the Indian Reunification Association in 2019. Katju responded in 2015: “O wonderful news ! The Rajya Sabha resolution condemning me is not enough. I must also be punished for what I said about that fake who is called the Father of the Indian nation, and that agent of the Japanese fascists, Subhash Chandra Bose. A mere censure is no punishment.”
Whether Katju will reunite Pakistan, Bangladesh and India is debatable. It was again in 2015 that Katju tweeted the BJP would have trounced the AAP in Delhi had it fielded its spokesperson Shazia Ilmi who was “much more beautiful than Kiran Bedi, ” as a chief ministerial candidate. “People vote for beautiful faces. Even someone like me who does not vote would have voted for Shazia Ilmi,” he tweeted—sparking off a storm. After all, judges are seen as unmoved by 'beautiful faces' like Ilmi's.
Katju posted on his Facebook page in 2016: “I think the time has come to tell Indians about the intellectual level and background of most Indian Supreme Court judges. While some of them have high intellectual level and character, like Justice Chelameshwar and Justice Nariman, the vast majority of present apex court judges are of very low intellectual level.”
What has touched off the latest furore is Katju has said Nirav Modi would be made a “scapegoat” were he to be extradited to India where there is “indeed direct and indirect political or government interference in the Indian judiciary, apart from the CBI and the Enforcement Directorate, which has got only 15 convictions to date”.
Nirav Modi fled the country in 2018 after allegedly defrauding Punjab National Bank of Rs 13,300 crore in connivance with his uncle, Mehul Choksi and other relatives. After Nirav Modi’s legal team sought Katju’s opinion (on handsome payment) to oppose extradition of the fugitive to India, Katju has deposed in favour of the alleged economic criminal, by alleging half of the judges in India’s 25 high courts and the apex court were corrupt.
Or the government interfered in their working. This made the barrister for the Indian government, Helen Malcolm, cross-examine Katju on his previous controversies: “Is it at least possible, you are something of a self-publicist who will make outrageous statements to court the press?", to which Katju replied,“You are entitled to your opinion”.
In 2016, Katju was forced to apologise for blogging that Justice Ranjan Gogoi did not know elementary criminal jurisprudence that hearsay evidence was inadmissible after he (as part of a bench) had commuted the death sentence of a brutal rapist, Govindaswamy, who had smashed the face of a young girl in a moving train in Kerala in February 2011, thrown her on the tracks and raped her when she was half-dead. Gogoi (with Justices Prafulla Pant and Uday Umesh Lalit) speciously reasoned the rapist did not intend to cause Soumya’s death while commuting the death sentence of the Kerala high court.
A furious Katju told Justice Gogoi: "I came to the court at your request and you are treating me like this? It is up to you what to do. Please do not give threats. You are provoking me. You are acting funny Mr Gogoi. Remember, you are junior to me in the Supreme Court."
For his part, Gogoi described Katju as 'irrelevant' on a news channel.
Before Prashant Bhushan had told Tehelka in 2010 that eight out of 16 CJIs were corrupt and the last four had allegedly played a role in destroying Indian democracy, Katju had given an example where three former CJIs (Justices R C Lahoti, Y K Sabharwal and K G Balakrishnan) had confirmed a Madras high court judge (Justice S Ashok Kumar, who expired in 2009) who was allegedly confirmed as being corrupt by the Intelligence Bureau. Katju said the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had succumbed to DMK pressure to confirm the judge, who was known to have granted bail to DMK patriarch Karunanidhi’s son, M K Stalin, in 2001.
Olav Albuquerque holds a PhD in media law and is a senior journalist-cum-lawyer of the Bombay High Court