There are judges who conform to the needs of the situation, upright judges who choose not to do so, and judges who choose the middle path. When upright judges refuse to conform to the exigencies of the situation, they attract opprobrium if they approach the media. But the media is hemmed in by restrictions and can only build public opinion by airing a sitting judge’s bona fide grievances that his hands are tied by his own seniors. Thereby escalating a sensitive situation where the judge is keen to ensure justice is delivered but is hemmed in by senior judges who are experts in observing ethics and legal procedures.
One such judge is Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay who was allegedly approached by an advocate for the ruling party in the multi-crore jobs-for-money teaching recruitment scam in which top ministers of the government may be involved. He has stirred up a controversy by asking the CBI in open court whether they can investigate a retired judge of the Supreme Court. He was hearing a corruption case in which bribes were allegedly paid to officials of the West Bengal School Service Commission to be recruited as teachers.
In April 2023, a Supreme Court bench led by CJI DY Chandrachud came down heavily on this upright judge for giving a TV interview on the recruitment scam which he was hearing. The erudite CJI is right because judges are not supposed to air their grievances to the public which is a cardinal sin. And more so, when the matter is sub judice before them. Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay violated judicial protocol which forbids sitting judges from going to the media.
“Judges have no business granting interviews on matters which are pending before them... A judge cannot clarify everything which is reported... If this is true, he (Justice Gangopadhyay) can’t hear this case any more. We will not touch the investigation but when a judge gives an opinion on the petitioner in a TV debate, he (the judge) can’t hear it. The Chief Justice (of the Calcutta High Court) then has to constitute a new Bench. This is a case about a political personality and we entertained this on the way the judge handled this matter. This cannot be the way,” CJI Chandrachud observed.
As always, the erudite CJI is right. But what else can a sitting judge do when his hands are tied to thwart justice delivery? In January 2018, this is what prompted the four Supreme Court judges led by Justice Jasti Chelameshwar to hold the first-ever press conference in independent Bharat’s history. Like Justice Gangopadhyay, there was little else they could do when their CJI Dipak Misra allegedly chose to assign sensitive cases to benches which were sensitised to the government’s needs, to ensure pre-determined results — which is what the four erudite judges led by the then seniormost judge of the Supreme Court, Jasti Chelameshwar, indirectly alleged.
Ignorant journos and other so-called wise worthies castigated these distinguished judges for holding a press conference, without realising there was nothing else they could do when their grievance was against the head of the judiciary in the country. Today, with changes in time, place and circumstances, Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay from the Calcutta High Court finds himself in a similar predicament as Justices Jasti Chelameshwar, a controversial Ranjan Gogoi, Madan B Lokur and Kurien Joseph. All of them have retired.
In 2022, West Bengal was rocked by a recruitment scam in which a high-profile politician and several officials were arrested. Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay passed 10 orders directing the CBI to investigate irregularities in the jobs-for-money recruitment overseen by the West Bengal School Service Commission.
On September 20, 2022, Justice Gangopadhyay gave an interview to a Bengali television news channel ABP Ananda, leading to an uproar. A Supreme Court bench comprising the CJI and Justice PS Narasimha directed the Secretary General of the top court to produce the transcript of the TV interview with the ABP Ananda news channel where Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay criticised TMC MP Abhishek Banerjee, who is the nephew of firebrand West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee. The judges ordered that the case should be transferred to some other judge.
Justice Gangopadhyay then asked for the official transcript and the affidavit of the Calcutta High Court's Registrar General with an ultimatum that he would wait till 12.15 am in his chamber for these documents to be delivered to him. This was followed by an allegation of those implicated in the recruitment scam that the BJP government in Delhi was allegedly pressurising the Enforcement Directorate and CBI to name these top leaders of the TMC in the scam.
In a special sitting held at 8 pm in April 2023, the Supreme Court stayed the order passed by Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay of the Calcutta High Court directing the Secretary General of the Supreme Court to produce the transcript of the TV interview he had given a TV news channel. The apex court judges opined this was a clear case of judicial indiscipline.
Again, they are right. But justice is a chimerical concept and when a judge is keen to ensure those who planned the money-for-jobs scam should be convicted, he is frustrated in his laudable objective because it will take another 60 years for those accused to be booked, as he himself has said. By this time, the accused and the judges hearing the case will have departed from this world to seek justice in a divine court presided over by the Almighty who is not shackled by legal technicalities.
Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay ranks 21st in seniority among the judges of the Calcutta High Court. He will be retiring shortly which will make those within the government, who have been implicated in the teachers’ recruitment scam, heave a sigh of relief. Their strategy to wear down the investigative agencies by long-drawn technicalities of law may succeed.
For there can be no peace without justice, no justice without truth and no truth unless a judge like Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay writes a book about how his yearning to deliver justice was thwarted by those who wielded more power than a sitting high court judge.
(Olav Albuquerque holds a PhD in law and is a senior journalist and advocate at the Bombay High Court.)