What was essentially a TMC versus BJP+CBI battle so far has now dragged the Calcutta High Court in too, or at least the Acting Chief Justice.
The Chairman of the Bar Council of West Bengal, a statutory body under the Advocates Act, 1961, which is responsible for regulating the professional conduct of lawyers, has written a strongly-worded letter to Chief Justice of India NV Ramana, seeking “removal” of Acting Chief Justice Rajesh Bindal from the court.
It would be interesting to see what action, if any, the CJI takes on the letter. Having said that, it would be stating the obvious that if judges were to be transferred over such allegations, then the only thing the CJI and other members of the collegium would be left doing is transferring judges.
In his five-page letter sent to the CJI on June 25, Ashok Kumar Deb, who, incidentally, is a sitting TMC MLA, has levelled serious allegations against Justice Bindal, including that of bias.
That there are glaring anomalies in the letter itself – like the allusion that Deb was writing the letter on behalf of “We, the members of the West Bengal Bar Association” and not the Bar Council, only makes the matter more controversial.
The allegation that the Bar Council chairman was acting with a political mindset is an argument that one could make against him. But, then, stronger would be the argument that the onus is on the Acting Chief Justice to ensure that there was no scope for such allegations.
He could have reacted and taken corrective steps immediately after the first red-flags about his handling of the contentious, politically-sensitive matters were raised by none other than a sitting judge of the Calcutta High Court – Justice Arindam Sinha.
The ACJ could and should have followed the dictum that Justice must not only be done, but must also be seen to be done.
After all, Justice Sinha’s assertion that the manner in which the ACJ and the bench headed by him handled the CBI’s plea to transfer the case pertaining to bail granted by a CBI court to four TMC leaders, including two West Bengal ministers, left a lot to be desired should have been seen as the opening salvo.
Justice Sinha’s words to his fellow judges should have found resonance in the conscience of all for fair play and fair judicial conduct.
“Our conduct is unbecoming of the majesty the high court commands. We have been reduced to a mockery. As such, I am requesting all of us to salvage the situation by taking such steps, including convening a full court, if necessary, for the purpose of re-affirming the sanctity of our Rules and our unwritten code of conduct,” should have been enough warning.
Whatever be the merit in his words, his letter didn’t deserve the silent treatment that it received.
It didn’t help the prestige of the institution that the manner in which West Bengal Chief Minister’s election petition was assigned to a particular judge left a lot to be desired and eventually became a bone of contention between the ruling party’s top leadership and the Acting CJ.
In his response to the allegations being levelled against him over his decisions – judicial as well as administrative, Justice Bindal should be guided by the wordings of two of India’s most independent-minded and respectful Chief Justices – Justice M Venkatachalliah and Justice JS Verma.
In his October 1987 judgement in the case Ranjit Thakur versus Union of India, Justice Venkatachalliah quoted a foreign judgment to explain how a court should conduct itself to ensure its actions didn’t attract the charge of bias.
“As to the tests of the likelihood of bias, what is relevant is the reasonableness of the apprehension in that regard in the mind of the party. The proper approach for the Judge is not to look at his own mind and ask himself, however, honestly, “Am I biased”? but to look at the mind of the party before him.
In his November 1995 judgment in PK Ghosh versus JG Rajput, Justice Verma wrote, “A basic postulate of the rule of law is that `justice should not only be done but it must also be seen to be done.’ If there be a basis which cannot be treated as unreasonable for a litigant to expect that his matter should not be heard by a particular judge and there is no compelling necessity, such as the absence of an alternative, it is appropriate that the learned judge should recuse himself from the Bench hearing that mater. This step is required to be taken by the learned judge not because he is likely to be influenced in any manner in doing justice in the cause, but because his hearing the matter is likely to give rise to a reasonable apprehension in the mind of the litigant that the mind of the learned judge, may be subconsciously, has been influenced by some extraneous factor in making the decision, particularly if it happens to be in favour of the opposite party.”
He then goes on to explain why, when it comes to judicial decisions, their credibility must be beyond reproach.
“Credibility in the functioning of the justice delivery system and the reasonable Perception of the affected parties are relevant considerations to ensure the continuance of public confidence in the credibility and impartiality of the judiciary. This is necessary not only for doing justice but also for ensuring that justice is seen to be done,” he wrote.
In so far as the allegations levelled against him are concerned, the ball was and remains in the court of ACJ Bindal and he, more than anyone else, has to take steps to send out a strong statement through his actions that there is no bias in his decisions.
(Maneesh Chhibber is a Consulting Editor with India Ahead News. The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author.)