Judge, gadfly and newsmaker
Maverick, eccentric or unique? Which of these adjectives describe Justice Markandey Katju — the current chairman of the Press Council of India — adequately? Considering Justice Katju’s ability to shift from reality to fantasy without any forewarning, all of these epithets may fit on a given occasion, but none as aptly as I-centric.
“He was always so,” say his acquaintances from Allahabad, and Supreme Court lawyers who have watched him from close quarters agree. What’s heartening is that all are unanimous that he has been an honest judge — never sold his verdicts for a price. This quality in the present context is good enough to overlook shortcomings and frailties of many sorts.
In the Supreme Court, Justice Katju always drew a full house. Young lawyers would gather in his court to listen to his off-the-cuff remarks that were sure to rain. They would savour or chew on them for the rest of the day. He revelled in impromptu soliloquies, and the larger the crowd the more he would talk, hardly allowing lawyers to speak. Media reporters would be there in large numbers — they were assured of one-liners that would make interesting headlines, like the recent pronouncement regarding the Kashmiri Pandit issue that re-unification of India and Pakistan is the only solution to the Kashmir problem, or his charge that 90 per cent of Indians are idiots and then trying to wriggle out by saying that by 90 he meant 85 per cent.
When Justice Katju demitted office in 2011 September, a lawyer deriving inspiration from the judge’s love for “percentage”, remarked, “On his retirement, 50 per cent are not unhappy, 40 per cent are very happy and the rest are indifferent”.
Justice Katju was one of the judges on the benches that legalised passive euthanasia and recognised women’s rights in a live-in relationship. He was also instrumental in getting Gopal Dass, an Indian prisoner detained in the Lahore central jail for 27 years, released. But it wasn’t always a smooth run.
Judges like clarity, and none more so than Justice Katju. He directed trial and high courts to award death sentences to perpetrators of “honour killings” and to treat fake encounters as the rarest of rare cases and police personnel responsible be awarded death sentence. These utterances were not part of any judicial pronouncements and hence, luckily, didn’t become law of the land.
A judge who, in January 2009, while hearing a petition about violence against Christians in Orissa, had observed, “We can’t tolerate persecution of religious minorities. If your government cannot control such incidents, then quit office,” was, a few months later, of the opinion that students insisting on wearing beards would lead to the “Talibanisation of India”. The judge made headlines, apologised and agreed to reverse his decision.
But he didn’t always apologise. Like when he, in 2012, noted that “something is rotten in the Allahabad high court”. That the court was his alma mater didn’t matter.
Perhaps, the judge who had a reputation for presiding over one of the fastest courtrooms in India, disposing of — if not necessarily deciding — 100-plus matters in a week, had had enough. At the customary farewell party hosted by the Bar, Justice Katju had announced that he was looking forward to retirement to enable him to devote full time to the study of the Vedas, Upanishads and Urdu poetry. But within two weeks he condescended to serve the motherland, as chairman of the Press Council of India — a post that was toothless at its birth in 1966 and remained so in October 2011.
And so began Justice Katju’s Delhi Chapter II.
Chief Justice J.S. Verma had, last year, suggested that the Press Council of India be wrapped up because it is a white elephant costing enormous amounts of money year after year and achieving almost nothing. Despite its track record, the demand for additional grants is ever increasing. To what end, no one is sure.
Justice Katju had some answers. He firmly believed that the media should help build a modern industrial state by “attacking backward,
feudal ideas and practices, e.g. casteism, communalism and superstitions, and promoting modern scientific and rational ideas”. And added, for good measure, that “a large section of the Indian media (particularly the electronic media) does not serve the interest of the people, in fact some of it is positively anti-people.”
Justice Katju also wanted the council’s decisions to be binding and not just recommendatory. The old demand to bring electronic media under the council’s jurisdiction and to rename it Media Council was again repeated in a set of resolutions passed on August 27 this year.
During his days as a judge, Justice Katju was apparently a voracious reader, often quoting from Shakespeare and Ghalib, among many illustrious others. Now, as an accidental TV viewer, he trashed Kareena Kapoor, Lady Gaga, Formula One and Sunny Leone in one breath. Being an avowed hater of trivialities like cricket, Justice Katju mocked Sachin Tendulkar’s 100th century and ridiculed the media for devoting so much time and space to the death of Rajesh Khanna.
There was praise for Mamata Banerjee one day and brick-bats a day later. There were also blanket statements — calling Narendra Modi’s development claims “phoney” and equating the state with Somalia, and accusing Nitish Kumar’s government of gagging the press. And the Madhya Pradesh chief minister who accepted Justice Katju’s invitation to an Urdu programme could pass as “okay”.
The Editors Guild of India and Broadcaster Editors’ Association have called Justice Katju “irresponsible and negative”, yet his unsolicited opinions find place in the press, if only for the fact that he is the council’s
chairman, ignoring his advice that the media wastes 90 per cent of space on topics of no social value. Two more years to go.
The writer is a senior advocate of the Supreme Court and former additional solicitor-general of India