Katju: Directing the circusKatju: Directing the circus

When an uncharacteristically subdued Katju rose from the Bench in the Chief’s Court for the last time on Monday, one half of the bar and the media sighed wistfully and the other half sighed with relief. One lot would miss the mayhem, humour, and quotability of the average Katju day in the Supreme Court. The other lot would be grateful for never having to go through the mayhem, humour, and quotability of the average Katju day in the Supreme Court.

The average Katju day for a lawyer, litigant, court-master and more often than not, his Brother/Sister on the Bench with him, could be either utterly invigorating or extremely traumatic. The only thing you could be utterly assured of was total unpredictability.

On a non-miscellaneous day, formally set aside for detailed final hearings on the merits of your case, you could start your arguments on say, a criminal appeal, get two sentences in and be stopped by a question of what the offence was?

A murder, you say.

What was the High Court’s decision you are asked.


What was the Trial Court’s decision you are asked.


Suddenly thunder!

“Two courts have delivered concurring judgements and you want to file appeals in the Supreme Court! It is because of lawyers like you that the Supreme Court is burdened with 50,000 cases still pending and there is no way to clear all of them if you keep filing appeals like this.”

But my Lord, you protest, feeling like you’ve suddenly committed a crime far greater in gravity than your unfortunate client, there’s some doubt in the evidence.

He flips to the page in the paper book, you read out a couple of lines, and begin to say something but...

“There’s nothing in this. The High Court’s already considered this and convicted him. Likhiye (Take down please)” beckoning to the court-master, “This appeal has been filed against the judgement of the ...”

You protest once more hoping against hope.

“This is intolerable!” the sound ricochets off every wall in the courtroom and lands in your ear deafening you into silence. “You lawyers must know when to keep quiet! Unfortunately the Constitution says that the judge will have the last word and not the lawyer. Jaaiye aap Parliament jaake Constitution ko amend keejiye ki jo bhi vakeel kahega woh hi judgment mein likha jaayega!” (Get elected to Parliament and have the Constitution amended so that whatever the lawyer says becomes law)

Amid the general smug laughter of other lawyers and interns, you figure that this is probably not your day, and as far as Katju is concerned, you (and not even your client!) are the Flanders Pigeon Murderer!

The Katju playbook

There are many variations on that main theme.

If you are a tenant hoping to avoid eviction, Katju’s idea of generosity was to give you six months to vacate the premises. If you stood convicted of an offence and filed an appeal, the best you could hope for a mitigation of the sentence to the period actually undergone.

Of course it was not all rough and ready justice dealt out with the finesse of a sawn-off shotgun.

From Katju would fall the occasional Mirza Ghalib couplets, snippets of Urdu and Persian poetry, apart from Sanskrit aphorisms and Hindi kahavat (popular sayings) on life and the law. Many of these can be found quoted in Katju’s judgments as well, and these, to use an oft used line of his “have been set out in the impugned judgment[s] and hence we are not repeating the same here except wherever necessary.”

For a judge who paid obeisance to the Constitution on an hourly basis, Katju paid little heed to the Constitutional declaration that English be the language of the Supreme Court. He always found it fit to slip into Hindi or Urdu, or if he was in a particularly good mood and a counsel from the South of the river Cauvery appeared, cringe-inducing Tamil that left native speakers of the language asking for forgiveness from Thiruvalluvar’s spirit.

Comedic knack

Humour in Katju’s court was never far off. A clever observation on government officers in litigation, an anecdote about a long-winded lawyer in the Allahabad High Court,and many, many jibes about the kind of fees being charged by senior counsel appearing in the Supreme Court. And yes, the courtroom would genuinely be laughing with him than at him. The laughter was sometimes exuberant, sometimes ironic and sometimes sarcastic, never malicious, or mean spirited.

His eyebrows would knit in furious concentration as he listened to counsel or read through the paper-book, draw angrily together as he delivered another lecture on legal ethics or the tendency of lawyers to turn the Supreme Court into just another appellate court, then they would fly apart as he remembered an apt quote from a Sanskrit text or a Ghalib couplet to describe the situation leaving the courtroom in peals of laughter.

And before you knew it, he’d be done with the thirty matters listed on his Board for the day! The Display Board for Court No 6 would resemble the scoreboard at a T20 as the numbers ratcheted up at a dizzying pace.

In the first few days of him being the presiding Judge on the Bench, one would see lawyers hurtle furiously through the corridors of the Supreme Court trying to reach his court by the time their case was called up for the second and last time. By 11.30! Eventually, most figured that turning up in his Court first thing in the morning was far less stressful with the added bonus of enjoying the circus first thing in the morning.

Most senior advocates disapproved of this circus. Some expressed their disapproval in and out of court, others quietly refused to accept briefs which involved appearing in his court. Much of their criticism was entirely valid, but Katju did not believe in craving their approval by ceasing to be his usual, larger-than-life self.

Katju’s unpredictability on the Bench manifests itself in a hugely contradictory judicial legacy left behind in his judgments. On the one hand he could seem insensitive and thoughtless about the words he used in the judgments (“keep”) but could write an extra-ordinarily sensitive judgment about euthanasia. While constantly running down PILs and the tendency for courts to “encroach the Executive’s domain”, he would also pass directions and monitor such issues as the rehabilitation of rescued sex workers.

It is this contradictory Janus-like nature of Katju that perhaps divides opinion so sharply in the Supreme Court.

Life post Katju

The Supreme Court’s a quieter place these days. The Display Board moves at a sedate pace relentlessly ticking off matters gradually over the course of a day or staying put at a long-winded final disposal matter stretching over weeks. Court No. 6, which he presided over for the better part of the last 18 months, is far less crowded and seems almost... tranquil.

Interns now follow around their seniors with greater diligence and can be found nodding off in the visitors sections of various courtrooms. The Supreme Court press corps have to be more creative for their headlines.

The circus has left town.

Court Witness is an advocate of the Supreme Court of India and now tweets @courtwitness1.

Court Witness’ previous postcards:

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Like +10 Object -3 Amused 26 Sep 11, 17:06  interesting
The SC sure will be a drier place now. The 'Supreme Quote' judge as the Indian Express labelled him.
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Like +3 Object -1 Chiefs Court 26 Sep 11, 18:29
Very well written and absolutely spot-on with the narration of the sequence of events by the author. A big 'relief' indeed has been granted.
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Like +6 Object -2 P.Sharma 26 Sep 11, 18:57
I always remember him saying..."Are bhai aap to gyani hai....gyan se bhare hue hai".....We will miss him for sure......
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Like +4 Object -2 anon 27 Sep 11, 03:26
what a shame that the indian judiciary has slipped to such appalling levels of mediocrity- and where judges believe they are truly above the law!
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Like +4 Object -2 Radha 01 Oct 11, 09:13
Justice Katju was anything but mediocre. He is a brilliant, well-read man. He was not perfect, no man is, so he was short with lawyers when he felt they had done something wrong, but he revered the constitution and the laws of the land. It is absurd to say that he believed he was above the law.
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Like +2 Object -1 Junior 27 Sep 11, 13:11
We as lawyers more often than not are in so much awe of a judge that for a statement made by a judge which is remotely funny is received with great adulation.

A lot of fuel to his courtroom was added by advocates/interns/court clerks who giggled for all his humiliating remarks.

Hence, the impression created of his courtroom is equally attributable to advocates/interns/court clerks who do not know how to conduct themselves in a courtroom.
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Like +1 Object -0 anon 27 Sep 11, 13:25
he deserved to be in one of those long-running hindi serials rather than at the pinnacle of the Indian judiciary- what a fall from the days of Subba Rao, Venkatachaliah et al
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Like +2 Object -0 jk 27 Sep 11, 14:26
Great! Pls do a write up on the gossip surrounding 2G. The word is that Swamy's ultimate aim is to paint Sonia as the mastermind, and he is gradually elminating Raja, Chidambaram etc to get to her.
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Like +0 Object -0 R 27 Sep 11, 16:37
Nice read !! Thank You !!
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Like +0 Object -0 JNS 27 Sep 11, 23:55
Excellent piece.It is refreshingly to see such pieces about the Supreme Court litigation scene in LI.

I hope to read more of your pieces. Waiting for the next one, keep it up!
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Like +3 Object -1 mathews 28 Sep 11, 10:08
I had some really good experiences sitting in his court as an intern. We made it a point to attend his court post lunch when theres was a natural inclination to fall asleep..:)

Once a junior appeared in his court. Quite tensed, he was not able to answer one of his questions. Justice Katju went wild stating "You all think u r nani palkhiwalas. Go to District court, practice there for 10 yrs, and after that in HC for 10 yrs..then you come here". The junior almost ran away.
On another occasion, when he was hearing a kidnapping matter (basically, the girl ran away with her boy friend),he went on to say "Whats the problem with these young people? They will fall in love, they will run away, creating probs for all of us"....

Whatever it is, I used to hear that his knowledge of law was impeccable..And quite a good number of senior counsels respected him...
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Like +6 Object -0 A 28 Sep 11, 11:08  interesting
although he was funny but i think he should have been serious in hearing the matters which were of concern for many common litigants !! very few people know how he became a judge of Allahabad HC and then made it to the SC...since he is the relative of Nehru and have good ties with the Gandhi-Nehru family for years with the Kashmiri pandit connection !!
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Like +3 Object -1 S 30 Sep 11, 02:31
He was a brilliant judge, with a formidable knowledge of law, history and other subjects. His integrity and commitment to the legal profession was unquestionable. He empathized with the public and undertood that "justice delayed is justice denied" and he disposed off matters with a warranted urgency. He will be missed!
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Like +0 Object -1 nimesh 30 Sep 11, 17:15
In a country where more than 50,000 cases are pending..what an honorable Judge is supposed to do, to settle nonsense elopement cases in haste or to waste time on that...i immensely support his opinion of "justice delayed is justice denied"
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Like +1 Object -0 A 01 Oct 11, 13:14
justice hurried is justice buried ...there needs to be a balance which he failed to create !! however, people enjoyed those humours which had nothing to do with the administration of justice !!
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Like +1 Object -1 S 03 Oct 11, 05:06
There is nothing humourous in taking an unprepared lawyer to task, or calling out the unscrupulous who are defrauding their clients, or not being intimindated by senior lawyers and politicans. It takes courage, character and conviction. If others wanted to laugh, hold them accountable. As the CJI said on Justice Katju's retirement, he stood for truth, courage, knowledge and humanity.
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Like +1 Object -0 A 03 Oct 11, 10:54
he openly criticised V.R Krishna Iyer's judgements on granting of bail ... how come he doesn't grant bail when the prosecution fails to provide evidence and the case already entered its sixth year making the client languish in jail ?? if you closely monitor his judgments you will see that his application of law relating to criminal matters was not praiseworthy !!
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Like +0 Object -1 S 03 Oct 11, 11:53
You started by accusing him of gaining from nepotism, when you couldn't prove that you accused him hurrying through his judgements and now you say he failed to give bails! Him of the Binayak Sen claim. Him who had the courage to give Dr Sen bail, when no one else would. Him who said mere membership of banned outfits is not a criminal offence. I'm sorry sir you seem to be floundering around.
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Like +2 Object -0 A 03 Oct 11, 15:44
As far as I know, the bench comprised Justices HS Bedi and CK Prasad who granted bail to Dr. Sen !

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Like +0 Object -1 S 04 Oct 11, 00:46
Well then, you obviously don't know enough, which is why you probably were at the receiving end of Katju's wrath. The first time Dr Sen got bail was in 2009, from a supreme court vacation bench of Katju and Deepak Verma. Here, feast your eyes Mr "Gyani".. http://www.hindu.com/thehindu/holnus/002200905251707.htm
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Like +0 Object -1 S 04 Oct 11, 01:05
And here is a glowing tribute by the freebinayaksen campaign on Katju's reirement, also mentioning the bail granted in 2009. Parhiye Gyaniji http://www.freebinayaksen.org/?p=2675
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Like +1 Object -0 Raghu 07 Oct 11, 12:13
CourtWitness1: You should read this-
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Like +2 Object -0 Baddawg 26 Dec 11, 11:28
Scenes from Katju's Court:

Rohinton Nariman(son of the legend Nariman Senior and a legend in himself)



Katju: Mr. Nariman, didn't your father teach you even this?
Rohinton: No M'Lord, he told me a judge from Allahabad High Court would teach me.
Katju: Mr. Nariman, Hindi mein boliye...hamare samvidhaan mein bhi recognized bhaasha hay.
Rohiniton rattles off in Gujrati.
Katju: Ye kya hay?
Rohinton: Gujrati bhi samvidhaan mein recgnized hay...
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Like +0 Object -0 Srikanth satturi 20 Jan 12, 14:05
Good post, could see a lot which i can't see on google or wiki
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Like +0 Object -1 Piyush joshi 03 Apr 12, 17:34
Yes! being in court no. 6 was the funniest thing. I dont know when ever i used to enter his court while interning a smile use to come to my lips without any reason. "I remember once Sir, Fariman son was appearing in his court and Katju made a comment that "apko shayad apne dad se kuch sikhna chaiye abhi app utne experinced nahi hue" on this fariman's son replied "yes my lord my dad said that a man from allahabad high court will come and he will teach you how to argue on law points." everyone started whispering and laughing".. but though his judgment are some times funny but i guess he was the real judge of the supreme court who had no fear while giving any order.
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