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Court Cuts: When Justice Gogoi emerged as King of Surprises, setting up a mystery encounter with Markandey Katju

In Gogoi v Katju on 11 November there are guaranteed to be some surprises in store...
In Gogoi v Katju on 11 November there are guaranteed to be some surprises in store...

It was a series of surprises wrapped in an enigma, so to speak. In the end, the King of Surprises, Justice Ranjan Gogoi, pretty much proved to those who assembled in Court 5 of the Supreme Court on 17 October that no one could beat him in the game of springing surprises.

The hearing of the review petitions in an open court is not an ordinary event, as in most cases, review petitions, except in death penalty cases, are heard and decided in chambers by the same Supreme Court Judges who had disposed of the petitions earlier.

Therefore, when justices Ranjan Gogoi, Prafulla C Pant, and UU Lalit, assembled for the second time within 10 days to hear the same case in open court, that was a surprise in itself.

That surprise, however, led to predictability over the submissions of the counsel, which were rather repetitive, although the arguing counsel had changed in the mean time, giving rise to at least one inexplicable surprise of sorts.

The case

On 7 October, senior counsel, KTS Tulsi represented the State of Kerala while another senior, Huzefa A Ahmadi, represented Sumathi, mother of the deceased Soumya, who was physically attacked by Govindaswamy, when she was alone in a ladies’ compartment in a passenger train in Kerala on 1 February 2012.

The review petitioners – the State of Kerala and Sumathi – challenged the bench’s judgment in the case delivered on 15 September, acquitting Govindaswamy, the accused, of the murder charges. The bench had, however, found Govindaswamy guilty of causing her first injury in the moving train, and after both fell from the train, raping her.

The bench, therefore, sentenced Govindaswamy to life imprisonment for causing her the first injury, and for the rape.

Had the bench found him guilty of causing Soumya’s second, but fatal injury, which she suffered as a result of falling from the train, it could have led to confirmation of his death sentence, imposed by the trial court and the high court.

But the bench, relying on a technicality, inherent in Section 6 of the Evidence Act, found reason to believe that Govindaswamy was not responsible for her second injury, and that she must have fallen on her own, while escaping. Section 6 holds the statement of a bystander, made spontaneously in the course of the incident, a reliable piece of evidence.

The prosecution had cited a middle-aged bystander making a spontaneous observation to two Prosecution Witnesses that he saw Soumya jumping and escaping, and therefore, there was no need to pull the chain to stop the train, in order to save her.

This bystander, who is untraceable to date, made the Gogoi bench to acquit Govindaswamy of the charge of murder, thus causing another surprise to those who believed his death sentence was irreversible.

On 7 October, both Tulsi and Ahmadi, could not convince the bench, and sought more time.

On 17 October, Tulsi got replaced by the Attorney General, Mukul Rohatgi, and Ahmadi was replaced by senior counsel, Sidharth Luthra, thus causing a surprise of sorts, before the hearing began.

No doubt, Rohatgi and Luthra repeated the arguments of Tulsi and Ahmade, but with a few variations here and there. But the bench remained unimpressed, and heard them mostly for the record.

Enter Gogoi

It was then that Justice Gogoi gave two surprising hints about what he was going to say, which went mostly unnoticed by those who assembled in the court room.

First, he asked Rohatgi, who completed his submissions, not to leave, but to remain till the order is pronounced. Rohatgi obliged, even while probably asking himself the reasons for Justice Gogoi’s unusual request.

Gogoi then asked Luthra to sum up, while allowing him some more time beyond 4 pm when the court was to rise as a matter of routine.

Luthra could not make out the meaning of these contradictory signals emanating from the bench.

At 4:30 pm, Gogoi abruptly stopped Luthra, saying the bench had understood his as well as Rohatgi’s submissions, and it was time for dictating the order.

Enter Katju

As Justice Gogoi began to dictate his order, it appeared that he was going to say, ‘Arguments heard; judgment reserved’.

But while he did say ‘Arguments heard’; he didn’t say ‘judgment reserved’.

Instead, he said a connected issue which has arisen needs to be resolved at the first instance.

He then referred to former Supreme Court Justice Markandey Katju’s blog and Facebook post, in which he claimed that the bench committed a “gross error in the judgment” in not reading Section 300 IPC carefully, before acquitting Govindaswamy of the charge of murder.

The bench then said it required Katju’s presence in the next hearing (on November 11) to resolve the issue, saying being a former judge, his views deserved respectful consideration.

But to those assembled in the court, it was clear that it was couched in language that appeared intended to expose Justice Katju, and therefore, carried another surprise in store.

There are decent odds that a notice to ensure his presence in court will basically be a notice for committing contempt of court by expressing an opinion about the judgment, which showed the judges in a poor light.

Or maybe Gogoi just intends to spring a surprise on Katju and indulge in some verbal sparring with him?

In any case, by keeping the suspense about 11 November hearing alive, Justice Gogoi showed that he was indeed the King of Surprises in court, forgetting the amount of hair-splitting of counsel today on whether Govindaswamy was guilty of murdering Soumya, and if so, how.

Photo by Nikhil Kanekal

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