M A I N   N E W S

The Last Word
Justice SH Kapadia, cji
Wielding the gavel judiciously
R. Sedhuraman

The nation was watching and the Chief Justice of India (CJI) was in his element during the day-long hearing last month.

The CJI fired a volley of acutely embarrassing questions at the government and PJ Thomas. The packed courtroom resonated with the pointed queries as the CJI’s baritone voice left the counsel for Thomas and the government scurrying for cover.

The case: A public interest litigation (PIL) filed that challenged the appointment of PJ Thomas as Central Vigilance Commissioner (CVC).
The Bench: The Chief Justice of India, Justice KSP Radhakrishnan and Justice Swatanter Kumar.
The venue: The majestic Court No. 1 of the hallowed Supreme Court.
Thomas’ Counsel: KK Venugopal and Attorney General GE Vahanvati.
Petitioner’s Counsel: Prashant Bhushan.

Even then, the advocates and the journalists present in the court remained sceptical, given their past experience in such high-profile cases.

On March 3, the CJI announced the verdict. The Bench not only quashed the appointment of Thomas but also laid down stiff guidelines for the future. Interestingly, the PIL had been argued by Prashant Bhushan who is facing contempt proceedings in the SC for allegedly casting aspersions on the CJI.

Another day in the life of the Justice Sarosh Homi Kapadia, who famously said, in response to a congratulatory message from Justice VR Krishna Iyer after being designated as Chief Justice of India (CJI) on April 30, 2010: “Integrity is my only asset.”

Well, judiciary needed someone with just his qualities to set its house in order. No wonder there is widespread admiration for his no-nonsense approach and zero tolerance for corruption. Ten months after he took over as Chief Justice of India, Supreme Court watchers talk about Justice Kapadia’s integrity, his concern for the poor and the financial health of the nation, as well as his resolve to revamp the judiciary at all levels.

Even while serving as a judge at the Supreme Court, Justice Kapadia sometimes went against the current. As part of a three-member Bench hearing the income tax case of Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Lalu Prasad, he gave a dissenting judgment criticising the Income Tax Department for not filing an appeal against the order passed by the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal. The verdict by the Bench, which included Justice KG Balakrishnan, went in favour of Lalu Prasad. Justice Kapadia, however, firmly held that the Income Tax Department should have filed an appeal against the order.

It was the apex court, under Justice Kapadia, that overruled the Punjab and Haryana High Court, and came out in support of a 20-year-old woman who was raped at a Nari Niketan run by the Chandigarh Administration. The apex court ruled that the woman, who is mentally challenged, should not have to undergo an abortion. In another case, Justice Kapadia ruled that suspects should not be forced to undergo lie-detector tests without their consent.

As a youngster, Kapadia did not take the traditional Parsi corporate route. The smallest religious community in India runs some of the biggest industrial houses, and he could have joined one of them. However, at the age of just 13, he opted for a job in a law firm, Behramjee Jeejeebhoy. Kapadia worked with Firoze Damania, a well-known labour lawyer in Mumbai. Along the way, he married fellow Parsi, Shenaz, and the couple have a son, Hoshnar, and a daughter, Tenaaz. Neither are lawyers, though Hoshnar is a practising Chartered Accountant, specialising in income tax matters.

Justice Kapadia changed the status quo the very day he took over as 38th CJI on May 12, succeeding Justice KG Balakrishnan when he announced in the open court that he was instantly dispensing with the “morning mentioning” (brief oral pleadings for early listing of cases or other relief) which had been a good source of revenue for advocates for years at the cost of hapless litigants. “You file your petitions before 11 a.m. and take the orders at 2 p.m.,” he told the lawyers, who looked on in dismay.

He also made it clear that he would not only dismiss frivolous public interest litigation (PIL) petitions but also impose heavy penalty for wasting the court’s time. The next few months witnessed his Bench dismissing not only the fresh PILs filed without proper diligence on the part of petitioners but also the PILs that had been pending for several years.

Then came a number of serious PILs relating to corruption and irregularities in top-level administration, including the CVC’s appointment, the 2G spectrum scam and the menace of black money, that prompted the SC to get cracking.

Handling finance-related cases, Justice Kapadia takes care that the government does not lose revenue due to underpayments by the corporate sector. “Given this, lawyers have an uphill task arguing for private individuals and companies in such matters,” rues senior counsel Mukul Rohatgi, quickly adding that the “CJI is absolutely honest and a man of integrity”.

Attorney General GE Vahanvati says: “The CJI is probably the most hard-working man I have come across. He has insatiable thirst for knowledge, and that is not limited to law. His range of interests is wide, from physics to economics. He is also ramrod straight. Even as a lawyer he was extremely principled.”

The views of Solicitor General Gopal Subramanium are not any different. “The CJI is an extraordinary person with extraordinary abilities and he believes in fairness in all matters.”

Another senior advocate, Tushar Mehta, recalled an incident to bring out another facet of Justice Kapadia. Shortly before becoming the CJI, he addressed a gathering of law students in Ahmedabad. Encouraging the students from families with no legal background, he said he himself had been in their position, having made a humble beginning of his legal career as a clerk in a solicitor firm. “If I could become a Judge of the Supreme Court, it is possible for you as well,” he exhorted.

When he released a book on the Ramayana written by Law Minister M Veerappa Moily last year, Justice Kapadia said though he was a Zoroastrian, he had a keen interest in the Hindu as well as Buddhist philosophy. “People should practise the principles eulogised in the Ramayana epic to make Hinduism a way of life and create a true egalitarian society,” he said. According to senior advocate MN Krishnamani, CJI Kapadia has a keen interest in the teachings of Sri Ramana Maharishi who lived a simple, ascetic life.

During the hearings of an ongoing case, in which private schools have challenged the government’s directive to admit 25 per cent of the students belonging to the economically weaker sections as part of the Right to Education Act, he pointed out that having received government land for a song, the private schools had a social responsibility. Further, the right to life included the right to education, food and dignity.

Justice Sarosh Homi Kapadia has time before he reaches the age of super annuation on September 29, 2012. He has shown that he can make a difference; the only question is, how much?

Indian judiciary is also confronted with a plethora of problems. Corruption in the judiciary, judicial accountability, appointment of judges, the reluctance or inability of the government to follow the rules laid down by the apex court, poor infrastructure and funding are just some of the daunting tasks that the CJI has to deal with. But Kapadia carries the burden of expectations lightly and is undoubtedly the man of the moment.

With inputs from Shiv Kumar in Mumbai





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