The average tenure of a Judge of the Supreme Court of India (the Court) is about four years. If a Judge has more than five years, he/she would definitely retire from the front courts (Courts 1 to 5); be a member of the collegium - determine who is elevated to the Supreme Court; if sitting in the first three courts, the person would also have a say in who becomes a High Court judge anywhere in India. If it is the average tenure, the person would preside for about two years and retire, probably, from Court 7 or 8.
Justice Deepak Gupta had just over three years (February 2017 to May 2020) in the Supreme Court. He retired on 6th May 2020. Before Covid -19 brought life to a standstill, he was sitting in Court 11. In the normal course of things not many would notice the retirement of a Judge with such a short tenure. Yes, the retirement would be mentioned by lawyers in their daily talk over coffee or lunch; they would ask each other if they were going to attend the farewell at 4 P.M. in the lawns of the Court. But then these are not ordinary times and Justice Gupta was not an ordinary Judge. His retirement, during the isolation times, was spoken about and discussed by lawyers on Whats App groups, phone calls and chats. There was much discussion with the common refrain of being cheated, sadness and glum. Cheated at having been robbed of two precious months in which they would have had opportunities to appear before him. Sad because they could not be physically present to bid adieu to him. And glum because they knew he was irreplaceable.
But what made Justice Gupta such an extraordinary judge? How did he manage to gather accolades, acclaim, and even love from the lawyers in just three short years? Surely, there had been other judges who had retired after being in Supreme Court for many years (some even 8 years)! They had held high offices. Their retirement came and life went on as usual for lawyers who did not miss the retired judge at all. It is difficult to answer what made Justice Gupta extraordinary. One can list the various judgments he authored each more brilliant than the other. But that is expected of a judge of the Court. One can state that he was popular, therefore, the perception of extraordinary.That would not be correct since there have been other judges who have been popular with the Bar but none so extraordinary.
If one was forced to state a reason, it could be said that he was extraordinary because he was just himself: an earthy, down to earth individual who was not fascinated by the cherry coloured chair he sat upon; who decided cases by applying a robust common sense, threads of which he closely wove into his golden heart. Cases in his court were decided without any bias either in favour or against an issue or person. Lawyers were patiently heard – the ones with lesser number of years at the Bar were heard more patiently, counselled and even given time to prepare if not too well prepared. The ones with more standing were asked tough questions but always with an open mind, which was open to persuasion, open to debate, open to changing the mind.
One can accuse this write up being a panegyric; quite typical of various farewell speeches one hears at retirement of judges. It would have been true but for the empirical proof of the affection, which the lawyers had for Justice Gupta. At the virtual farewell organised by the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) many logged in to hear him speak. On the day of the farewell, constant reminders were sent by friends to one an another about it with the link. Due to a technical glitch, initially, the number of lawyers was restricted to 100. But complaints poured in and an active and energetic President of SCBA quickly switched platform so that many more could log in. And the number easily crossed 500. Justice Gupta spoke from his heart with honesty and affection. It touched lawyers to know that his father died when he was still in school and that his mother brought him and his siblings up as a single parent. The stories of his growing up years in Shimla, the acknowledgment for the people who helped him reach the peak of his career, the sacrifices he had had to make, left many with tears in their eyes. The common thought running through their minds – he is human like us and does not pretend to be anything else.
Of the many qualities that Justice Gupta possessed, courage was the most visible and outstanding. It was displayed during hearings in court. Being a judge who believed in the rights of citizens, he always stood as a wall between the government and the citizens. He never shied from chiding the governments for transgressing the rights of the citizen. It did not matter to him what was at stake – be it crores of rupees or thousand kilograms of heroin – if there was a wrong done by the government, a citizen of this country deserved justice and in Justice Gupta's court he would surely get it. Vague arguments, as governments often make, of impact on society or there being too much at stake were all thrown out of his court. The Supreme Court was a court for guarding the rights of the citizen and not protecting the trampling upon by the government.
It can be said that Justice Gupta really came into his own when he started presiding over a Bench. For the first year or so, he sat with one other judge and that Bench took up Public Interest Litigation (PIL) relating to environment. Many, regular practitioners, did not have a chance to appear before him since such matters have the lawyer for PIL petitioner and the government on the opposite side. Once freed from that Bench, he started presiding over a Bench. It is then that tales of how good Justice Gupta were narrated in the corridors of the Court. Lawyers would mention the facts of the case and then go to describe the outcome. Soon those experiences were shared by many other lawyers. Well before his retirement, Justice Gupta was mentioned as one of the best in the Court by all sections of the lawyers.
Justice Gupta is human and, therefore was not perfect. He could cut a lawyer short if he was wasting the time of the court. It was done tersely with little patience. During hearings he could tell a counsel that he/she was woefully unprepared and it was not expected of the person. But those matters ended there. He did not carry anything against the counsel the next time the person appeared. It was the facts of the case and the arguments advanced which would determine the outcome of the case. As a judge, he was a true discipline of law. He was eager to decide matters. He did not have a favourite area of law. The cases that were allotted to him, were heard and decided. Complicated questions, which required to be settled were given due time and efforts made at his own end to lay down the correct proposition of law. Lawyers hardly sought adjournments in his court; there would be a clamour amongst them to have their cases heard and not adjourned. The many decisions that he rendered fill the reports will live on. But appearances and interactions with him in the courtroom will be fondly missed by all.
The way Justice Gupta lived his judicial life can be best summed up in the words of the revolutionary poet Makhdoom Mohiuddin:
"Hayat le ke chalo, kainat le ke chalo
Chalo to sare zamane ko sath le ke chalo"
(Walk along with life, march with the universe
When you walk, take the entire universe with you)
Views Are Personal Only.
(Author is Senior Advocate at Supreme Court of India)