I was in the Bombay High Court yesterday, where I witnessed a shocking incident. I share this here because at the centre of this is Chief Justice Manjula Chellur. And it happened on a day when the Supreme Court stood up for the citizens.
A matter pertaining to noise pollution during festivals (like Ganpati Chaturthi) was being heard by a bench of Justice Abhay Oka and Justice Riyaz Chagla. The matter has been heard by Justice Oka since 2016 and he was continuing as per roster and orders of the Chief Justice.
Yesterday, the matter was listed for orders. When the matter came up at 11 am, the government moved an application seeking Justice Oka to recuse because he was ‘biased’ since he had expressed a view in the matter.
It was surprising. Firstly, for the government to make such a request after the matter was fully heard and fixed for orders is itself out of place. Secondly, for the Advocate-General of the state (a successor to Setalvad, Daphtary, Seervai, Andhyarujina etc) to make such a request is frankly undermining the independence of the judiciary and completely misplaced.
Justice Oka was obviously peeved by the attempt by the state government to make him recuse. He refused to recuse, but since it was an administrative issue, he posted the matter to 3 pm, and referred the application to the Chief Justice for orders. He then said if the Chief Justice did not assign the matter to another bench, he would pass orders at 3 pm, as he was supposed to do at 11 am.
Strangely and absolutely unfairly, the Chief Justice, without following any norms of propriety, chose to assign it to another bench because the government had requested that Judge Oka was ‘biased’ because he had expressed opinions during the oral hearing. I was shocked. The least I had expected was for the Chief Justice to stand by her brother judge, if nothing else.
This action is wrong on many levels. Firstly, for the government to make a request that a judge is biased because he has expressed a view during a hearing is unacceptable, as the government is not an ordinary litigant. Secondly, the Advocate General making such a statement is regrettable, lowering the status and dignity of the office. Thirdly, the CJ has, by her unfortunate action of toeing the government line, undermined Justice Abhay Oka, a very upright and independent judge, and also the independence of the judiciary. And finally, the Government of Maharashtra openly indulged in the despicable act of forum shopping, ably aided by the Advocate General and the Chief Justice.
I had nothing to do with the subject matter which was before Justice Oka. I was just there because I had some time to while away. But this whole situation disgusted me as a lawyer and made me feel helpless and frustrated. Perhaps, I write this here because I am venting and because the Chief Justice is from my home high court.