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Calcutta HC judge upholds judicial independence in face of political pressure

NewsCalcutta HC judge upholds judicial independence in face of political pressure

Trinamool Congress leaning lawyers have passed a resolution about boycotting Justice Gangopadhyay, who has ordered a Bengal minister to appear before the CBI for questioning in a case relating to irregularities in the appointment of teachers in state-aided schools.


New Delhi: A Calcutta High Court judge has earned the ire of a group sympathetic to West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC), after he ordered former state education minister and current commerce and industries minister Partha Chatterjee to appear before the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) for questioning at Nizam Palace at 5.30pm on Tuesday for his alleged role in irregularities in the appointment of teachers in state-aided schools in West Bengal.

However, within hours of the said order passed by the single bench of Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay, the same was stayed by a division bench of Justice Subrata Talukdar and Justice Ananda Kumar Mukherjee after the state moved the division bench appealing against the order passed by Justice Gangopadhyay. The division bench has now stayed the matter for four weeks while assigning the next date of hearing on 13 May.

According to advocates who were present in the courtroom of Justice Gangopadhyay, the judge in his oral observation said that Partha Chatterjee would not be allowed to get himself admitted in the SSKM hospital, in an obvious reference to TMC leaders making a beeline for SSKM hospital to delay or escape questioning by central agencies. Several TMC leaders, in the recent past, have got themselves admitted to the SSKM government hospital soon after receiving CBI summons. In a recent incident, after the Supreme Court denied giving protection from arrest to AnubrataMondal, a TMC leader who is an accused in the coal and cattle smuggling case, Mondal got himself admitted to the hospital, something that he has done whenever he gets CBI summons.

Justice Gangopadhayay, who was practising as an advocate before being appointed as High Court judge on 2 May 2018, will retire on 19 August 2024. His name was among the seven recommended for appointment as Judges of the Calcutta High Court on 4 May 2017. Justice Gangopadhyay, whose court room no 17 hears education matters, in his judgement, that was later overturned by the division bench had made stern remarks against the stand taken by the West Bengal government, which had argued against involving Chatterjee in the case.

In his order, Justice Gangopadhyay directed the Regional Head of the CBI to start investigating the matter and call all the members of the five-member committee constituted by the order of the Joint Secretary to the Government of West Bengal, Education Department on 1 November 2019. “This order was issued with the concurrence of the competent authority. I do not know who the competent authority is, but this much is evident from the designation of the said Committee Members that one Personal Secretary to the then Hon’ble Minister-in-charge of the Education Department and the Officer on Special Duty to the said Hon’ble Minister-in-Charge of Education Department were two members of the said Committee. In some matters until now some persons including the Members of the Committee in different aspects have been interrogated by CBI and the interrogation is not complete in those matters. Now in respect of this matter, CBI will register a case and will start interrogating such persons including the then Hon’ble Education Minister Mr Partha Chatterjee who cannot be kept out of the dragnet of CBI. CBI is directed to call Mr Partha Chatterjee in the course of the day.”

The judge further wrote that if Chatterjee did not present himself before the court, the court would be forced to pass “unpleasant” orders; he also gave the CBI the liberty to arrest the minister if he did not cooperate. “I direct Mr Partha Chatterjee to present himself before the Head of the CBI in this State in Nizam Palace by 5-30 p.m. today, otherwise necessary orders would be passed by this court which may be very unpleasant. I direct the petitioner to immediately supply all the orders passed by me and the questions and answers and the documents marked as Exhibits in this matter before this court by 4-30 p.m. today to CBI. This court believes that no officer of the Education Department could act without the direction of the then Education Minister, in matters like this. Only officials under the then Hon’ble Minister of Education would face CBI inquiry and the Head at the helm of the Education Department would not be interrogated, to unearth the whole scam in giving wholly illegal appointments in posts in schools, by CBI cannot be the case here. If CBI thinks that said Mr Chatterjee is not co-operating with CBI and is granted liberty to start interrogating him by taking him in custody,” the judge said while adjourning the matter for seven days.

However, the state government, within minutes of the said order, challenged it in front of a division bench which stayed all proceedings involving the State Level Teacher Selection Test (SLST) by the single bench on grounds that hearing of SLST matters couldn’t run simultaneously in two courts.

The notification for appointment of teachers through SLST was published in 2014 and the recruitment process started in 2016 during the tenure of Partha Chatterjee as education minister. Justice Gangopadhyay’s directive to Chatterjee came following a petition by an aspirant for the post, Abdul Gani Ansari.

Another petitioner, Anindita Bera, has mentioned 27 instances of irregular appointments, which took place following a meeting of the five-member panel set up by the education department to oversee school appointments. The education minister’s personal secretary was a member of the panel, which had School Service Commission adviser Santi Prasad Sinha as its convenor.

On Monday, a court-appointed committee probing irregularities in appointment of teachers in state schools had held the setting up of the five-member panel as invalid and recommended filing of FIRs under sections of cheating and forgery against the panel members, including Sinha, and West Bengal Board of Secondary Education president Kalyanmoy Ganguly.

The CBI has also started fresh cases against Sinha on the HC’s directions after the central agency submitted a report to it.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, after the judge’s order against Chatterjee, a large section of Trinamool Congress supporters gheraoed Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay, asking him to remove all the media persons from his courtroom during hearing. This request was denied by Gangopadhyay, who said: “In a democratic setup, I cannot ask the media to go out of the courtroom. They (media) are also a part of the Constitution; they can be present at all times.” Following this, the TMC leaning individuals started protesting inside his Court Room no 17 prompting Justice Gangopadhyay to ask them what was his mistake and what was the problem that the lawyers were facing in his courtroom?

When the protesting TMC supporters started shouting slogans against him, the Justice asked the lawyers to stop doing politics inside his court room. He told a TMC leaning lawyer, “I am asking you all not to do any politics here; I am not doing any politics. I wanted to take a stand against corruption.”

This was followed by a clash between a group of lawyers inside the Calcutta High Court. The BJP supporting lawyers and the TMC supporting lawyers clashed with each other over the issue of Justice Gangopadhyay issuing multiple orders that made the ruling Trinamool Congress government uncomfortable. The TMC leaning lawyers on Tuesday passed a resolution on boycotting of Justice Gangopadhyay. Earlier, in an order dated 30 March, Justice Gangopadhyay had taken strong exception to an order passed by a Division Bench of the High Court allowing a party in the teachers’ recruitment case to submit a document in a sealed cover, consequently “tying” the hands of the single-judge. Justice Gangopadhyay had termed this order as “a highest degree of double standard”.

Justice Gangopadhyay had earlier given orders for CBI inquiry over the allegations of corruption in the recruitment of WBSSC Group C, group D and SLST teachers and staff. All these orders for CBI inquiry were overturned by the Division Bench of the Calcutta High Court. Justice Gangopadhyay, according to lawyers practising in the Calcutta High Court, has also apprised the Supreme Court and the Chief Justice of Calcutta High court on the issue of the High Court’s Division Bench staying some of his orders.

Following this, a section of lawyers who are members of the Bar Association, Calcutta High Court had asked the Chief Justice, Calcutta High court, who is the Master of Roster, to take action against Justice Gangopadhyay in order “to uphold the Judicial discipline and supremacy of the judiciary” failing which they “will have no option but to abstain from the judicial work in that Court until appropriate recourse is taken having due regard that independent and fair judiciary in the dispensation of Justice is the hallmark of a vibrant democracy”.

The lawyers were upset over the “unprecedented actions of Justice Gangopadhyay for publicly questioning the judicial decisions of the Appeal Court, hearing appeals from orders passed by the Judge hearing education matters, which is acting completely against judicial decorum, decency, judicial discipline and propriety”.

Senior Advocate of the Calcutta High Court, Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya, told The Sunday Guardian that a group of TMC supporters were creating ruckus to put pressure on the Judge. “Justice Gangopadhyay has expressed his displeasure with the Division Bench and he has every right to comment on the Division Bench, there is nothing wrong in it. If the Division Bench finds it wrong, then it is a matter of judicial scrutiny. This does not empower anyone to say that the judge cannot say anything against the order passed by the Division Bench,” he said.
“The Judge prima facie believes, on the basis of evidence placed before him, that there was a scam. He wants that there should be an investigation into it, but the protesting lawyers are scared of the investigation which is why they are creating the ruckus. They (protesting lawyers) have created an unprecedented situation in the Calcutta High Court,” Bhattacharya further added.

According to him, some lawyers were preventing him and other lawyers from entering his courtroom. “When the Judge entered the courtroom, they started asking the Judge how he questioned the Division Bench order, but my question is how can practising lawyers question a judicial order? This is contempt of court. I have pleaded before the court that the court should immediately issue a Criminal Contempt order against them,” Bhattacharya told this newspaper.

According to Bhattacharya, Justice Gangopadhyay is an upright man and that he was just trying to do justice. Advocate Gopa Biswas, who is representing the petitioners in the teachers’ recruitment case, while speaking to The Sunday Guardian, said that challenging the Single Bench order to a Division Bench is a normal procedure of the Court.

Incidentally, on the day the TMC affiliated group was protesting against Justice Gangopadhyay, he was issuing an order to help a common woman who was suffering from blood cancer and whose plight was caught by the Justice while going through news in a Bengali daily newspaper. “A news article has drawn my attention wherein it is stated that a lady candidate who appeared for the post of a teacher in the selection process conducted by the School Service Commission but has not got any appointment is suffering from blood cancer. She has taken twelve chemotherapy treatments in Mumbai. She sat for demonstration beneath the statue of the Father of the Nation in Mayo Road. She has no one to help now, as her father has retired from service and has a brother who is an unemployed youth. After reading this news, I think that for the ends of social justice a suo motu writ application is to be initiated in this court; otherwise the lady will continue to suffer may be for no reason. She has also stated before the journalists that had she got the service in school she could continue her treatment. A society full of civil people after knowing this cannot leave her in the hands of God only. Therefore, this court feels that a role is required to be taken in such a matter by the justice delivery system of the country,” he wrote while directing the Registrar General of the court to register one writ application. He also appointed two lawyers to appear in the matter while asking them to generate more information immediately by going to the statue of Father of the Nation to contact the woman and to collect her phone number and to file a report. He also stated that “a lady with such a disease need not come to this court”.

“What is to be done in this respect is to be done by the Special Officers and if necessary, the Special Officers will go to her residence. Her name is Soma Das. The name of the Panchayat where she resides is Paik Para Gram Panchayat and the name of her village is Ashram Para, District Birbhum. I also directed the said Special Officers to collect all papers relating to her disease and treatment and her papers relating to the recruitment process initiated by the School Service Commission”, the judge stated.

Such a show of courage and judicial independence by the judge has drawn praise from all those who are supporters of an objective and impartial judiciary as enshrined in the Constitution of India.

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