A couple of weeks after the Trinamool Congress and the advocate of West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee raised doubts over the impartiality of Calcutta High Court judge Kausik Chanda, the judge recused himself from hearing the chief minister’s petition on BJP leader Suvendu Adhikari’s Nandigram election victory. At the same time, the judge fined her Rs 5 lakh to “firmly repulse” the “calculated psychological offensives and vilification adopted to seek recusal”.
Chief Minister Banerjee had alleged in her petition that Justice Chanda’s long association with the BJP’s legal cell and taking up cases for the party posed an “apprehension of bias” and that “the court should be like Caesar’s wife, above suspicion”.
Justice Chanda said he had “no personal inclination to hear out the case” nor did he have any “hesitation in taking up the case” but he still chose to recuse because “the two persons involved in this case belong to the highest echelons of state politics”. “Some opportunists have already emerged… in the name of saving the judiciary. These trouble-mongers will try to keep the controversy alive and create newer controversies. The trial of the case before this bench will be a tool to aggrandise themselves. It would be contrary to the interest of justice if such unwarranted squabble continues along with the trial,” the judge said. The fine of Rs 5 lakh should be paid to the Bar Council of West Bengal to help families of advocates who lost their lives to Covid, he ordered.
The chief minister did not respond to the fine. “This is a sub-judice matter. I will not speak on this. The lawyers will take a decision,” she said.
But other Trinamool leaders as well as the BJP’s IT Cell chief took to Twitter after the order. Trinamool Rajya Sabha leader and spokesperson Derek O’Brien, without directly referring to the judgement, tweeted: “We live and learn. We live in a world where the cost of speaking the truth now comes with a staggering price tag: Rs 5 lakh. We live in a world where propaganda and falsehood are also meted out. The price: FREE. Got the reference? Modi hai to mumkin hai. Go figure.”
Trinamool Lok Sabha MP Mahua Moitra, whose tweet listing the cases Justice Chanda had appeared for the BJP as a lawyer was mentioned in Justice Chanda’s order, tweeted: “Petulance at its best today. Realising no way out but to recuse himself he decides to slap ₹5lakh fine simply because he can. Kind of like teacher realises student is correct & breaks blackboard.”
BJP leader Amit Malviya, however, felt the fine was “a small sum”. “The fine on Banerjee for showing the judiciary in poor light is a small sum, given the potential of her actions and utterances to cause erosion of trust of the common man in our institutions. She had similarly maligned EC during elections,” he tweeted.
Justice Chanda said in his order that he did not agree with the chief minister’s petition that his “long, close, personal, professional, pecuniary and ideological relationship” with a political party posed a “conflict of interest”. “It is almost impossible in this country to get a person who may not be said to have political views. Anyone interested in politics may be said to have an ‘interest’. Like any other citizen of the country, a judge too exercises voting rights in favour of a political party but lays aside individual predilections while deciding a case,” he said. “The past association of a judge with a political party by itself cannot form apprehension of bias. This proposition, if allowed to be accepted, would be destructive to the deep-rooted notion of neutrality associated with the justice delivery system and lead to the unfair practice of bench-hunting,” the judge wrote in his order.
Justice Chanda also referred to Chief Minister Banerjee’s apprehension of bias since she had objected to his confirmation as a permanent judge of the Calcutta High Court. “The petitioner cannot seek recusal based on her own consent or objection with regard to the appointment of a judge. A judge cannot be said to be biased because of a litigant’s perception and action. It is ludicrous to believe that the petitioner would expect a favourable order from a judge whose appointment she had consented to and vice-versa,” the order said.
He was not aware that a letter had been written to the acting Chief Justice seeking reassignment of the case when he first took up its hearing on June 18, Justice Chanda said, adding: “The script was already prepared; the dramatis personae were ready to launch a well-rehearsed drama outside court.” He then went on to cite Trinamool MPs Derek O’Brien and Mahua Moitra’s tweets. The “chronology of the events” suggested “that a deliberate and conscious attempt was made to influence my decision before the recusal application was placed before me for judicial consideration on 24 June,” he said.
Calcutta HC judge slandered
On 18 June, Chief Minister Banerjee’s advocate representing her at the Calcutta High Court wrote to the secretary, Chief Justice, Calcutta High Court that sometime in April 2021, the chief minister had received a letter from the Calcutta High Court chief justice about the confirmation of Judge Kaushik Chanda as the permanent judge.
The chief minister had objected to this being appointed as the permanent judge of the Calcutta High Court. Also, the judge was an active member of the BJP, hence he would be biased. Lastly, the lawyer has urged to re-assign another bench to hear the election petition o avoid prejudice.
The Calcutta High Court on 18 June adjourned the hearing to 24 June in Chief Minister Banerjee’s petition challenging the election of Leader Of Opposition Suvendu Adhikari from Nandigram.
The matter was mentioned by Banerjee’s lawyer before the court of Justice Chanda as per the list for hearing. Justice Chanda said Banerjee was required to be present on the first day of the hearing as it was an election petition.
The lawyer for Banerjee said that she would act in accordance with the law. Justice Chanda then fixed the matter for hearing for the next day.
In her election petition, the Trinamool Congress chief had accused BJP MLA Adhikari of corrupt practices as envisaged under Section 123 of the Representation of the People Act, 1951. Banerjee claimed further in the petition that there were discrepancies in the counting process.