In the latest development in a five-month-long saga, CS Karnan, former Justice of the Calcutta High Court, was arrested by the West Bengal Police. Karnan was absconding from a Supreme Court verdict that had found him guilty of contempt of court and sentenced him to a six-month jail term.
The curious case of Justice CS Karnan has shocked the country and alarmed the judicial community. It has involved several firsts in the history of India’s powerful courts – including the SC issuing contempt charges against a sitting judge, a judge ordering a CBI investigation of the Chief Justice of India, and the SC sentencing a judge to prison. The saga denigrated to Karnan becoming the first HC judge to retire while absconding arrest, and him being arrested by the West Bengal police from Tamil Nadu on 20 June.
Who is CS Karnan?
Chinnaswamy Swaminathan Karnan was born on 12 June 1955. After completing his Pre-University course at Virudhachalam Arts College, he finished his BSc graduation from New College, Chennai. He then embarked on law study at Madras Law College and completed the course in 1983.
He was an advocate after this; he served in the Madras High Court for eight years before being transferred to the Calcutta High Court in March 2016.
Karnan’s previous controversies
Justice Karnan of has been in the news ever since he was appointed judge, almost always for his disagreements with the judiciary.
He first hit national headlines in November 2011 when he sent a complaint to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC), and this complaint became public. This complaint alleged that he was being harassed and victimised by other judges in the Madras HC because he was a Dalit.
The same year, Karnan soon called for a press conference in his chambers to allege that other Dalit judges, too, were targeted and their reputation tarnished whenever they asserted their self-respect. He added that “more than four or five high court judges” have humiliated him on the basis of his caste.
In 2014, Justice Karnan had stormed into a courtroom in the Madras High Court hearing a case relating to names recommended for the post of judges. Karnan declared that the “selection [of names] is not fair” and that he would file an affidavit on the issue. The Supreme Court in March 2014 condemned Justice Karnan’s behaviour observing: “The sudden unfamiliar incident made us fume inwardly on this raw unconventional protest that was unexpected, uncharitable and ungenerous and, to say the least, it was indecorous.”
In 2015, Justice Karnan initiated a suo motu contempt proceeding against the then Chief Justice of the Madras HC, accusing him of of harassing him for being a Dalit. Later, the Supreme Court stayed the contempt proceedings.
In mid-2015, Karnan accused a sitting judge of the High Court of sexually assaulting an intern in his chambers. He repeated this claim, but has never provided any evidence to substantiate his claim.
The Madras HC requested the SC to transfer Karnan to another Court. In February 2016, Karnan stayed the transfer order issued to him by the Supreme Court of India, transferring him to Calcutta HC. He also directed the Chief Justice of India to file the reply to him before 29 April of the same year. The SC directed the Madras HC to not allot Karnan any more judicial work and directed Karnan to join the Calcutta HC before 11 February.
Justice Karnan vs the Supreme Court of India: A timeline
In early 2017, Justice Karnan wrote to the Prime Minister making corruption allegations against 20 High Court and Supreme Court judges.
It was at this stage that the contempt proceedings in the Supreme Court were initiated.
7 February: The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court initiates contempt of court proceedings against Karnan. This development, where a contempt notice was issued against a sitting judge, is unique in Indian history. The seven-member bench formed is comprised of the Chief Justice and the seniormost judges of the SC. (Read order here)
Brushing aside the contempt proceedings, Karnan says the proceedings are “not maintainable under law” against a sitting high court judge. He again raises allegations that judges of higher castes want to “get rid of judges from SC/ST category”. Consequently, he does not respond to the SC’s summons and fails to appear in court.
13 February: The SC gives Karnan another chance to appear in court, defers the hearing to 10 March. (Read order here)
10 March: Karnan does not appear in court. For the first time in the history of the SC, the court issues a (bailable) warrant to a sitting HC judge. A hearing is scheduled on 31 March. (Read order here) On the same day, in retaliation, Karnan shocks the country by passing an order directing the Central Bureau of Investigation to investigate and file a report against all the seven judges (including the Chief Justice) and Attorney General.
16 March: Karnan demands Rs 14 crore compensation from the seven judges who have been hearing his contempt case. He also threatens the judges to withdraw their judicial and administrative work in case they fail to pay the compensation money in a week.
31 March: Karnan finally appears in court. He requests that the Chief Justice restore his judicial work. He further informs the bench that he would not attend the next hearing and that the court may arrest him if it pleases.
1 May: The seven-judge bench orders the medical examination of Justice Karnan; he refuses the same, saying he is “normal”. The next hearing is scheduled for 9 May.
8 May: A day before his case would be heard in the SC, Karnan passes an order “sentencing” the seven senior-most judges of the Supreme Court (including the CJI) of India to five years imprisonment under the SC/ST Act.
9 May: The Supreme Court sentences Karnan to six months’ imprisonment for contempt of court. The SC says, “We are of the unanimous view that Justice Karnan is in contempt of this court and of the judiciary and judicial process of grievous nature. We are satisfied in punishing him for contempt of court. We sentence him to imprisonment for six months. The sentence shall be extended forthwith.” (Read order here)
12 June: Whilst evading arrest, Karnan retires, becoming the first High Court judge to have retired while still absconding.
20 June: West Bengal police arrest Karnan from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu
21 June: Karnan refused interim bail by the Supreme Court.
What is “contempt of court”?
Contempt of court is the act of disobeying the being disrespectful towards a court of law and its officers. This could be in the form of behaviour which defies the authority, justice, and dignity of the court. Contempt of court charges is a way that the Supreme Court maintains the dignity and integrity of the court.
Contempt of court in India
In India, contempt of court is of two types, governed by the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. Contempt is defined and classified in Section 2 of this Act.
The Constitution gives the Supreme Court the power to initiate proceedings under Article 129 and Article 142(2).
Removal of judges in India
According to the Constitution, a removal motion passed by a two-thirds majority in both Houses of Parliament can remove a judge of the Supreme Court or a High Court.
The removal of judges is regulated by the Judges (Inquiry) Act, 1968. While such motions have been introduced thrice in history, they have never resulted in a judge’s removal.
A removal motion against Justice V Ramaswami was defeated in Parliament in May 1993 with the help of abstaining Congress MPs.
Sikkim HC Chief Justice P D Dinakaran resigned in July 2011 ahead of the initiation of a removal motion against him in the Rajya Sabha.
Justice Soumitra Sen of the Calcutta HC argued his case unsuccessfully before the Rajya Sabha which passed the motion for his removal, but Sen resigned before the Lok Sabha could take up the motion.