Contemporaries and juniors at the Meghalaya HC say Justice Sen’s remarks may have been due to the state’s history of Khasi-Bengali clashes.
Shillong: Depending on whom you ask in Shillong, queries on the controversial judge of the Meghalaya High Court, Justice Sudip Ranjan Sen, draw strong reactions.
The judge has been in the news for a string of recent judgments and observations, particularly the one on 13 December, in which he said India “should have been declared a Hindu country” at Independence and he was confident that “only this government under PM Narendra Modi” would stop the country from becoming an Islamic state.
Following an uproar, Justice Sen issued a clarification acknowledging secularism as being part of the basic structure of the Constitution. He also said that his judgment was not “politically motivated”.
But even before the row could die down, the judge was back in the news after slapping a show-cause notice on The Shillong Times editor Patricia Mukhim and ordering her to be present in court. Her paper had carried an article on one of Sen’s orders seeking better facilities for retired judges and their families.
Sen is due to retire in March.
According to this report, Sen allegedly chided Mukhim, even asking her, “What is your qualification, madam, to write about judges?” The report adds that Sen was “visibly indignant” as he kept attacking Mukhim over her credentials.
Lawyers practising in the court, however, aren’t surprised by Sen’s reported outburst.
“There is a decorum that one has to follow,” a practicing lawyer in the Meghalaya High Court, who did not want to be named, said. “If a judge uses language that is rude or smacks of arrogance, it brings down the dignity of the court.”
An acquaintance of the judge said civil servants have borne the brunt of Sen’s actions as they are regularly hauled up by him for lax administration.
“In some instances, he has hauled up the administration in order to make things better,” the acquaintance said. “But at times, his behaviour is quite assertive, both inside and outside the court.”
ThePrint contacted Justice Sen by telephone and through text and WhatsApp messages for his comments for this report but he did not respond.
‘Behaviour has changed in recent years’
Most of his contemporaries, colleagues as well as juniors ThePrint spoke to said that Justice Sen’s behaviour has changed in recent years.
Contemporaries of the judge who have known him from his days as an assistant public prosecutor at the district court way back in the ’90s said they were surprised to see him make headlines.
“There was nothing striking about his work,” said a senior advocate who has known Justice Sen from his early days as a lawyer.
“It came as a surprise to most of us when we recently saw him in the front page of every newspaper,” a second senior advocate said on condition of anonymity.
Of late, however, many of his colleagues said that they have observed a certain change in Sen’s behaviour. “He has become very impatient,” said a practicing lawyer in the high court. “There have been several instances of him shouting at complainants. Some bureaucrats have told me how they felt humiliated after appearing before him in court.”
He was not like this, the lawyer added: “He gets a bit carried away now.”
Those in the legal fraternity who know him say that Justice Sen never had too many friends. “He is a very serious kind of a person, doesn’t socialise too much,” an advocate who has known him for a while said on the condition that he not be named.
All, however, agree on one aspect — Justice Sen, they say, has impeccable integrity.
“I can say without a doubt that Sen is very honest. He has never been involved in any financial corruption,” said a noted lawyer of Meghalaya High Court, who did not want to be named. “Fear and favour don’t work with him.”
R.G. Lyngdoh, who was Meghalaya’s home minister between 1998 and 2008, said the judicial system needs a person such as Justice Sen, who is willing to stand up for certain fundamental rights.
“But at the same time, the sanctity of the court has to be upheld. People who have been given the responsibility should not be allowed to misuse the authority,” he said.
The judgment that has raised eyebrows in the hill town
There is a consensus in the Meghalaya High Court that Justice Sen went beyond his brief in making the “India should be a Hindu nation” observation. The judge was adjudicating on a writ petition filed by an Army recruit who was denied a domicile certificate by the Meghalaya government.
To make sense of what could have influenced Justice Sen’s observation, his contemporaries in the legal fraternity and the government, who have known him since his early years, said that one has to go back in time to the late 1970s.
Sen, born and bought up in Shillong, is the son of Suresh Chandra Sen, who owned the first musical instrument shop there. Called “Mahalaxmi”, the shop, located in Police Bazaar, the hill city’s bustling commercial hub, still stands.
“Khasi-Bengali ethnic clashes had rocked the hill town. People were killed. Sen’s ancestral house in Mawprem was burnt down by miscreants during the anti-Bengali riots that broke out in Shillong in 1979,” one of his contemporaries said.
Sen feels strongly about how the Bengalis who left East Pakistan and settled in Shillong got displaced twice over. “This could have influenced his remark,” said a senior advocate who had known him for almost two decades.
Many old-timers in the city tend to agree with this. “It appears he carries a lot of baggage,” Lyngdoh said. “The incident has left a huge mark in his thinking, in his psyche. It appears he has not found closure for it.”
But there are others who feel that a judge should not get affected by past prejudices.
“It’s correct that his family got displaced. But judgement should proceed on the basis of law and law alone,” said the second senior advocate who has known Sen over the years. “As a judge one should not allow personal experiences to cloud your view. That is a failing on his part.”
G.S. Masser, president, Meghalaya High Court Bar Association, said, “We all like him but everybody has his weaknesses. We have to ignore it.”
According to Masser, some of the bar association members did not like Justice Sen’s 13 December observation but are now assuaged after his clarification.
“He does not show any side that is pro any religion or ideology. Probably, the observation he made was because of temporary loss of thought,” he said.
Justice Sen’s orders so far, a mixed bag
Some of Justice Sen’s orders in recent times have raised eyebrows within the legal fraternity in Meghalaya.
Earlier this month, he directed private airlines such as IndiGo and SpiceJet to start immediate flight operations from Umroi airport, which is 30 km from Shillong. The Supreme Court stayed the order on 13 December.
Sen was also part of the court in 2014-15, which conferred the designation of senior advocate on Delhi-based lawyer Aman Sinha who did not practise in the Meghalaya High Court at that time. Sinha was a BJP spokesperson who appeared regularly on TV channels.
“And, subsequently three more people were designated as senior advocates,” said one of the advocates quoted above. “There has been a lot of heartburn over this in the state’s legal fraternity. Subsequently, the conferment of the designation was challenged by the Meghalaya High Court Bar Association in the Supreme Court.”
His order, stripping powers of the tribal headmen in the state, led to an unexpected outcome. “It was a blessing in disguise. We had been pushing for granting constitutional status to the chieftains and headmen in Meghalaya,” said John F. Kharshiing, chairman, the Grand Council of Chiefs in Meghalaya. “The order has become a rallying point for the headmen to come together and demand that they are brought under a constitutional framework.”