New Delhi: There is widespread angst in the Delhi High Court bar over the transfer of Justice D.S. Muralidhar to the Punjab and Haryana High Court.
Lawyers in the court, who stayed away from work on 20 February to protest the transfer, have proffered a number of reasons for their anger but chief among them is near-unanimous admiration for the judge’s work.
Even those who Justice Muralidhar has ruled against speak in favour of him.
Take the case of Sanjiv Dey, a lawyer in his mid-thirties who lost a service matter for his client that was placed before Justice Muralidhar.
“My client is filing a review but I personally feel the reasoning was correct for the judge to rule against us,” Dey said. “There was not an iota of doubt regarding an incorrect perusal of facts. The Delhi High Court will lose one of its gems and we hope he is transferred back like an earlier judge.”
Another reason for widespread discontent among the members of the bar, some say, is the Delhi HC judge’s humbleness.
Advocate Sanjoy Ghose, another Delhi-based lawyer, said the judge was one-of-a-kind who took extra measures to rid the bench of “colonial-era practices”.
“Justice Muralidhar was the only judge who refused to be ushered inside the courtroom by a guard who pulled the chair. He did that himself,” Ghose said.
“He had also requested the registry to request lawyers to refrain from calling him ‘Lordship’. Once I met him and asked that some lawyers often use the reference as a usual part of addressing a judge. To this, Justice Muralidhar said that it was only a request and not a command.”
‘Judge with a spine’
The judge has a reputation of delivering some crucial judgments.
In Delhi bar associations, Muralidhar is often referred to as the judge who delivered “bold verdicts”.
The judge was part of the Delhi High Court bench that had first decriminalised homosexuality in the 2009 Naz Foundation case.
But 2018 was the year when Justice Muralidhar delivered most of the talked-about judgments. The most notable was the bail granted to imprisoned intellectuals and activists, including Gautam Navlakha, for alleged Maoist links. He also delivered the Hashimpura verdict convicting members of Uttar Pradesh Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) for the 1986 mass killings.
He also convicted Congress leader Sajjan Kumar in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots case that year. The judgment overturned the acquittals and passed stringent comments on the ‘tardy prosecution’.
In April 2019, as Delhi grappled with complaints of abnormal school fee hikes, it was a Justice Muralidhar-led bench that held that the Directorate of Education does not have the power to audit the accounts of private schools. The order came on a plea by the Delhi government challenging a single-judge order allowing schools to increase fees.
‘Judge being transferred for no cogent reason’
A major grouse for lawyers in the Delhi High Court is that the collegium has not offered reasons for the transfer.
Jatan Singh, the vice-president of the Delhi High Court Bar association believes that the judge is being transferred without cogent reasons.
“Justice Muralidhar was going to be the senior-most judge of the Delhi HC in a matter of few weeks, whereas in Punjab and Haryana HC he will be a J2 or second senior-most judge,” Singh said.
“Why has this fact been disregarded? He was not a judge who needed lawyers to tell him facts of a case. He was well-versed with them beforehand. Parties did not matter for him as he was a judge with a spine.”
Justice Muralidhar is currently the third senior-most judge of the Delhi HC. He would, however, have become the second senior-most judge, after Chief Justice Dhirubhai Naranbhai Patel, as the current second senior-most judge, Justice G.S. Sistani, is set to retire on 6 March.
ThePrint had, however, reported that Justice Muralidhar is likely to be elevated to chief justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court in the near future.
Rulings against SC
Some of his verdicts have also been against the Supreme Court.
Justice Muralidhar was part of the full bench in 2010 that ruled in favour of a petitioner who had filed an RTI, seeking information from the Supreme Court registry on how many judges had declared their assets.
In a landmark verdict on 10 January 2010, Delhi High Court had held that the office of the Chief Justice of India comes within the ambit of the RTI law, saying judicial independence was not a judge’s privilege, but a responsibility cast upon him or her.
The 88-page judgment was then seen as a personal setback to the then CJI, K.G. Balakrishnan, who had been opposed to the disclosure of information relating to judges under the RTI Act.
One of the senior advocates in Delhi claimed that the “pro-litigant” and “pro-citizen” orders passed by Justice Muralidhar may have led to his transfer.
“Issues with Justice Muralidhar have been arising ever since he has been passing pro-citizen and pro-litigant orders. There have been orders where Justice Muralidhar has castigated the agencies for being high-handed in their approach,” the senior lawyer said.
There have, however, been earlier attempts to transfer Justice Muralidhar.
When RSS ideologue S. Gurumurthy tweeted against the judge dragging his personal life into the picture, contempt proceedings were initiated against Gurumurthy.
The RSS ideologue tendered an unconditional apology but soon after this, a proposal to transfer Justice Muralidhar was discussed. The idea was, however, shot down by the then CJI Ranjan Gogoi-led bench in January 2019.
Hope among lawyers that he will be sent back
A part of the Delhi legal fraternity sincerely believes that what happened in 2018, when the collegium sent back Rajiv Shakhder to the Delhi High Court, could happen again.
Advocate J.S. Sodhi stated that since the judge is held to be extremely valuable by the Delhi bar, there were chances that what happened with former judge Shakhder could happen in this case too.
“In January 2018, Justice Shakhder was back in the Delhi High Court about 20 months after his transfer to the Madras High Court,” the lawyer said. “His transfer had prompted many eminent jurists to write letters of protest and urge the then Chief Justice of India to reverse the decision. The same thing can happen now too.”
In January 2015, Justice Shakdher had in a judgement allowed the Amsterdam Headquartered non-governmental organisation Greenpeace, which was under the home ministry’s scanner for alleged funding violations, to access its funds.
Senior advocate Harish Salve had then said: “Justice Rajiv Shakdher is an outstanding judge and his transfer to Madras High Court was a classic case of misuse of power.”
‘A fitness freak’
Justice Muralidhar began his law practice in Chennai in 1984 and his pro bono work includes cases for the victims of the Bhopal Gas Disaster and those displaced by the dams on the Narmada.
He was appointed a judge of the Delhi High Court in 2006. He is slated to retire in 2023 when he will turn 62.
Muralidhar is also known to be a “fitness freak”. According to a source close to the judge, the judge is strict about his morning walks and jogs in and around Lodhi Garden while Sundays are reserved for bicycle-riding along with other fellow judges.
“Justice Najmi Waziri and others are also part of the judges group that goes for cycling in the central ridge area of Delhi. Nothing can stop the daily fitness routine of the judge,” said the source.
Justice Muralidhar is married to technology law and privacy rights expert Usha Ramanathan.