Even in a country of 1.2 billion opinionated people with, arguably, 1.5 billion opinions on every subject under the sun, Justice Markandey Katju stands out for the acute angles of his views. But unlike most others, Katju has a bully pulpit from which to pontificate, given his standing as a former Judge of the Supreme Court and as Chairman of the Press Council of India. And he makes full use of that platform to hold forth on hot-button topics that make it to the public domain and gain resonance there.
Some of these topics may be far afield from the ambit of the quasi-judicial office he holds currently, but Katju has not been inhibited by anything so limiting as a sense of propriety. Yet, even in the broad canvas that he chooses for himself, his silences are about as eloquent as his motormouth outpourings.
Katju's latest exertion comes in the form of an "extra-judicial" sentencing of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, in an op-ed column he wrote in The Hindu (here), for the riots of 2002. In that hyper-polemical commentary, Katju invokes the de rigueur citation of Nazi Germany in the context of Gujarat under Modi and goes on to issue what amounts to a public appeal to Indians to not allow Modi to become Prime Minister.
In getting there, however, Katju crafts not a case worthy of his keen judicial mind; instead, he says, he isn't excessively concerned about judicial pronouncements on Modi's guilt (or lack thereof), because "he doesn't buy it". On the one hand, he says, he doesn't want to comment on our judiciary. But in the same sentence, he goes on to say: "It is... said that (Modi) has not been found guilty by any court of law..., but I certainly do not buy the story that Mr. Modi had no hand in the events of 2002."
Modi, points out Katju, was Gujarat Chief Minister at the time "when horrible events happened on such a large scale. Can it be believed that he had no hand in them? At least I find this impossible to believe."
In other words, Super Judge Markandey Katju cannot be bothered with the due process of law and the findings of established courts of law - because, of course, his instincts tell him that Modi is guilty, and that is all that counts. And to think that in other circumstances, a man so swayed by such blatant personal and political biases may have been sitting in judgement on the Gujarat 2002 riots...
No one can contest Katju's right to hold hyperpartisan views, or even to articulate them in his capacity as a private citizen. But when a former Judge of the Supreme Court who currently heads a quasi-judicial body, issues a public and partisan appeal to citizens of India on a subject that does not relate to his current office, it reeks of the politicisation of public office.
It was this that BJP leader Arun Jaitely was drawing attention to in his smackdown (here) of Katju's column. Jaitley asked: "Should not a former judge who currently occupies a quasi-judicial office as Chairman of the Press Council of India, either quit before actively participating in politics or be sacked? Retired judges must remember that the rental for occupying a Lutyen's bungalow post-retirdment has to be political neutrality, no political participation."
Katju has defended himself against the criticism that he does not target Congress Chief Ministers (and presumably cites this as proof that he is not partisan) but he has failed to address the larger question about the impropriety of men holding public office taking a hyperpartisan line in their public utterances before they demit office.
After all, this is the same grounds on which the Congress, which has been exposed by the Comptroller and Auditor-General reports on mega-scandals, targets the current CAG, Vinod Rai: that his public articulations appear partisan, and that he is preparing for a political career. (Ironically, in that case, the BJP defends the CAG, which goes to show that there is selective amnesia - or extreme cynicism - on both sides of the political divide.)
The tragedy of it is that Katju's criticism of Modi, even if it is well-intentioned, feeds the suspicion that he is lending himself as an instrument of what BJP leader Ram Jethmalani calls (here) the "Congress agenda" for the "political assassination of Narendra Modi, and banishing him from India's political firmament forever, using the unfortunate post-Godhra riots as a handle."
Jethmalani, who bats for Modi to be made the BJP's Prime Ministerial candidate, claims that Congress thinktanks have been working over time to "draw up a... strategy of slander, false accusation, governmental and non-governmental disinformation, Goebellesian lies, aimed at converting falsehood into belief among the general population, opinion leaders and influential intellectuals."
The lies, he adds, "were to be simple and crisp; they were to be repeated ad nauseum to embed them firmly as truth in the public mind, the media and internationally."
And in that endeavour, as this column points out, whoever lends himself as an accomplice in the political baiting of Modi has been rewarded - with civilian honours and much more - by the UPA government.
As this article (on a Gujarati website that also bats for Modi) points out, instances of former Supreme Court judges being rewarded post-retirement for their partisan views on Gujarat under Modi abound. Some of them are egregious instances of breach of propriety, even potential illegality.
It is into that pit that Katju has landed himself with his partisan, extra-judicial, facts-be-damned comments on Modi, which relate to a domain far removed from his current responsibility as Press Council chairman. In this case, he has no one to blame but himself for this fall.