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The argumentative Bengali: 2G judge and ex-Speaker in public spat

In 1965 Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen had a heated public spat through the Letters to the Editor section of  The Statesman about Sen's film Akash Kusum, Chaplin and a crow from Aesop’s Fables.

Now in that hoary tradition, come Somnath Chatterjee and Asok Kumar Ganguly.

The former Lok Sabha speaker and the freshly retired Supreme Court judge are firing verbal salvos at each other about the 2G verdict via The Telegraph.

Somnath Chatterjee

The former Lok Sabha speaker and the freshly retired Supreme Court judge are firing verbal salvos at each other about the 2G verdict via The Telegraph. Enrique De La Osa/Reuters

What makes the exchange especially piquant  (well, as piquant as a retired Lok Sabha speaker and a retired Supreme Court judge can get) is Ganguly was once Chatterjee’s junior in court.

Round 1 was Somnath babu. He told The Telegraph that he was worried about the Supreme Court’s judicial activism. “Well, the Supreme Court is supreme. But it cannot interfere with executive policies and decisions, even by justifying that larger public interest is involved.”

He later clarified that he was really just talking about policy, not executive decisions. “What I had stated was that the court itself has held that it will not interfere ordinarily with the government’s policy decisions nor will it substitute such policy with a policy formulated by the court,” Chatterjee said.

The judges involved in the verdict quashing the 122 licences issued under the FCFS rule during A Raja’s tenure had cited "public interest" and "larger public good" for their intervention.

But Chatterjee wondered why the NDA was left untouched by the judges. “During the NDA government’s rule, the same first-come-first-served policy was used. There was no auction… only selection. But not a single voice was heard…” (For an interpretation on why the judges singled out those 122 licences read Kartikeya Tanna’s analysis of the verdict for here.) He also worried what impact this decision would have on the ongoing 2G trial in a special CBI court.

Chatterjee was careful to never name the judges. He stuck to the judgement and the broader issue of judicial activism wondering why courts were now deciding whether children could be admitted to schools at the age of three or three and a half.

But his statements obviously rankled Asok Kumar Ganguly, one of the two judges who delivered that verdict. That was his last hurrah since he retired from the Court after that landmark decision. On Monday his response to Chatterjee was front page news in The Telegraph.

After the usual protestations of mutual affection, Ganguly basically launched into a personal attack on Chatterjee, accusing him of double standards. He reminded Chatterjee that back in the mid-seventies the railway administration tried to deal with a paralysing strike by dismissing a large number of employees. Chatterjee had challenged that decision in the Calcutta High Court. Ganguly was one of the junior lawyers assisting him.

The court reversed many of the orders of the executive authorities and the employees got back their jobs.

“If the logic of Mr Chatterjee’s criticism is accepted, the Court should not have interfered. Now would Mr Chatterjee accept that the Court interfered out of temptation and in order to grab executive powers?” wrote Ganguly.

Then he went on to add this stinger. “You cannot possibly adopt double standards to criticise Court’s orders.”

This morning Chatterjee struck back. He one upped Sri Ganguly’s declarations of affection and respect by saluting his “considerable help and support while he appeared as Junior.” He then pointed out that he was just exercising his freedom of speech about an important judgment and dismissed any similarities between the 2G scam and the railway dismissal case.

Then he added his jab. “I wish as an ex-Judge, he had not taken the task of trying to justify something which he did as a sitting judge, which betrays his uneasy conscience.”

This bhadralok spitting match is providing much entertainment over the morning cup of tea in West Bengal. Ray and Sen's fight was lively, even acrimonious, but no one was accusing the other of double standards. They argued about polemics, the topicality of themes and managed to cite Ibsen, Oscar Wilde and Hamlet in their month-long exchange. The Ganguly-Chatterjee duel is proving less educational. Here as with so many arguments, personality has trumped the issues at stake.

Ganguly does not address the core issue that Chatterjee raised. Was this a case of judicial overreach which is separate from the merits of the case or the UPA government’s culpability? Should courts decide policy? Is that what this court just did? Ganguly merely said that judicial review is a basic feature under our Constitution and is discharging that duty the Court is acting in accordance with the Constitution, not above it.

But by challenging Chatterjee’s right to critique the verdict Ganguly muddied the waters and turned it into a mud-slinging match.

Chatterjee has seemingly exited the ring by wishing Ganguly “all the best in the future.”

But will Ganguly give him the last word? Ray and Sen had enough intellectual ammo to last them a month. It's been less than a week for these two gentlemen.

The ex-Speaker vs the ex-Justice: The soap-opera rundown:

Read Somnath Chatterjee's opening salvo here.

Read Ashok Kumar Ganguly's response here.

Read Somnath Chatterjee's response to Asok Kumar Ganguly's response here.

Updated Date: Feb 07, 2012 13:50 PM

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