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SC Move in Calcutta HC Tussle Brings Focus Back on Judge on 'Anti-Corruption Mission’ 

High court judge Abhijit Gangopadhyay keeps taking potshots at state government and TMC over corruption.
Calcutta HC. Illustration: The Wire.

In the wake of escalating tension in Calcutta high court over a single judge bench accusing a division bench judge of partisan behaviour in a politically sensitive case, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India, on January 29, transferred the case to itself.

The apex court had taken suo motu cognisance of the developments on January 26 and had scheduled the matter for hearing on Monday before the bench comprising Chief Justice of India (CJI) DY.. Chandrachud and justices Sanjiv Khanna, B.R. Gavai, Surya Kant and Aniruddha Bose.

During the hearing, CJI Chandrachud said, “Casting aspersions on single judge or division bench would not be proper. Anything we say will have (an) effect on impinging the dignity of the high court. We will handle it in some way.”

During the hearing, senior advocate Kapil Sibal, appearing on behalf of the state government, pointed out that “the (single bench) judge is taking part in the rally.” However, the CJI said that the chief justice of the high court is allocating cases and the SC would not like to “arrogate his powers.”

The matter has now been listed on February 19. The parties are to complete their pleadings within three weeks.

The apex court intervention came following Calcutta HC judge, Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay’s outburst against a division bench judge, calling the bench’s order “wholly illegal and has to be ignored” and personally targeting one of the division bench judges, Soumen Sen.

In his January 25 order regarding CBI inquiry into an alleged caste certificate scam in the state’s medical recruitment process, Gangopadhyay, while noting that what he was going to do was “unusual”, said that he would fail “in my duty to hold the sanctity of judiciary in general and this court in particular” if he did not take this step.

He then went on to allege that he was told some days back by Justice Amrita Sinha that Justice Soumen Sen called her in his chamber on the last day before vacation and “like a political leader he dictated to Justice Sinha” that Abhishek Banerjee, West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s nephew and the Trinamool Congress (TMC) all-India general secretary, “should not be disturbed.”

Sen allegedly also asked Sinha to stop live-streaming of proceedings in her court and dismiss the two petitions before her involving Abhishek Banerjee, Gangopadhyay wrote in his order.

TMC national general secretary Abhishek Banerjee. Photo: File

He added that Justice Sinha told him about this over the telephone during the vacation and subsequently reported it to the chief justice of the high court, which has reportedly communicated the allegations to the CJI.

“Justice Sen is acting clearly for some political party in this State and, therefore, the orders passed in the matters involving State, are required to be re-looked [into] if the Hon’ble Supreme Court thinks so,” he wrote and went on to add, “What Justice Sen has done today is to advance the cause of his personal interest to save some political party in power in this State. Therefore, his actions clearly tantamount to misconduct.”

He asked the registrar general of the high court to send copies of this order to the CJI and the Chief Justice of the Calcutta HC. The SC acted the very next day.

A political battle fought in the courts 

Justice Gangopadhyay’s reference to the incident involving Justice Sinha is of political significance. Earlier this month, Abhishek Banerjee had approached the Supreme Court, seeking the removal of cases involving him from both Justices Gangopadhyay and Sinha’s benches, highlighting how the judges had made “politically motivated” remarks. Justice Sinha has repeatedly questioned the growth in Banerjee’s assets since 2014 – the year he became an MP for the first time.

Justice Amrita Sinha. Photo: Calcutta HC website

While multiple cases alleging corruption and involving TMC leaders are before Justice Sinha’s bench and she has passed several orders that went against the state’s ruling party, the state CID is investigating a case involving Justice Sinha’s husband, Pratap Chandra Dey, an advocate.

A 64-year-old woman and her daughter had alleged before the Supreme Court that Dey and Justice Sinha interfered in a criminal probe involving a property dispute. Dey, representing the petitioner’s opponents, was using his stature as the judge’s husband to obstruct and influence the police investigation, the petitioner, Bani Roy Chowdhury, alleged.

The Supreme Court had in November 2023 asked the CID to continue the investigation without caring about any external influence. Dey recently alleged that the CID was trying to harass him and pressing for information – not on the case concerned but on his wife, Justice Sinha.

On December 23, Justice Gangopadhyay raised the issue of CID summons to Dey. “Is it such an important case? CID is not doing proper investigation in many important cases. The Supreme Court has given many instructions to the CID and the state to investigate. Does the CID investigate so actively in all cases?” he asked the state’s Advocate General during the hearing of an unrelated case.

Then, on December 24, the division bench stay order coming within hours of Gangopadhyay ordering a CBI probe into the alleged medical recruitment scam perhaps broke Gangopadhyay’s patience, as he lashed out at the higher bench in his order.

This was not the first time that Gangopadhyay engaged in a conflict with his colleagues.

In 2022, after a series of CBI investigations he ordered concerning the school recruitment scam were stayed by the division bench of Justices Harish Tandon and Rabindranath Samanta, Gangopadhyay in a March 30 order launched a scathing attack on the division bench. Its latest order was “a highest degree of double standard expressed by the appeal court”, Gangopadhyay wrote in his order.

“I also do not understand who would be benefited by tying up the hands of the Single Judge when it has been made clear in the order dated 25.03.2022 that this court has found that there are serious illegalities in giving recommendations to ineligible candidates and the tip of the corruption-iceberg in issuing illegal recommendations is seen which is getting gradually bigger,” Gangopadhyay wrote.

He added that his “hands are tied from taking further steps.”

He also wrote to the CJI against the division bench.

Following this, the division bench of Justices Tandon and Samanta not only recused themselves from hearing that case but also released all 11 cases related to school recruitment scam, citing personal reasons. Three more division benches declined to take it up, until the division bench of Justices Talukdar and Mukherjee agreed to hear all the appeals.

Partisan or people’s hero ?

Gangopadhyay has been one of the biggest newsmakers in the state ever since starting to hear a batch of petitions alleging irregularities in the recruitment of teachers and clerical staff in September 2021. His “focussed fact-finding exercise” – in the words of a division bench – unearthed a major scam.

He has said in the courtroom that he has “declared a war against corruption” and will “unearth the money trail.” He gave TV interviews, during which he said, “I am fearless. Even if the Supreme Court criticises me or I am expelled from the judiciary (for my role as a judge), I will have no regret. I have done what I should have done.”

Also read: Bengal SSC Recruitment Scam: How a ‘Focused’ Judge Exposed the Racket

In April 2023, CJI Chandrachud disapproved of his interview with the media and ordered the reassigning of some cases to the benches of other judges. In yet another unprecedented move, Gangopadhyay issued an order to the registrar general of the Supreme Court to supply him with the documents that formed the basis of the SC order by midnight that day. Another SC bench took suo motu cognisance of it and stayed Gangopadhyay’s order.

Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay with the Calcutta high court in the background. Illustration: The Wire

Even that night, Gangopadhyay spoke to the media and said, “The Supreme Court’s order must be followed. Some other judge will hear these cases. The hearings may take place for seven years in place of seven months. Some citizens may feel disappointed but they must have faith.”

He has repeatedly expressed his lack of trust in the state administration and handed over an array of investigations to central agencies. When an Enforcement Directorate team raiding a TMC leader’s residence came under attack from the leader’s supporters, Gangopadhyay referred to a “breakdown of the constitutional machinery” in the state – while hearing an unrelated case – and wondered why the governor was not saying so.

Gangopadhyay has attended public events in various districts. In one of the recent events at a fair in Kalyani of Nadia district, Gangopadhyay told the media, “The [state] government went to the Supreme Court challenging orders of the Calcutta HC. Citizens have every right to move the SC. I want to know why the government moved the SC, how much public money the government had spent to do this.”

TMC state unit spokesperson Kunal Ghosh, among other leaders, has repeatedly criticised Gangopadhyay. On January 9, Ghosh said, “If Abhijit Gangopadhyay wishes to oppose Abhishek Banerjee, we invite him to vacate his chair and contest from Diamond Harbour as a candidate of the opposition parties.”

Ghosh said that it is “unbecoming for a High Court Judge” to speak on matters unrelated to the cases being heard and “highly inappropriate for him to adopt the language of” the BJP and the CPI(M) to attack Banerjee, Ghosh alleged.

But the TMC’s political opponents love to heave praises on him. In December 2023, the Congress Lok Sabha leader and state Congress president Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury said that if an election is fought with Gangopadhyay as the chief ministerial face, he would be the first person to cast his vote.

Gangopadhyay has neither shown interest nor ruled out joining politics in the future.

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