‘Muralidhar was the darling of the bar’: Senior lawyers condemn Delhi high court judge’s proposed transfer

‘Muralidhar was the darling of the bar’: Senior lawyers condemn Delhi high court judge’s proposed transfer

The Delhi High Court Bar Association is striking work in protest against the Supreme Court collegium's decision.

By Anusuya Som

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Days after the Supreme Court collegium recommended the transfer of Justice S Muralidhar from the Delhi High Court, an unnamed source told The Hindu that the “controversy” over the transfer was “unnecessary”. According to the source, the transfer was “routine”.

However, members of the Delhi High Court Bar Association — which strongly opposes the collegium’s recommendation — argues that the transfer “impedes free and fair delivery of justice”.

Muralidhar, known for his progressive judgements, is the third senior-most judge in the Delhi High Court. The collegium recommended his transfer to the Punjab and Haryana High Court.

The collegium also recommended the transfer of Justice Ranjit V More from the Bombay High Court to the Meghalaya High Court, and Justice Ravi Vijaykumar Malimath from the Karnataka High Court to the Uttarakhand High Court.

Following the collegium’s recommendations, the Delhi High Court Bar Association expressed its shock and outrage at Muralidhar’s transfer. In a statement, the association said: “Unequivocally and in the strongest possible terms, the Delhi High Court Bar Association condemns the said transfer. Such transfer is not only detrimental to our noble institution but also tends to erode and dislodge the faith of the common litigant in the justice dispensation system. Such transfer also impedes free and fair delivery of justice by the Hon’ble Bench.”

To register their protest, members of the association resolved to abstain from work on February 20.

Why is the Delhi bar resisting the Supreme Court’s decision?

Mohit Mathur, the president of the Delhi High Court Bar Association, said it “isn’t normal” for a senior judge to be transferred from a high court.

“In this specific case, the judge categorically asked the bar not to protest,” Mathur told Newslaundry. “But for us it is the issue of the institution. More specifically, it’s about the independence of the bar.”

Mathur said the Supreme Court should have consulted the bar association for such a big decision. “The stakeholders were disregarded,” he said. “The stakeholders should have been consulted and told, ‘This is the reason behind his transfer. We may not put it on paper, but this is what it is.’”

According to Mathur, Muralidhar was the “darling of the bar” since he is a “pro-junior” and “pro-citizen judge”. Mathur added that he would rather not “speculate” on why Justice Muralidhar was transferred.

However, lawyer and activist Prashant Bhushan had no such compunctions. Bhushan said Muralidhar was very “independent-minded” and “doesn’t succumb to government pressure”.

“There have been cases in the past where he passed orders against the government, or against what the government wanted,” Bhushan said. “And that is why the government is gunning for him and wants him out of Delhi. Delhi is the most important high court.”

The collegium had sought to transfer Muralidhar twice before, Bhushan pointed out. Both times, the transfer was stalled. Bhushan said the judge is known to be “very bold and independent”, and the collegium passed his transfer this time “due to the government’s insistence”.

Muralidhar began practising law in Chennai in 1984. Three years later, he moved to Delhi and practised in the Delhi High Court and the Supreme Court. In 2006, he was appointed as a high court judge in Delhi. He is slated to retire in 2023 at the age of 62.

Muralidhar was part of the high court bench that decriminalised homosexuality in 2009. He was part of the bench that convicted Congress leader Sajjan Kumar for his role in the mass killing of Sikhs in 1984. In 2010, he was part of a full bench that ruled in favour of a petitioner who had filed an RTI seeking information on how many judges had declared their assets.

In October 2018, Muralidhar led a division bench that sentenced 16 former police officers to life imprisonment for killing 42 people in Hashimpura, Meerut, in 1987.

Importantly, in August 2018, he was part of a bench that stayed the transit remand of activist Gautam Navlakha in the Bhima Koregaon case. Muralidhar had said the court could not make out a case against Navlakha from the submitted documents.

Soon after, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ideologue S Gurumurthy tweeted that the judge had shown “bias” in staying Navlakha’s transit remand. The Delhi High Court subsequently initiated suo motu contempt proceedings against Gurumurthy.

Muralidhar’s wife, Usha Ramanathan, is a human rights activist and lawyer who spearheaded the anti-Aadhaar movement.