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The simultaneous transfer of the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court, Sanjib Banerjee, to the Meghalaya High Court, as well as the senior-most judge of the Allahabad High Court, Munishwar Nath Bhandari, to the Madras High Court, raises more questions than answers. Has the entire exercise been governed by a desire to oust the present Chief Justice, and at the same time bring about the appointment of Allahabad High Court judge, Munishwar Nath Bhandari, as Chief Justice of the Madras High Court? This is the question that many ask, including former Judge of the Madras HC, K Chandru.

The tenures of the last three Chief Justices of the Madras HC have been very short indeed. Justice Banerjee is the second CJ of the Madras High Court to have been recommended for a transfer to Meghalaya in the past two years. In 2019, the then CJ V.K. Tahilramani resigned in protest after she was transferred to Meghalaya. After her, Madras High Court Chief Justice Amreshwar Prasad Sahi had a 13-month term before he retired.

Sanjib Banerjee assumed office on January 4, 2021, and had two more years to serve at the Madras High Court, but his tenure has been brought to an abrupt end.

What is intriguing is that senior most judge T S Sivagnanam was transferred to the High Court in Kolkata recently.

“If (Justice Bhandari) joins the Madras High Court, he will become the senior-most judge since Justice T.S. Sivagnanam was transferred to the Calcutta High Court and the next two judges — M. Duraiswamy and T. Raja — are admittedly junior to him. With his transfer, Justice Bhandari will become the Acting Chief Justice of the Madras High Court,” points out former judge K Chandru

Even if the process of appointing Justice Bhandari as the Chief Justice of the Madras HC gets delayed, chances are that he will continue to be Acting Chief Justice till his date of retirement — September 12, 2022.

Raising questions about the transfer of Justice Bhandari to the Madras HC at this juncture, Chandru pointed out that

“If the Supreme Court collegium of 2019 thought that Justice Bhandari should leave the Rajasthan High Court in the “administration of justice”, what changed that prompted the collegium of 2021 to transfer him to the Madras High Court with the full knowledge that he will be heading that court? What was once a punishment transfer has now become a rewarding transfer. If a judge is not considered suitable for one High Court, then how does he become suitable for another High Court? This is the question that is being asked in legal circles.”

“And does this mean that the decision to transfer Justice Banerjee to the Meghalaya High Court was made to facilitate Justice Bhandari’s elevation as Chief Justice of the Madras High Court? Also, if the decision was taken as early as on September 16, why was it made public only about one and a half months later? This is a question that many are asking”, Chandru has stated.

Two major lawyers’ bodies in Chennai– the Madras High Court Advocates Association (MHAA), with a membership of over 20,000 advocates and the Madras Bar Association have passed resolutions protesting against the proposal to shift the CJ. Senior lawyers also participated in a protest over the issue. Over 200 advocates wrote to the CJI and the collegium last week, protesting against the transfer of Sanjib Banerjee and seeking to reconsider the proposal.

And the response? In a style that is typical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s modus operandi, the Union government notified the transfer of Sanjib Banerjee to the Meghalaya High Court. A notification issued in this regard states thus: “In exercise of the power conferred by clause (I) of Article 222 of the Constitution of India, the President, after consultation with the Chief Justice of India, is pleased to transfer Shri Justice Sanjib Banerjee, Chief Justice of the Madras High Court, as the Chief Justice of the Meghalaya High Court and to direct him to assume charge of the office of the Chief Justice of the Meghalaya High Court.”


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