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Why a high court judge decided to join a political party

Mar 07, 2024 09:47 PM IST

During Abhijit Gangopadhyay's tenure as Calcutta HC judge, one side applauded his crusade against corruption, the other accused him of bias

On May 5, 2022, a judge in the Calcutta high court (HC) heard a petition within hours of its filing. The matter concerned the unpaid dues of a retired teacher, and the presiding judge ordered the state government to clear the pension and unpaid salary for 25 years of a septuagenarian retired school teacher, Shyamali Ghosh, within four weeks — with 10% interest.

Former Calcutta high court judge Abhijit Gangopadhyay joined the BJP on Thursday. (HT photo) PREMIUM
Former Calcutta high court judge Abhijit Gangopadhyay joined the BJP on Thursday. (HT photo)

The retired school teacher called the judge “a messiah” to people like her.

The same judge made a surprising visit to the RG Kar Medical College and Hospital in Kolkata on September 11, 2023. A girl who had lost both legs in a road accident was admitted there and the judge came to meet her and offer assistance to her family.

“I read about her in a newspaper. I told the family to contact me if they ever need any help,” the judge told reporters who had followed his car in anticipation of a newsbreak. “I can’t describe how sorry I feel for the girl,” the judge said as he briskly wiped his eyes, the footage beaming into millions of homes with televisions.

Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay is no stranger to making headlines. On Tuesday, he resigned from service five months before he was due to retire. On March 7, he joined the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The 62-year-old judge’s resignation, which came days after he told news channel ABP Ananda about his plans, does not seem to surprise too many people in West Bengal. Indeed, the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) had been accusing him of passing orders for political reasons since 2022.

The state government and the high court judge have had a contentious relationship and it has played out publicly — at one point, the Supreme Court was compelled to intervene.

Humble beginnings

Born into a middle-class family in Kolkata, Gangopadhyay studied at Mitra Institution, a vernacular-medium school at Bhawanipore. After passing out in 1979, he went on to study law, as his father did, at the Hazra Law College.

He joined the West Bengal Civil Service as an officer in the Uttar Dinajpur district, which he quit after a few years to practice law.

Gangopadhay was appointed to the Calcutta high court as an additional judge in 2018 and was made a permanent judge in July 2020.

Today, opinions about the judge are sharply divided — one side thought the judge’s crusade against rooting out corruption in the state was commendable, and the other side thought that the judge was too quick to judge showing his bias against the state government.

“Gangopadhyay represented the TMC government in several cases. In a case involving a private steel company that I was representing, he appeared for the Steel Authority of India. I remember him seeking adjournment on hearings multiple times so that he could file an affidavit,” said Ritzu Ghosal, a Congress leader and high court bar association member. “I have seen many outstanding lawyers becoming judges. Gangopadhyay was certainly not one of them,” Ghosal added.

Grabbing eyeballs

Courtroom No 17, where Gangopadhyay heard his cases, drew inquisitive lawyers, commoners and reporters in sizeable numbers. On days when a TMC leader faced charges of corruption, the crowds swelled, as did the viewership numbers of news channels and the high court’s YouTube channel where hearings are telecast live.

According to lawyers, what set the former judge apart from his colleagues was the speed at which he completed hearings and his affinity for speaking to the media. Taking his fraternity by surprise, Gangopadhyay gave his first interview to ABP Ananda in September 2022. He talked of certain facets of his professional and personal life and said he would never compromise his honesty.

“I have always been honest and will continue to be so. If I sit to judge cases of corruption I will pass strong orders,” he said, observing that corruption has become an accepted part of public life.

In the interview, justice Gangopdhyay while justifying his orders on a CBI probe into the teacher recruitment case, said that Trinamool Congress general secretary Abhishek Banerjee could face a jail term of three months for alleging that a section of judiciary was hand in gloves with the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Excerpts from the interview, which the channel aired before the official telecast on September 19, 2022, triggered a row. A public interest petition was filed at the high court seeking a ban on the telecast. Since the state government was made a party to the case, the then advocate general SN Mookherjee expressed his reservations about a sitting judge giving an interview.

In his petition, SK Saidullah, a private citizen, stated that “Such an interview is contrary to the Restatement of Values of Judicial Life and the Bangalore Principles of Judicial Conduct, and therefore, immediate restrain order should be issued to prohibit respondent No. 2 (the channel) to telecast any such interview.”

A division bench however allowed the telecast saying “The petition is based upon mere apprehension...”

Gangopadhyay's criticism of the TMC

Over the last two years, Gangopadhyay butted heads with the TMC for ordering federal agencies to probe at least a dozen complaints against government departments, ministers and ruling party leaders.

In two of these cases — a bribe-for-job scam in schools and a similar alleged scam in municipal bodies — chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s nephew and TMC national general secretary Abhishek Banerjee is a suspect along with his wife and parents, according to the investigating agencies, Enforcement Directorate (ED) and Central Bureau of Investigation (ED).

In May 2022, Calcutta high court judge Abhijit Gangopadhyay ordered the CBI to probe the appointment of non-teaching staff (Group C and D) and teaching staff by the West Bengal School Service Commission and West Bengal Board of Secondary Education between 2014 and 2021.

In the teacher recruitment case, ED arrested the then education minister Partha Chatterjee and his close aide Arpita Mukherjee in July 2022. In its chargesheet, ED said it traced cash, jewellery and immovable property worth 103.10 crore linked to the duo. Around a dozen TMC leaders and government officials were subsequently arrested.

The Supreme Court's involvement

In April 2023, the Supreme Court asked the acting Chief Justice of the Calcutta high court to reassign the teacher recruitment case pending before justice Gangopadhyay to another judge. The Supreme Court passed the order after hearing a petition filed by TMC leader Abhishek Banerjee, who brought justice Gangopadhyay's interview with ABP Ananda and its transcript on record before the Supreme Court bench.

"Judges have no business granting interviews on matters which are pending. And if they do so, they cannot hear the case...They have no business participating in the proceedings. We are absolutely clear on that,” said the Supreme Court bench headed by Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud in the order.

“We have considered the note prepared by Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay… and have also perused the transcript of the interview. The transcript has been authenticated on April 26, 2023, by the interpreting officer… Having considered the transcript, we direct that the Acting Chief Justice of the HC of Calcutta shall reassign the pending proceedings in the case to some other judge of the Calcutta High Court,” said the SC bench.

Now, a political career

“I am joining the BJP because it is the only national party. Prime Minister Modi is a good man….,” Gangopadhyay said on Tuesday after resigning from his post.

“I had very little time to decide to join. I approached BJP and BJP approached me over the last seven days. That’s why I was on leave during this period. I stopped adjudicating so that nobody can raise an allegation,” he added.

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