C.S. Karnan issue
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This article has been written by Tarannum Vashisht, a student of the Rajiv Gandhi National University Of Law, Punjab. This article throws light on the infamous case of the first sitting high court judge to be held guilty of contempt and imprisoned for a period of six months. 


The Indian judiciary went through an extremely stressful period recently, which exposed the Indian judicial system to mockery, from not only the intellectuals of our country but also judges from around the globe. This is the tale of an infamous high court judge, Justice C.S. Karnan. He has the dubious distinction of being the first sitting high court judge to be imprisoned for six months on a charge of contempt of court. He also became the first high court judge who could not give his farewell speech. This article attempts to throw light on the controversies circumscribing Justice C.S. Karnan and the infamous judgement holding him guilty. Also, this article gives an analysis of arguably, not the best procedure which was followed by the seven-judge bench of the high court while pronouncing the judgement. 

Justice C.S. Karnan : a brief history 

Justice Karnan belongs to a very humble background, his father was a teacher by profession and his mother a homemaker. In 1983 Justice Karnan completed his Bachelor Of Law degree from Madras Law College. He began to practice civil law after enrolling himself as an advocate before the Tamil Nadu Bar Council. He represented the Union Government and was also the civil lawyer of the government. In 2009, the Chief Justice Of Madras High Court, Justice Ashok Kumar Ganguly, recommended his name for appointment as a judge to the collegium. Though he was not a very well known personality, he was appointed as a judge. 

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Controversies in which Justice C.S. Karnan was involved

Justice C.S. Karnan took a lot of controversial steps two years after he was appointed as a High Court judge. The timeline of events is given below-

National Commission For Scheduled Castes

In November 2011, just two years after his appointment as a judge, he wrote to the National Commission For Scheduled Castes that he was being discriminated against, as he was a Dalit by caste. This, he alleged, had started from 2009 itself, after he had been appointed as a judge.

He called a press conference in his chamber and revealed some major incidents due to which he had faced humiliation and embarrassment. One of them being, a judge touching his head with his foot. These revelations gave rise to a widespread agitation within the Madras High Court. The chairman of the National Commission for Scheduled Castes forwarded the letter that Justice Karnan had sent to the then Chief Justice Of India. 

The controversial judgement of 2013

Justice C.S. Karnan passed a controversial judgement on a case which was filed for maintenance by a woman for herself and her children against a man, with whom she was sexually involved. The man had deserted her and their children after some time.

Justice Karnan’s judgment was in favour of the woman, ensuring her maintenance from the man, whom he judged as her husband. Justice Karnan gave a controversial definition to marriage, arguably linking it with pre-marital sex, “sexual cravings”, “commitment” and “Cultural Integrity of India”.

In his judgement, Justice Karnan noted that if a man above 21 years and a woman not below 18 years of age had engaged in premarital sex, then that would be a valid marriage in the eyes of law and they could be termed as husband and wife. Applying this in the facts of the present case, the couple was to be treated as a married couple, and hence the children born to them were legitimate. Therefore, the husband, in this case, had a legal duty to maintain his wife and children. Also, if the husband wanted to marry someone else, he had to obtain a decree from the court certifying a divorce from the previous wife. Though this judgment brought relief to the women, it spurred an obvious debate within the intellectuals. Firstly, this judgement ignored all the customary ceremonies that had to be followed. Many considered this disrespectful to their respective religions. 

Secondly, this judgement was considered to be based on orthodox sentiments and non-progressive thinking. Most importantly, it is a sad state of affairs if such a public figure makes such remarks in a judgement. This judgement was however dismissed by the Supreme Court judges, Justice BS Chauhan and Jasti Chelameswar a year later. 

Barging into a courtroom of the Madras High Court

Justice C.S. Karnan barged into a courtroom of the Madras High Court, where a division bench was hearing a Public Interest Litigation on the recommendation of names for the post of judges. There he made a demand in an open courtroom that he wanted to file an affidavit in his name. The reason he cited for this was that the appointment and selection procedure that was being carried out was partial.

After this, the then Chief Justice of the Madras High Court, Justice R.K. Aggarwal wrote to the then Chief Justice Of India, P Sathasivam, notifying him about all that had taken place in his courtroom. He accused Justice Karnan of hurling accusations at him in open court. He also notified the Chief Justice that some of his fellow judges were afraid of Justice Karnan. Citing these reasons he requested his transfer to some other high court. 

However, Justice Karnan wrote to the Chief Justice of India and Madras high court that he wished to stay at the Madras High Court so that he would get a fair chance of proving the accusations that he had put against the Chief Justice and other judges of the high court.

Following this through a joint letter to the Chief Justice of India, 20 judges of Madras High Court requested his transfer to some other High Court. 

In 2014, as Justice Kaul became the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court, tensions within the judiciary strengthened. Justice Karnan in a series of allegations accused a number of judges for discriminating against him. Many of the judges fell silent on his accusations. This was followed by 20 judges having sent a memorandum addressed to the Chief Justice of India, saying that they found it difficult to work with him. 

In 2015, Justice Karnan in another attack, accused a judge of sexually harassing an intern, within his own chamber. 

Justice Karnan’s transfer to Calcutta High Court

In 2015, Justice Karnan accused the then Chief Justice of Madras High Court, Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul of discriminating against him. He accused the Chief Justice of harassment as well as for not considering him worthy enough and assigning him dummy cases. Justice Karnan also accused Justice Kaul of being corrupt.

This caused further frustration within the judicial system of the state and hence he was transferred to the Calcutta High Court by the Supreme Court of India. This was followed by an unprecedented move by Justice Karnan, he stayed his transfer by an order passed in his courtroom. 

Neither the constitution-makers nor the legislators of the country had ever anticipated such a thing and hence, there were no provisions in the constitution for the same. However, the Supreme Court division bench of Justices JS Khehar and R Banumathi lifted the bench quickly. 

This act of Justice Karnan was against the spirit of the Constitution and disrespect towards the principles on which the Indian judiciary is based. However, when Justice Karnan accepted the transfer and went to Calcutta, he wrote an apology letter to both these judges, stating that his “erroneous” stay order was nothing but his mental frustration.  

Final allegations of Justice Karnan

Justice Karnan addressed to the Prime Minister of India a list of twenty sitting and retired judges of the Supreme court, whom he alleged as corrupt. In his most controversial step, he passed a judgement in which he held the then Chief Justice Of India, J.S. Kheher and seven other Supreme Court judges were found guilty under the SC/ST Atrocities Act, 1989 as amended in 2015 and sentenced them to five years of rigorous imprisonment. 

Facts of the case

The reader, by now, would be clear with the fact that Justice Karnan was involved in a number of controversies. He, with his unprecedented moves, shook the Indian Judiciary to its core. These involved challenging the appointment of a judge alleging that he had fake academic qualifications. He accused some judges of giving decisions which reflected upon them being corrupt, not independent and impartial. 

Then he accused the Chief Justice of Madras High Court for approaching the Supreme Court in retaliation for an order which was passed by Justice C.S. Karnan. He even accused the Chief Justice Of Madras of caste-based discrimination against him. Justice Karnan went on to accuse some judges of having illicit relations amongst themselves. 

Combining all these issues, the Supreme Court of India constituted a seven-judge bench comprising its senior-most judges to adjudge a case on contempt of court against Justice C.S. Karnan. The name of this historic case is Justice C.S. Karnan v. The Honourable Supreme Court Of India. 

Highlights of the judgement

The seven-judge bench in this judgement ruled against Justice C.S. Karnan. It was held that Justice Karnan was guilty of hurling unpalatable accusations on Chief Justices of various High Courts, Justices of Supreme Court and the Madras High Court, which were all held to be false. These statements made by Judge C.S. Karnan was held to lack any bona fide intentions.

The judge, shielding himself with his Dalit card, made a completely unacceptable public statement and dishonoured the decorum of the court. His actions were a disrespect towards the Indian judiciary. Therefore, it was held that Justice C.S. Karnan, a sitting judge of the Calcutta High Court was guilty of contempt of court and the Indian judiciary, and was sentenced to six years imprisonment. 


Analysis of the judgement 

Critics argue that how the case was handled by the Supreme Court was not up to the mark. Some allege that the Supreme Court did not follow a proper procedure. Let’s look at the various improprieties committed-

  1. The first impropriety being the constitution of a seven-judge bench. As per the constitution of India, a case has to be heard by a two or three-judge bench, a bench larger than this can only be formulated in exceptional circumstances. A larger bench is required if the previous decision of the case at hand is in question. Then a bench larger than the previous bench becomes a necessity. A five-judge bench can only be constituted if a case has a “substantial question of law”. However, the present case was a simple contempt case. 
  2. The court, according to them, failed to frame any substantial question of law in this case. This came amidst the Chief Justice of India’s denial of hearing the AADHAAR related cases, despite allegations of frequent violations of rights and liberties of citizens.
  3. Also, in the previous case which involved contempt of Justice Sumitra Sen, the Apex Court simply recommended impeachment to the parliament. Questions were raised by many on why was this not done in this case. 
  4. Another allegation on the Apex Court is that the decision was hurriedly given. Questions were also raised as to why an amicus curia was not appointed in this case. In all important and complex cases, an amicus curia is appointed by the apex court, who is a disinterested party in the case and helps to give an impartial judgement. 

In an unprecedented scenario of adjudging a case against a sitting high court judge, the apex court not appointing an amicus curiae can be called both irresponsible and unjust. This to a large extent implies the Supreme Court’s hurriedness to pronounce the judgement. 

  1. It is also pertinent to note here that justice Karnan was given six-month imprisonment, which is highest in contempt cases. Also, he was not even heard before the bench. He may have done something against the decorum of the court, but still, that did not absolve the court from the liability of giving him a fair chance of hearing. 
  2. The order by which Justice Karnan was sent to the prison was a two-page judgement. The full judgement had to follow. This meant that the judge would not know the full reasons for his imprisonment till a future uncertain date but would be imprisoned with immediate effect. 
  3. Also, a gag order was imposed on the press, that is, the press was not allowed to report this judgement. This was in addition to the fact that Justice Karnan had nowhere to appeal against this order that was passed against him, by a bench of judges who had an institutional interest in the proceedings.


“Hard Cases lead to bad decisions” is a famous saying, which holds true in this case. In an extraordinary case like the present one, extraordinary care should have been taken, considering the fact that it would lead to setting up an important precedent. Carefully analysed and revised procedure should have been followed. The judgement pronounced by the Honourable Supreme Court Of India was, according to me, proper in spirit. However, the procedure followed by the seven-judge bench had some major lacunas.


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