A High Court Judge, Called ‘The Phantom’ Of West Bengal, Pushes The Boundaries Of Judicial Propriety

27 Sep 2022 17 min read  Share

From criticising politicians, bureaucrats and his fellow judges, ordering a series of investigations, allowing the media to record court proceedings and giving an unprecedented interview to a TV channel, Calcutta High Court Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay has been hailed for being an anti-corruption crusader and criticised for breaching judicial boundaries. Ignoring the Supreme Court’s 25-year-old advice that judges should let their judgements speak for them, Gangopadhyay cites other principles of judicial conduct to defend his ‘freedom of speech.’

Calcutta high court justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay (L) during interview with ABP Ananda's Suman Dey

Kolkata: “An exceptional incident is going to take place now,” said television anchor Suman Dey, as he faced the camera and walked down a street in Kolkata’s eastern outskirts of Salt Lake on 19 September 2022. 

Dey’s face was aglow with the shine that comes to journalists who are reporting something out of the ordinary. He said he was going to interview someone who was “exceptional”.

“Some say he is Aranyadeb (the Bengali version of the fictional English comic dispenser of jungle justice, The Phantom), some say he is totally biased,” said Dey, a senior vice president with ABP Ananda, as he strolled past traffic and a policeman with a semi-automatic rifle. 

“Some say he is a people’s judge, some say he does not know the ABCD of law,” said Dey, who met Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay in his modest apartment.

The judge in question was one of 54 judges of the Calcutta high court. The meeting with Dey was part of an hour-long interview with ABP Ananda, one of West Bengal’s leading TV news channels. 

In the interview, Justice Gangopadhyay, 60—with a bushy moustache and measured manner of talking—did what few serving judges of a superior court do: speak to the media and discuss in considerable detail, with his personal views included, a case that he was hearing. 

It was only the latest precedent set by Justice Gangopadhyay over the last year. The others included criticising ruling-party politicians and his fellow judges, letting the media record court-room proceedings and launching a series of investigations into a scandal that has rocked West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC).

A law graduate, former civil servant and later a lawyer specialising in arbitration, Justice Gangophadyay’s “focussed, fact-finding exercise”—in the words of a division bench—brought to wide public attention what has come to be known as West Bengal’s “school-recruitment scam”. 

Gangopadhyay's orders, while hearing a batch of petitions that first came before his bench in August 2021, alleging irregularities in recruitment to government-aided and sponsored schools, led to the unearthing of more than 1,200 illegal appointments in teaching and non-teaching positions. 

Those appointed were found to have jumped ranks in merit lists or got appointment letters without appearing in the lists. The implication was that bribes were paid. The process of recruiting these teachers began in 2016, leading to nearly 500 days of protest by candidates who alleged they were not selected despite high ranking. 

Singular Focus On A Job Scandal

Since November 2021, Justice Gangopadhyay has ordered as many as 10 Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probes into the alleged teacher-recruitment scam and terminated more than 1,200 appointments: 269 assistant teachers, 350 group C and 573 group D staff in three separate orders.  

 “It’s not that I do not trust the state police,” said Justice Gangopadhyay in the ABP Ananda interview, answering a question that many have asked. “But the police get controlled in many ways. The CBI, too, gets controlled. But I thought they would possibly be a little less influenced (here).” He said he was dissatisfied even with the CBI speed of investigations. 

Based on separate petitions, more individuals were terminated from jobs, including the daughter of former junior education minister Paresh Adhikari, who was removed from his ministerial post on 3 August. 

Gangopadhyay has also ordered immediate appointment of  187 eligible teaching candidates and 350 group C and 573 group D employees in the positions vacated by the terminations. The appointments are currently under process, as the government did not oppose the order. 

On 24 July 2022, the Enforcement Directorate (ED) arrested West Bengal industry minister Partha Chatterjee, a TMC political heavyweight, for his alleged involvement in the scandal. He was the education minister when the marks of applicants were allegedly fiddled with. 

Others arrested based on the investigations ordered by Justice Gangopadhyay were former West Bengal Board of Secondary Education president Kalyanmoy Ganguly and former School Service Commission (SSC) chairperson Subiresh Bhattacharya, currently the vice-chancellor of North Bengal University. 

“I alone am enough for those who bagged jobs illegally,” Justice Gangopadhyay was quoted as bragging to a state government lawyer during a hearing on 6 April. “I have declared a war against corruption, and I will unearth the money trail.” 

A week later, during a protest in court by pro-TMC lawyers on 13 April against his criticism of the division bench, Justice Gagopadhyay said; “I won’t stop even if a gun is held to my head.”  Pro-TMC lawyers boycotted his court for 20 days. 

Discomfort Over A Judge’s Judicial Activism

Justice Gangopadhyay’s television interview was only the latest in a series of headline-making comments from his courtroom on the scandal, an issue he apparently feels strongly about. 

In doing so, he has challenged, inadvertently or deliberately, a quarter-century old charter by the Supreme Court, advising higher-court justices to stay away from the media and speak through their judgements. 

Gangopadhyay’s actions have made his fraternity wary. 

Two retired high court judges whom Article 14 contacted refused to comment. Several senior lawyers practising in the Calcutta high court said they wanted to stay away from the controversy. 

Among lawyers who were also politicians, Tarunjyoti Tiwari, spokesperson for the Bharatiya Janata Party and a lawyer, declined comment. 

TMC Rajya Sabha chief whip and national spokesperson Sukhendu Sekhar Roy, a veteran lawyer, said: “It has become a debatable issue. I don’t want to comment because I don’t want to add further fuel to the controversy.”

Advocate Ritzu Ghosal, a member of All India Congress Committee (AICC), said: “As far as delivery of justice is concerned, he has been doing a fantastic job, but as judge of the country’s oldest chartered high court, he should have exercised a little bit of self-restraint before going to the press. This has probably demeaned the grandeur of the constitutional pedestal he has been put on.” 

But justices of High Courts and the Supreme Court have increasingly made pronouncements that have gone beyond the limits of the law and the cases they were hearing. 

Justices have, for instance, commented on the morality of women (here, here and here) and made sweeping remarks betraying prejudices, sometimes with little or no evidence (here, here and here).

Justice Gangopadhyay’s comments on the school-recruitment scam appear to follow some of these precedents, but few judges have set the number of precedents he has for judicial activism and outspokenness.

A Rush Of Criticism & Orders

Here are some of the recent observations and orders that Justice Gangopadhyay passed in 2022:

– On 30 March, he criticised his own colleagues on a division bench for staying his orders on the school-recruitment scam. 

– On 18 May, he heard an urgent petition virtually at 10.30 pm to order the paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) to take control of the School Service Commission office within two hours to protect data and evidence. 

– On 18 May, he advised chief minister Mamata Banerjee to remove minister Chatterjee from her cabinet. 

– On 18 May, he asked the CBI to interrogate anyone “influential”and “take them into custody if they did not cooperate”.  

– On 14 June, he threatened to shut down the Madrasah Service Commission, which recruits teaching and non-teaching staff in government-aided and sponsored madrasas, if irregularities were found.

– On 17 June, dissatisfied with the pace of the CBI’s investigation, he threatened the CBI that he would order retired CBI officer Upendranth Biswas (noted for sending former Bihar chief minister Laloo Prasad Yadav to jail) to take over. 

The result has been that Justice Gangopadhyay has garnered attention usually reserved for politics, cricket and football in West Bengal’s public spaces, streetside tea stalls, trains and buses. 

This public spotlight on a justice of the High Court or Supreme Court is rare but not unprecedented.

Let Judges Speak Through Judgements: Supreme Court

“A Judge shall not enter into public debate or express his views in public on political matters or on matters that are pending or are likely to arise for judicial determination,” said a Supreme Court charter, called the Restatement Of Values Of Judicial Life, which was adopted by a bench on 7 May, 1997. 

“A Judge is expected to let his judgments speak for themselves,” said the charter. “He shall not give (any) interview to the media.” It has been a convention since then that judges refrain from going to the media.

That is why in 2018 a press conference addressed by four Supreme Court justices against the then chief justice of India, Dipak Misra, was regarded as unprecedented. In October 2019, Justice S A Bobde, the Chief Justice designate, told the Hindustan Times that the press conference was “very disturbing for all of us”. 

Bobde and the other judges did not discuss cases they were hearing. In 2020, a three-judge bench headed by justice Arun Mishra said: “We hope it was the first and the last occasion that the judges have gone to press.” 

On 19 September 2022, soon after ABP Ananda started running promos for the interview with Justice Gangopadhyay, a public interest litigation (PIL)  filed in the Calcutta High Court sought to block the broadcast, citing the Supreme Court’s 1997 charter. 

A division bench of Chief Justice Prakash Shrivastava and justice Rajarshi Bharadwaj rejected the PIL, saying they had “no doubt” the 1997 charter was “within the knowledge” of the court’s justices. “Same is the position in respect of Bangalore Principles of Judicial Conduct.”

The Bangalore Principles are “universally acceptable standards of judicial integrity” drafted by a group of chief justices during a meeting in Bangalore in 2001, organised by the Judicial Integrity Group, an international non-profit whose members are active or former judges from different countries. 

“A judge, like any other citizen, is entitled to freedom of expression, belief, association and assembly, but, in exercising such rights, a judge shall always conduct himself or herself in such a manner as to preserve the dignity of the judicial office and the impartiality and independence of the judiciary,” reads one of the principles. 

“A judge giving an interview is rare,” admitted Justice Gangopadhyay in the ABP Ananda interview, but he said he was only following the Bangalore Principles. 

“I am not badmouthing any political party and I have full faith in the judicial system, of which I am a part,” he said. “I know, this interview will create a controversy. The Bangalore [Principles] say a judge, too, has freedom of speech. However, the judge will limit herself or himself to legal discussions only.” 

Unapologetic About Hard Talk

Gangopadhyay’s controversial interview to ABP Bangla made it clear he was not apologetic about the way he was doing his job. 

“I am fearless,” he said. “Even if the Supreme Court criticises me or I am expelled from the judiciary (for my role as judge), I will have no regret. I have done what I should have done.” 

“The message I want to send out is that if the judiciary suddenly decides to be very tough, the corrupt will have a rough time,” he said.  

The interview provided glimpses of why some social media users call him a ‘Dabangg-judge’—a reference to a 2010 Salman Khan-starrer Bollywood movie about a superhero police officer. 

“Sometimes terror works exceptionally well and yields positive results,” Justice Gagopadhyay said in the interview, looking pleased. “I know, I have created some terror in the minds of some educational officers and teachers. They know. They work well now.”  

When the anchor Dey pointed out that the state government had said no one would lose a job, Gangopadhyay replied: “Everybody will lose jobs. No one who got a job illegally has any reason not to worry.” 

Investigations & Divisions Within

Justice Gangopadhyay became a Calcutta High Court judge in 2018, and his orders started making headlines in late 2021, mainly connected with the recruitment scandal. 

By April, he had ordered CBI investigations into seven petitions, all of which were challenged and stayed by two  division benches; one of them constituting a committee led by a retired judge to inquire into the allegations. 

After the committee’s report not only seconded Justice Gangopadhyay’s findings but also indicated that the scam was larger than it appeared, a division bench on 18 May upheld all of Ganguly’s orders. It said his “focussed fact-finding exercise” stood “justified in its endeavour to be in possession of all relevant facts” and allowed him to deal with the cases the way he deemed fit.  

Gangopadhyay then ordered three more CBI investigations. 

Over the year he has been hearing teacher-recruitment-scam cases, he has done more things that legal experts regarded as unprecedented. 

For example, when the division of bench of Justices Harish Tandon and Rabindranath Samanta stayed or modified a series of his orders, Justice Gangopadhyay, on 30 March, criticised his colleagues, calling their decision “a highest degree of double standard expressed”. 

On 30 March, Justice Gangopadhyay also wrote a letter to the Chief Justice of India and the Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court, drawing their attention to the staying of his orders by the division bench. Three days later, justices Tandon and Samanta recused themselves from hearing appeals related to the school-recruitment scam. 

‘Forced To Take Unprecedented Measures’

During the ABP Ananda interview, Just Gangopadhay admitted that writing to the Chief Justice of India and the Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court was unprecedented. 

“However,  sometimes we are forced to take unprecedented measures,” he said. “I have been criticised by my friends in the judiciary for this. But I am still firm in my belief that I did the right thing.”

When on 18 May, Justice Gangopadhyay asked former education minister Chatterjee to appear before the CBI, his order said Chatterjee had to do so by 6 pm the same day. 

It was not in the order, but Justice Gangopadhyay verbally said that Chatterjee should not seek admission to the state-run SSKM hospital, if he suddenly complained of illness before reaching the CBI office. He gave similar instructions to minister Paresh Adhikary and officials overseeing the recruitment process. 

“I had to make my orders very specific because the politicians or administrative persons we were dealing with are very cunning and have enormous wealth to spend on getting legal advice,” said Justice Gangopadhyay. 

“Had I not specified dates and times of their appearance before the CBI, they would have found excuses to skip one day and the extra time they would have got would have then been used to destroy evidence,” he said. “That’s why I realised that as soon as their involvement came to light, they must face questioning immediately.” 

When asked how, during the hearing, he spoke about Chatterjee owning an apartment only for his dogs—a fact that came to the light only two months later, after the ED arrested him—Justice Gangopadhyay said: “I have my friends in Naktala (where Chatterjee’s home is located). I knew it from them. We can exercise public knowledge.” 

Unfazed By The Lack Of Precedent

Justice Gangapadhyay said that he knew sitting judges rarely gave interviews. But the lack of precedent did not stop him. 

Asked if he would prefer to be seen as an efficient judge or an honest one, he replied: “I can’t call myself efficient, there are judges far more efficient than me, but I have no hesitation in saying that I am honest. I haven’t made any compromise with corruption as of now, and I will not, even if that leads to my ruin.”

“If action is taken against me for this interview, for doing harm to the judicial system, I will have no regret,” he said. “I will suffer. But I am not worried at all.” 

Asked to comment on social media chatter about being a publicity-monger, he said, “I am not projecting myself (before the media), I am getting projected (by them) due to a chain of events.” 

“Any judge who would take a tough stand on corruption would get projected,” he said.

Facing Off Against The Trinamool Congress

According to Justice Gangopadhyay, when TMC member of Parliament and the party’s all-India general secretary Abhishek Banerjee first made adverse comments about the judiciary, he said he felt angry and thought of summoning him to court. 

“I feel ashamed to say that there are a few in the judicial system who are working in tandem with them (the BJP), working as their (BJP’s) porters, ordering CBI (investigations) at the drop of a hat,” Banerjee had said.  

Justice Gangopadhyay discarded the idea of summoning Banerjee, he said, after a division bench did not give much credence to Banerjee’s comments. 

“The court does not think the comments have defamed the court,” said the bench. “Judicial functioning will become difficult if we start going after all such comments. The justice system is not so fragile that any person or parliamentarian’s comment will defame it.”

Gangopadhyay differed with his colleagues. 

“If such comments are made in the future involving me, I will show how tough the judiciary can be,” he told Dey, adding that he had seen a video of another Banerjee speech, in which he said BJP leaders knew they would get bail from court regardless of what they had done and that some judges had the BJP’s blessings. 

“What if I ask him to provide proof? Can he prove? He can be sent to three months in prison for telling lies,” said Justice Gangopadhyay. “If we do not take stringent action against those trying to malign the judiciary, people’s trust in the system will suffer.” 

Gangopadhyay also said that he had “heard that she (Mamata Banerjee) often gets angry and acts in a vindictive way”.

Responding to his remarks, TMC state unit spokesperson Debangshu Bhattacharya shared a video on Facebook, titled “10 more questions I would have asked had I been in Suman Dey’s place.” 

In the video, Bhattacharya asked if the judge was thinking of sending Abhishek Banerjee to jail for making unsubstantiated comments on the judiciary, how ethical was it for the judge to mention hearsays about the chief minister? “How did he make a remark on the honourable chief minister only on the basis of what he has heard?” the TMC spokesperson asked.  

A Conflict Of Interest?

Pro-TMC handles on social media have accused Justice Gangopadhyay of being biased against the party, pointing out that he had been a lawyer representing the SSC—the former chairperson is in jail after investigations the judge ordered—and “held grudges” against the institution for payments due.

Others have said the judge had in the past worked with Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharya, one of the main lawyers representing job aspirants in job-recruitment-scam cases.  

In the ABP Ananda interview, Justice Gangopadhyay denied both charges. “There is not a single penny pending for my remuneration as a lawyer of the SSC,” he said, adding that the institution functioned “without irregularities” when he represented them. 

About Bhattacharya, a Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI (M) MP from the upper house of Parliament, the Rajya Sabha, Justice Gangopadhyay did not deny an association, asserting that he had “learnt sitting at the feet of lawyers” such as Bhattacharya and was once a lawyer for the party.

Bhattacharya said he saw no problem with what his former colleague had said. 

“He gave the interview following protocols,” Bhattacharya told Article 14. “He expressed his outlook about dispensation of justice. We had earlier seen four supreme court judges holding a press conference while the court was in session. If that was not a violation of protocol, this is not either.”

Justice Gangopadhyay denied any bias in favour of Bhattacharya. “Those saying this should first show faults in my orders,” he said. “My orders withstood the scrutiny of the division bench. Where am I at fault?” 

Political Ambitions

Justice Gangopadhy, in the ABP Ananda interview, did not rule out joining politics after retirement, though he denied he would accept offers to head judicial commissions or tribunals as post-retiral occupations. 

The call to joining politics might come one day, he said. “It may not necessarily have to be partisan politics,” said Justice Gangopadhyay. “I can stand on a stool on the street and shout. The battle against corruption is my sole agenda.”  

Quoting the case of famous Bengali poet Jibananda Das, who found recognition only after he died in 1954, Justice Gangopadhyay admitted, in the ABP Ananda interview, that he did seek some recognition for his work. 

“I want to give at least a few judgments, set one or two examples, ” he said, “that, maybe, some researcher would write about years after I am dead… that there was a judge who delivered such judgements.” 

(Snigdhendu Bhattacharya is an author and independent journalist based in Kolkata, writing on politics, human rights, environment, climate change and culture.)