He used to be C S Karunanidhi and became C S Karnan during his teenage years, a period that witnessed the rise of M G Ramachandran in Tamil Nadu politics. According to a close aide of Karnan, the reason he changed the name was that he felt it would be a bad career move to keep the name of MGR’s rival.
The day the Supreme Court sentenced Justice Karnan of Calcutta High Court to jail for six months, a number of judges of Madras High Court reflected on their former colleague, from his appointment by a collegium through various controversies, including challenging and often abusing chief justices.
Some of them said they had never heard of him before his selection to the Madras bench. Among them is Justice D Hariparanthaman, now retired, who had been appointed along with Karnan in March 2009. “I had never heard of him before. We were told he was a criminal lawyer,” he said.
The collegium that selected Karnan comprised then Madras chief justice A K Ganguly with justices S J Mukhopadhyaya and P K Misra. Last year, Justice Misra publicly expressed regret for having been part of that collegium. On Tuesday, he said he stands by his words. “I have said earlier that I feel ashamed of being part of that collegium in which Justice Ganguly recommended his name. Justice Karnan should have been impeached long ago,” Justice Misra said.
Justice Ganguly said he couldn’t recall the details. “I don’t remember who recommended his name. I do not want to comment on his arrest,” he said.
A judge who was part of the selection process said there were reports that Karnan was close to then Chief Justice of India K G Balakrishnan’s brother K G Baskaran. Balakrishnan, who denied any role in the selection, said he is not sure of any links between his late brother and Karnan. “I met Karnan only after his selection. During my tenure as CJI, some 300 HC judges were selected. The CJI has no personal mechanism to look at the background of judges being selected to high courts,” he said.
Among the chief justices Karnan challenged were Sanjay K Kaul, and M Y Eqbal before him. Justice R K Agarawal, who succeeded Justice Eqbal in 2012, wrote to then Chief Justice of India P Sathasivam accusing Justice Karnan of acts unbecoming of a judge and sought his transfer after Karnan had allegedly barged into his room and shouted at him in Tamil. And in 2015, Karnan threatened contempt of court proceedings against then chief justice Kaul.
During Agrawal’s tenure, Karnan once stormed into a courtroom where a PIL was being heard on the appointment of additional judges, and started arguing the case as a lawyer, allegedly shouting at the judges. CJ Agrawal later convened a a full court meeting to discuss Karnan’s conduct.
On another occasion, Karnan addressed a press conference in his chamber to recount the “humiliation and embarrassment” he claimed to have been facing. He called a majority of his colleagues “narrow-minded” and said they “want to dominate Dalits”. Referring to a function of judges, Karnan alleged, “The judge sitting cross-legged next to me deliberately touched me with his shoes and then said sorry. Two other judges were watching, smiling.”
According to retired judge K Chandru, a number of CJIs had failed to act against Karnan. “In the absence of systems like Judicial Standards Commission in the US and with the National Judicial Appointment Commission (NJAC) in India struck down, the system allowed Karnan to disrupt the work of fellow judges,” he said.
In 2016, Karnan “stayed” his own transfer to Calcutta High Court. Issuing the “stay” on the Supreme Court order, he threatened to order an FIR under the SC/ST (Prevention of Atrocities) Act against two SC judges, including CJI T S Thakur, for issuing the order.
Such was his reputation, a fellow judge said, that “when his father died recently, we were all afraid to go to his home and pay our last respects”.
A close aide of Karnan, W Peter Ramesh Kumar, said the conviction of Karnan is leading to a constitutional crisis as his complaint on corruption charges against senior SC judges is being ignored by the President. Kumar, incidentally, was sent a Madras HC order in February 2016 that sentenced him to six months simple imprisonment, disqualification from his lawyer job and a fine of Rs 2,000 for barging into a court chamber and disrupting court proceedings.