ON THURSDAY morning, there was a beeline for courtroom No. 38 of the Delhi High Court. While the lawyers seemed restless, the judge whom they were all there for, Justice S Muralidhar, himself walked in appearing unfazed and bearing his trademark grin.
The case before him was P V Kapur v Standard Chartered Bank, a PIL on running of commercial establishments in residential areas. Ruling in favour of the residents, the 58-year-old finally acknowledged the elephant in the room. In a brief remark to the lawyers, he said, “This is my last judicial act as a judge of the Delhi High Court.”
Those who know Justice Muralidhar say that was typical of the man who, in his 14 years as a judge and before that his long practice as a lawyer, has let his actions speak louder than words.
Last week, as Delhi was engulfed by riots, both his actions and his words stood out — particularly at a time when institution after institution was seen to have abdicated its responsibility. At a hearing held at his residence at 12.30 am on the night of Tueday-Wednesday, responding to a panic call, Justice Muralidhar intervened to ensure safe passage for injured victims of riots stuck at a hospital in New Mustafabad.
The next day, at a hearing convened to take stock of the situation, Justice Muralidhar pulled up the Delhi Police, asking why FIRs had not been registered against those who had made hate speeches. When police and Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta claimed they hadn’t heard the same, the judge ensured that the speeches were played in open court.
Before the day ended, there was another development. The government cleared Justice Muralidhar’s transfer to the Punjab and Haryana High Court, provoking protests by the Opposition. The third-most senior judge of the Delhi HC will now be the second-most senior in the Punjab and Haryana HC. The Delhi HC Bar Association has been opposing his transfer since the Supreme Court collegium first recommended it two weeks ago without stating any reasons.
“Empathetic”, “fair” and “unswerving” are adjectives that come up across the board when peers are asked to describe Justice Muralidhar’s stints at the Bar and the Bench.
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Starting his career as a company secretary, Justice Muralidhar became a lawyer in 1984, and three years later, shifted his practice from Chennai to Delhi. He next worked as a junior to legendary lawyer G Ramaswamy, who would later become the Attorney General for India. It was while working for Ramaswamy that the classical music enthusiast met Usha Ramanathan, a law researcher who later became his wife.
As an advocate, he appeared mostly in civil liberties cases, including representing Narmada Bachao Andolan activists and victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy.
In 1991, Justice Muralidhar was appointed advocate-on-record for the Election Commission of India, then headed by the iconic T N Seshan. In what was seen as an attempt to dilute his powers, the then Congress-led government appointed two more election commissioners. Seshan took the government to court and picked Muralidhar as his lawyer. Muralidhar first resigned from his EC post to act as Seshan’s lawyer to avoid any potential conflict of interest. After the case was over, with the Supreme Court upholding the government’s move, the EC re-appointed him as its lawyer.
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A senior advocate who began his practice around the same time as Justice Muralidhar says, “A lot of stalwarts argued the case, including Nani Palkhivala (who appeared for Seshan). But Justice Muralidhar’s seemingly small act stands out.” The advocate adds, “His honesty defines him. Even in a profession where one is constantly peer-reviewed and scrutinised, there is not a single thing one can hold against him.”
Justice Muralidhar was also standing counsel for the National Human Rights Commission, and was actively involved in the Supreme Court Legal Aid Committee. Having done PhD from Delhi University, he served as a part-time member of the Law Commission from 2002 for four years. His thesis, ‘Law, Poverty and Legal Aid: Access to Criminal Justice’, was published as a book in 2004. Two years later, at the age of 45, Justice Muralidhar was appointed as a judge of the Delhi HC.
His name was recommended by the HC Collegium led by its then Chief Justice Markandey Katju. “Justice Katju had the ability to spot potential. It also helped Muralidhar’s case that the Supreme Court Collegium was then headed by Chief Justice of India Y K Sabharwal, who was originally from the Delhi HC,” a former judge says.
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His stint in the HC has been marked by a string of illustrious cases. In 2009, he was part of the bench with Justice A P Shah that delivered the landmark verdict decriminalising homosexuality.
In 2010, Justice Muralidhar ruled that the office of the CJI was within the purview of the Right to Information Act, and ruled in favour of an RTI activist who had sought information on assets of judges. In an extraordinary response to the verdict, the Supreme Court, headed by CJI K G Balakrishnan, in its administrative avatar challenged the HC decision before its judicial avatar. Justice Balakrishnan was later accused of holding disproportionate assets. In November last year, nine years after the HC ruling, the Supreme Court upheld Justice Muralidhar’s verdict.
In October 2018, Justice Muralidhar along with Justice Vinod Goel overturned the acquittal of Congress leader Sajjan Kumar by a lower court in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. He held that the trial court had evaluated evidence on “erroneous considerations”, and accused the Delhi Police of “blatantly abetting” the riots.
The same month, Justice Muralidhar cancelled the transit-remand of political activist Gautam Navlakha, who had been arrested in the Bhima-Koregoan case, after highlighting gaps in the Pune police’s actions. The case was recently transferred to the NIA, after the NCP that is part of the ruling coalition in Maharashtra indicated that the Bhima- Koregaon case didn’t hold much water.
In November 2018, the bench of Justices Muralidhar and Goel, in another reversal of a trial court judgment, convicted 16 former police personnel in the killing of 42 Muslims in the 1987 Hashimpura massacre.
As a judge, Justice Muralidhar is also remembered for instructing lawyers not to address him as “lordship” or “Milord”, and refusing to let ushers pull his chair for him.
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A lawyer who went to see Justice Muralidhar preside in court on his last day in the Delhi HC says, “He is simply incorruptible, not just as a judge but as a human being.”
When asked to point out one negative, a lawyer who often appeared in cases before Justice Muralidhar laughs, “Yes, if I were a lawyer for a crook and had to appear before him, I would hate him. When he thinks you are wrong, especially on a social issue, there’s little use of your arguments… because he would rule against you.”
Incidentally, it was by chance that the Delhi violence case came before him on Wednesday, with both Chief Justice D N Patel and the second senior-most judge Justice G S Sistani on leave.
But, the last has probably not been heard of Justice Muralidhar — from now to 2023, when he retires if not elevated to the Supreme Court.
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