The impasse over appointment of judges to the top court has finally ended with the government clearing all the nine names recommended by the Supreme Court Collegium. However, one of the names that remains out, despite being No. 2 in the All-India List of seniority for judges of high courts, is of Tripura Chief Justice Akil Kureshi.
One of the reasons for the impasse over the appointments, that lasted two years, is said to have been the Collegium not including Justice Kureshi’s name for elevation. Supreme Court judge Justice Rohinton Nariman, who reportedly insisted on it, retired on August 12; the Collegium’s list of nine came just five days later.
It’s not the first time that the career of Justice Kureshi, who is originally from the Gujarat HC, has hit a wall.
Justice Akil Abdulhamid Kureshi was born in 1960 to an illustrious Gujarat family. Prof Anamik Shah, former vice-chancellor of Gujarat Vidyapith, says Justice Kureshi’s grandfather Ghulam Rasul Kureshi was part of ‘Arun Tukdi’, which would walk the route of Dandi March ahead of Mahatma Gandhi’s arrival.
His father Hamid Kureshi was a senior advocate and a trustee of the Sabarmati Ashram Preservation and Memorial Trust, and among the last people to have been born and lived at Sabarmati Ashram, founded by Gandhi in 1917. In 2016, when he died, he was cremated as per his wishes, in line with Gandhian principles.
After graduating in Mathematics in 1980 and Law in 1983, Justice Kureshi followed in his father’s footsteps. After almost 20 years at the Bar, in 2004, he was appointed Additional Judge of the Gujarat High Court. He served for 14 years in the court but was transferred just when he was due to become Chief Justice.
During his time in the High Court, Justice Kureshi gave two important verdicts which were an embarrassment to the then Narendra Modi government in the state. In 2010, he set aside a trial court order and granted the CBI two-day custody of then Gujarat Home Minister and now Union Home Minister Amit Shah in the Sohrabuddin Sheikh encounter case. (In 2014, Shah was cleared in the case by a Special CBI Court.)
In 2011, a Bench headed by Justice Kureshi upheld the then Gujarat governor Kamla Beniwal’s decision to appoint former high court judge R A Mehta as the state’s Lokayukta. It had been opposed by CM Modi.
Justice Kureshi was expected to become Gujarat Chief Justice when the post fell vacant in November 2018, as the senior-most judge of the court. However, Justice A S Dave was named Acting Chief Justice and Justice Kureshi was transferred to the Bombay High Court, where he would be fifth in seniority.
Over 1,200 lawyers of the Gujarat High Court Advocates Association launched a strike against the move and petitioned the Supreme Court. While Justice Kureshi’s transfer to Bombay was stalled, in May 2019, the government sent back the Collegium’s recommendation to appoint him as Chief Justice of the Madhya Pradesh High Court instead. Finally, in September, the Collegium recommended him for the post of Tripura Chief Justice.
This meant that from looking at heading a court with 53 judges, Justice Kureshi found himself leading one with just four.
Acquaintances in Gujarat vouch for Justice Kureshi’s integrity, pointing out how in 2014, he had recused himself from hearing a PIL alleging encroachment on the premises of the Sabarmati Ashram Trust, Sabarmati Harijan Ashram Trust and Manav Sadhna Trust.
As the Tripura Chief Justice, he took up the case of trafficking of a 14-year-old girl in 2020 suo motu; directed a probe into a woman and her husband’s suicide following some leaked videos, with the accused tried for moral policing; and took up a PIL on the state government’s handling of Covid, following which the latter “slightly corrected” its vaccination claims.
A judge in the High Court said Justice Kureshi was “hardworking “, “independent” and “excellent in reasoning” while recording his opinions. A court official noted the “exceptionally high” disposal rate of cases since he took over in 2019, with only 1,500 cases pending now compared to 3,000 at that time.
But if the Centre is not seen as favourable to Justice Kureshi, many in the legal circles question the judiciary’s “hesitation” in resisting it. “Before anyone blames the government for not appointing a judge, one must ask the judiciary why the name was never sent. Be it Justice Kureshi or Saurabh Kirpal… the government might object, but we will only know when the ball is in the government’s court,” a Delhi-based senior advocate said. The Collegium has been deferring nominating the openly gay Kirpal as a judge of the Delhi High Court, reportedly due to the government’s objections.
Yatin Oza, who heads the Gujarat High Court Advocates Association and is a former BJP MLA, said they are not looking at any legal route now. “It will send a wrong signal, and if there are bleak chances of Justice Kureshi coming to the Supreme Court, those will be destroyed as it has only one vacancy left.” Also criticising the Collegium, Oza added, “If you have the powers to appoint and if you are not able to exercise that power or you are not able to see to it that government acts on your recommendation, whether the power is with you or government, what difference does it make?”
with Debraj Deb