Hours after the new Chief Justice of the Madras High Court, Vijaya Kamlesh Tahilramani, was sworn in at Raj Bhavan on Sunday, Justice M S Ramesh of the High Court posted a WhatsApp message questioning the seating arrangement of judges at the event.
Upset that sitting judges were made to sit behind ministers and police officers, Justice Ramesh wrote in an official WhatsApp group of sitting judges: “With a bit of dismay, I am constrained to bring on record the incautious protocol extended to the Judges of the MHC (Madras HC) at today’s swearing-in ceremony by the organisers of Raj Bhavan. It was not only a disappointment but an issue of serious concern…
“Was the Raj Bhavan unaware of the hierarchy between the constitutional dignitaries and the police officers? Or is it their understanding that the HC Judges rank below the order of Hon’ble Ministers and Police Officers? Being an official function, there cannot be a second opinion that the protocol to be extended was for the post and not the individual,” Justice Ramesh wrote around 5 pm.
From multiple sources in the Madras HC, The Indian Express has learnt that after Justice Ramesh shared the message in the WhatsApp group, which is used for official communication among judges and the court registry, many judges spoke to him and shared his concern.
Justice Ramesh also complained that the Madras HC Registrar’s request to oversee the seating arrangements for the HC judges was denied by Raj Bhavan officials. “If it could be true, it is rather unfortunate that it can only be termed to be deliberate act of extending a cold shoulder to us. We deserve an explanation.!!” Justice Ramesh wrote in his note.
Usually, it is the Registrar of the High Court and an under-secretary-rank official of the government who oversee matters of protocol, including seating arrangements for official events. Sources close to Registrar R Kannappan confirmed that he was denied entry into the auditorium to oversee the arrangements prior to the event.
What also irked the senior judges, including Justice Ramesh, was that many senior police officers and bureaucrats got front-row seats. For instance, the Governor’s secretary, R Rajagopal, was on the stage with Chief Secretary Girija Vaidyanathan. Also, S R Jangid, a DGP-rank officer with close links to Rajagopal, was seated ahead of the judges.
Talking to The Indian Express, Rajagopal said, “I haven’t seen this judge’s complaint. I will comment later,” he said.
Advocate-General Vijay Narayan said it was the Governor’s office, not the state government, who made arrangements for the swearing-in ceremony. “Usually, seating arrangements are made in such a way that judges are on one side and ministers on the other (inside the auditorium),” he said.
He said that the huge turnout of guests from Maharashtra, the state to which the new CJ belongs, could have led to the confusion. “There were some 30 judges from Maharashtra and lots of relatives of the new CJ. As per precedent, those judges from other states and relatives are given preferential treatment. But it is true that today, there were no reserved seats with names of VIPs. And the Durbar Hall in the Raj Bhavan is relatively small too, it can hardly accommodate 150 people,” he said.
In his note asking whether the protocol violation was deliberate, Justice Ramesh also pointed out that this had happened earlier too. “It would not be out of place to mention here that earlier this year, the HC Judges were pushed out of their legitimate seats during the Thirukalyanam at A.M. Meenakshi Amman temple at Madurai to accommodate ministers and politicians. The concern we had raised in this regard is yet to be answered,” he wrote, referring to a function at the Madurai temple.