The single-judge Bench of Justice Kausik Chanda of Calcutta High Court on Thursday reserved its order on Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s plea seeking his recusal from hearing her election petition that is before the court.
Banerjee, who has challenged the result of the election to the Nandigram Assembly seat, has pointed to the “likelihood of bias” on the part of the judge, given his association with the BJP when he was a lawyer.
During the virtual hearing, which was attended by Banerjee, Justice Chanda asked why the petitioner had not requested reassignment of the case on June 18, when it was listed before him. Abhishek Manu Singhvi, counsel for Banerjee, said that a formal application was yet to be filed at the time.
When Justice Chanda asked whether he should wait for the administrative order on the Chief Minister’s letter to the Acting Chief Justice seeking his recusal or proceed judicially, Singhvi replied: “It is your Lordship’s prerogative to decide the matter on the judicial side. If you see a ground, you may recuse at your own discretion…”
Urging the judge to “recuse graciously”, Singhvi submitted: “Please take it that what I argued today was said on June 18. Would it have looked nice for me to say all this without an affidavit?”
In response, Justice Chanda referred to the ongoing “media trial” over the matter. “There was a media trial already ongoing before this issue came up before the court. Hundreds of tweets have already been posted saying he should recuse. If I recuse now, will I be giving in to this media trial?”
Singhvi replied that public opinion did not matter for judicial determination; however, the judge might want to consider whether it was worth it to continue on the Bench.
“What is it worth to continue in a case like this with so much controversy? I am not saying that your Lordship’s shoulders are not broad enough to bear it. But what is the worth? Public opinion doesn’t matter. I can show 100 tweets in your support. But what is the worth to get involved in a controversy?” he asked.
Giving the reasons for the petitioner’s apprehension of bias, Singhvi submitted that Justice Chanda has been “closely associated with BJP”, has been the head of the legal cell of the party, and has appeared for the BJP as a lawyer in various cases.
Justice Chanda agreed that he had represented the BJP in cases before the Calcutta High Court, but said that he was never the head of the party’s legal cell.
Singhvi referred to publicly available material that showed Justice Chanda’s “close personal, professional, pecuniary and ideological relationship” with the BJP.
He also submitted that Justice Chanda is yet to be appointed as a permanent Judge of the High Court, and that the Chief Minister has conveyed her objections and reservations to his confirmation.
“It is the duty of the Court to see that proceedings are free from any partiality. Justice must not only be done but be seen to be done. If fair-minded people are likely to pre-judge the case, they will not have confidence in the justice system,” Singhvi submitted.
The Trinamool Congress last week released photographs of Justice Chanda with West Bengal BJP president Dilip Ghosh. On Thursday, Justice Chanda said: “You lawyers also have political affiliations. You (Singhvi) are from Congress, and Mookherjee (another advocate) has a BJP background. But you appear for TMC’s Mamata Banerjee.”
Singhvi responded that the role of a judge was different from that of a lawyer. “Judgeship is a divine role of doing justice. It is different from being a lawyer,” he said.
Banerjee was defeated by BJP Leader of Opposition Suvendu Adhikari by 1,956 votes at the Nandigram seat. The CM has alleged that the Returning Officer had said he was threatened.
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