The Calcutta High Court on Friday granted bail to four leaders of Trinamool Congress in the Narada sting case, in which the political battlelines have been drawn sharply. The order came after a senior judge of the Calcutta High Court, in an unprecedented move, wrote a letter to his colleagues raising questions about the established procedure of law being given the go-by. It’s a call for the high court to look within.
First, the high court, in seeming haste, agreed to hear a plea by the Central Bureau of Investigation against the TMC leaders, that the accused had secured bail from the CBI court by putting pressure on the judge. A division bench of the high court, headed by acting Chief Justice Rajesh Bindal, instead of a usual single bench, heard the plea and stayed the bail order without even hearing the accused, raising questions of due process. The senior judge questioned both the decisions of acting CJ Bindal — to assign the plea to himself as the master of roster and to stay the bail order. Despite the urgency shown on May 17, the High Court issued a notice that “due to unavoidable reasons” the division bench by the acting CJ would not sit the next day. The case was heard next on May 19 and the result was a split verdict where the junior judge on the bench wanted to grant bail while CJ Bindal differed. The rules of the Calcutta High Court say that in case of a split verdict in a division bench, a 3-judge bench is constituted — adding a third judge to the existing division bench. However, for reasons that remain unclear, acting CJ Bindal constituted a five-judge bench. Meanwhile, in an unusual move, the CBI challenged the split verdict but the SC refused to hear the case, prompting the agency to withdraw the appeal. In his letter, the senior judge noted that the high court had been reduced to a “mockery” in its handling of this case.
The letter raises crucial questions on whether the high court acted fairly in evaluating the central agency’s claims. In times when there are apprehensions about the independence of countervailing institutions against a strong and aggressive executive, there is a special responsibility on the judiciary to be vigilant, and to act as custodian of the due process. The Calcutta High Court must heed the warning from within.