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A judge at the centre of political debate in Bengal

Over the past few months, politics in West Bengal has been rocked by a recruitment scam in which a high-profile politician and several officials have been arrested. However, it is a Calcutta High Court Judge who has emerged at the centre of prevailing political storm. In the past one year, Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay gave at least ten orders directing the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) to investigate irregularities in the recruitment carried out by West Bengal School Service Commission.

Till September 20, Justice Gangopadhyay’s court-room observations and orders created ripples in the legal and political circles of the State. On September 20, he gave an interview to a Bengali television news channel ABP Ananda, leading to an uproar. While the legal experts are divided as to whether a sitting High Court Judge handling high profile cases can give interviews to news channels, the Judge’s statements created further buzz in political circles.

In the interview he said that Trinamool Congress general secretary Abhishek Banerjee should be jailed for three months for alleging that a section of the judiciary was hand in glove with the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). “I am aware that after the interview there will be controversy but whatever I am doing is as per The Bangalore Principles of Judicial Conduct, which states that Judges have freedom of expression but whatever they say has to be under the purview of law,” Justice Gangopadhyay said. He also claimed that he was “fearless” and even if the Supreme Court criticises him and he is removed from judiciary, he will stand by what he has done because “corruption has destroyed India”.

A petition was filed before the Division Bench of Chief Justice Prakash Shrivastava and Justice Rajarshi Bhardwaj to stop the telecast of the interview. The Court refused, stating that “the petition is based upon mere apprehension”.

Colourful history

This is not the first time that Justice Gangopadhyay has been the centre of debate in political circles of the State. Justice Gangopadhyay was appointed as the Additional Judge of the Calcutta High Court on May 2, 2018 and started functioning as a permanent judge of the High Court on July 30, 2020. In August this year, there was a heated exchange between him and a section of lawyers of the Calcutta High Court during a hearing of the recruitment scam. Justice Gangopadhyay allowed journalists present in the courtroom to make a video recording of the hearing.  His argument was that he feared attack by a section of lawyers.

Calcutta High Court Bar Association president, Arunava Ghosh, who was seen in a verbal spat with the Judge, said that there were reports that journalists go to the Judge’s chamber. Mr. Ghosh urged the Judge not to turn the ‘courtroom into a bazaar’.  

In March this year, when his order on CBI inquiry in the recruitment scam was stayed by a Division Bench, Justice Gangopadhyay wrote to the Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court saying his hands were “being tied again and again” and urged them to “look into the matter and probe the ongoing corruption”.  Following this, several Division Benches of the High Court recused themselves from hearing petitions related to the SSC recruitment scam where orders have been issued by Justice Gangopadhyay.

On several instances Justice Gangopadhyay had directed CBI to file FIRs by “the end of the day” and asked senior officials, president of boards and commission and even a Minister to report to the agency for investigation within hours of the order.

The investigation in the SSC recruitment scam has led to the arrest of former Minister Partha Chatterjee and recovery and seizure of movable and immovable property worth ₹103.7 crore. Former senior officials of West Bengal Education Department, including a sitting Vice Chancellor, are currently behind bars for their alleged involvement in the scam, which involves giving jobs as teachers and non-teaching staff in State-run schools in return of money.

A crusader against corruption

While the Trinamool Congress leadership has not reacted to the remarks of the Judge, job seekers who are demanding jobs in State-run schools and holding regular protests hailed him as a ‘hero’.

Political commentator Biswanath Chakraborty said that while it is not common for a High Court Judge to appear on a television channel, many in West Bengal hail him as a crusader against corruption. “People believe that had it not been for Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay, the investigation and arrests in the recruitment scam would have never been possible,” said Professor Chakraborty, who teaches political science at Rabindra Bharati University.

Only a day after the interview was telecast, Justice Gangopadhyay gave hints in the courtroom that he will ensure that the recruitment process in State-run schools is started and deserving candidates are not deprived.  On September 21, Justice Gangopadhyay directed that all illegal appointments were to be separated from the legally-made ones and the process of giving appointments to the genuine candidates should start immediately.

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