“[The] Madras High Court judges preside in courts with fear psychosis expecting mobs to come in and attack them at anytime. It was once a traditional court that we all looked up to. Never before has it fallen to such low levels. All because of you lawyers... What is your lawyers’ associations doing about all this? What is your Bar Council doing? In Madras you have three bar associations, still they remain silent... ”

Thus spake Chief Justice of India HL Dattu in open court on September 21.

The immediate provocation for his anguished remarks was a group of lawyers sitting in protest in the court hall of the Chief Justice of Madras High Court, demanding that Tamil be made as the court language. The protesters also brought in their spouses and small children in to the court hall.

In another incident, over 150 lawyers from the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court tried to barge in to the court hall of a division bench, which was hearing contempt proceedings against two advocates from Madurai for undertaking a procession defying the compulsory helmet rule imposed by the High Court. The protesting lawyers raised slogans against the judges and ruckus prevailed in the court hall for over an hour.

A few days before that, a huge procession of lawyers in Madurai had released the names of four Madras High Court judges and described them as corrupt.

Not just lawyers

The Chief Justice of India's anguish is easily understandable. While his remarks were aimed at the lawyers, they came during the hearing  of a petition filed by Madras High Court’s registrar general to challenge an order passed by Justice CS Karnan of his own court in a suo motu proceeding, in which he had threatened contempt action against the high court’s chief justice on the issue of selection of judicial officers.

Justice Karnan had alleged irregular, unfair and biased constitution of the selection committee by the chief justice of the high court. In May, the Supreme Court had stayed all proceedings in this matter and restrained him from any interference in the selection process.

This is not the first time that Justice Karnan has alleged caste-based discrimination. In November 2011, Justice Karnan had created a flutter by alleging that fellow judges had humiliated him.  He had said Dalit judges were targeted and their reputation tarnished whenever they asserted their self-respect.  In January last year too, he had stormed into a courtroom hearing a Public Interest Litigation to protest against the high court collegium over the selection of judges, questioning the inclusion of two judges from the same community and family and seeking that two of the judges be from minority communities, Muslim and Christian. The Supreme Court had in March last year came down heavily on Justice Karnan, terming his conduct as “indecorous” and “uncharitable.”

This time around, too, after the apex court's stay in May, and before the next hearing which was due on September 21, Justice Karnan defied all convention and propriety as he sought to involve Dalit political leaders Mayawati and Ramvilas Paswan, the Times of India reported.

In his letters on August 19 and 21 to the president, prime minister, union law minister, Tamil Nadu governor, Tamil Nadu chief minister and chairmen of the national commissions for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, which were also copied to Consumer Affairs Minister Ramvilas Paswan and former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati, he charged that he had been subjected to harassment on account of being a Dalit.

In his letted dated August 21, Justice Karnan, as reported by the Times of India, wrote:
 "It is my conviction that your lordship [Chief Justice of Madras High Court, Sanjay Kishan Kaul] has committed an atrocity as per Section 3(1)(vii) and (ix) and Section 3(2) (vi) and (vii) of the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989, as an offender, as mentioned above. As such, I once again request your lordship to consciously reflect on this letter, allow a fair judgment to prevail and settle this burning episode once and for all."

Senior counsel KK Venugopal, who was appearing for Madras High Court, however, told the Supreme Court bench, that the recent behaviour of the lawyers was a more serious cause for concern.
"More than the issue of single judge initiating contempt proceedings against the Chief Justice, the behaviour of a group of lawyers is much more serious and threatens the institution of judiciary. The recent incidents and ruckus of the lawyers have halted work at the Madras High Court.  Lawyers were organising processions on caste basis within the campus, shouting slogans and making scurrilous allegations against judges who passed adverse orders”.  

It was this that led to the Chief Justice of India anguished words quoted on top of this article. Dattu described the lawyers’ demand as impractical. “How can a vernacular language be the official language of any court?” he said.

The Madras high court had lost its value after the incident, he observed. “As a law student, I was told by my senior to go to this high court and learn advocacy," the Chief Justice said. "All is lost."

That, then, is the situation. The Madras High Court itself is a petitioner in the Supreme Court, praying to the apex court to rescue it from the acts of one of its judges while, on other other hand, lawyers are holding the court proceedings to ransom, openly alleging and naming some judges as corrupt.  This is all happening when over one third of its sanctioned strength is lying vacant. The sanctioned strength of judges in the high court is 60, and there are 22 vacancies, resulting in the huge backlog of cases.

What's going on?

A section of senior lawyers strongly believe that caste is indeed a factor in all that has gone wrong in recent days. They blame the judiciary and appointment process for not giving adequate representation to a few communities.

“Yes, caste feelings are running amok and it’s nauseating," a senior lawyer said. "But we have to understand that there are vulnerable sections that are not represented and there are communities who are over-represented. We should have social justice in the appointments of judges, but at the same time we cannot allow caste alone as the basis.”

Another section of lawyers, however, thinks the issues should not be conflated. They blame a section of lawyers in the Madurai Bench for the recent ruckus.  “At Principal Seat [Madras High Court premises] the problems are subsiding. The trouble is only at the Madurai Campus and we are trying to sort it out and bring it under control,” said another senior lawyer.

On September 24, the Bar Council of India suspended 14 advocates, including, among others, the president and secretary of Madurai Bar Association who were already facing contempt proceedings in Madras High Court for creating ruckus in the court halls and going on strike.

The Bar Council of India directed  directed all 15 to appear before the disciplinary committee of Bar Council of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry in Chennai on October 4 and asked the committee to conclude proceedings within a month in this regard. The Madras High Court Advocates’ Association, the biggest lawyers association of the country, has condemned this move.

“The Bar Council of India has not adopted natural justice in this issue," RC Paul Kanagaraj, president of the Association said. "We are not saying that the Bar Council should not do anything.  Let them do their job, but before suspending 15 lawyers they should have heard the other side also.  This suspension is against natural justice,” he said, while justifying the Association's call for a boycott of the court on Monday.

Even as a majority of lawyers ignored their association's call for court boycott on Monday, Additional Solicitor-General of India G Rajagopalan asked for dissolution of the Bar Council of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry, pointing out that at least five of the statutory body's members themselves had taken part at a protest meeting held in Trichy on Sunday.