‘The people’s judge’: Gauri Lankesh on the unmatched judgments of Justice Ajit Prakash Shah

A piece from a posthumous collection of journalist Gauri Lankesh’s writing. She was murdered on September 5, 2017.

At a time when much rot and stink surrounds us, this story of an honest and pro-people judge might help keep alive what hope remains for the future of this country. After reading an article on him in The Hindu recently, I did some research and want to share it with you.

His name is Justice Ajit Prakash Shah. The chief justice of the Delhi High Court until recently, when he retired, it was not, as is customary, just the judges and lawyers who gathered to bid him farewell. Dozens of ordinary citizens, progressive thinkers and activists too joined them.

If you ask me what makes Justice Shah so special among the hundreds of judges in this country, I would say it is the spirit of his judgments.

Consider some of them. Recently, the Delhi government decided to drive beggars back to their native states as they were a blot on the city’s beauty. Newspapers carried articles about this matter. A few citizens went to court questioning the inhuman decision. Justice Shah’s judgment not only ruled against the Delhi Government, but also said that beggary is no crime and beggars are not criminals. He asked why beggars were being pushed out of a city where criminals seemed to live freely. Pushing beggars out of the city was a crime against humanity, he said.

Last month, hundreds of people in north India died from the bitter cold. The temperature had plummeted to four degrees celsius in Delhi. At such a time, the Delhi government destroyed a shelter for the poor on Pusa Road and left them homeless. The reason was simple: the Commonwealth Games were to be held in Delhi in another ten months and the “great” nation would suffer an insult if foreign delegates saw the shelter for the poor. So JCB machines were summoned to raze it down and enhance the “beauty” of the capital. This was the government’s way of removing poverty.

Newspapers reported extensively on the poor being pushed out into the open in winter. When he learned of it, Justice Shah, without waiting for anyone to approach the court, issued an order asking the Delhi Municipal Corporation to immediately draw up plans to provide shelter for the victims.

Throughout his career, when public interest came in conflict with either the interests of capitalists or those of the state, Justice Shah stood firmly on the side of public interest.

Deciding on a twelve-year-long legal battle between Apollo Hospital and a non-government organisation, Justice Shah said that the right to health was a fundamental right and none could deny it. He ruled that one-third of the in-patient beds in Apollo Hospital and 40 per cent of the beds in the outpatient ward should be made available to the poor free of charge.

He had delivered such landmark judgments as earlier as well, when he was a judge of the Bombay High Court. For example, he pulled up and ned the Shiv Sena and Bharatiya Janata Party for imposing a bandh on Mumbai and ruled that no political party had the right to do so under law. He found that their actions violated the constitutionally guaranteed rights of the citizens of Mumbai, and imposed a fine of Rs 20 lakh each on the two parties. What’s more, he ordered that the amount be spent for public purposes in Mumbai.

In another instance, Justice Shah took exception to the Maharashtra government’s ploy to suppress Doordarshan’s telecast of a feature lm about terrorism in Punjab and Anand Patwardhan’s documentary on the Ayodhya issue, Ram Ke Naam. His order cleared the way for the films to be telecast.

Another judgment of Justice Shah opened up a new world for thirty innocent children. The Byculla prison in Mumbai had thirty small children staying with their mothers who were inmates. Most of them had never seen the world beyond prison. Following a public interest litigation, Justice Shah ordered that an anganwadi be opened for these children near the prison officials and workers’ quarters. He ruled that furniture and playthings be provided by the prison authorities for the anganwadi, and teachers’ salary expenses be met by the government. What a creative mind at work!

As the chief justice of Madras High Court for two years, he tried to improve the judicial infrastructure by setting up child care facilities in family courts, mediation centres in the districts and decentralized training programs for judges.

Over the last two years, as the chief justice of the Delhi High Court, Justice Shah gained wide popularity through a series of timely pro-people judgments that helped the poor and the downtrodden.

But the most widely debated among all his judgments was the historic one that decriminalised homosexuality by reading down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code.

The division bench of which he was part said that this 150-year-old legal impediment to the practice of homosexuality was discriminatory and violated the fundamental rights of the citizens. Through this landmark judgment, Justice Shah affirmed that sexuality was a matter of individual freedom and upheld the fundamental values of democracy.

One more thing needs to be noted about Justice Shah. He never made it to the Supreme Court, though he was qualified in every way and known throughout his career as a man who cared for social justice. On this, he said on his last working day, “I cannot pretend that I am not hurt. But my disappointment never diminished my commitment to justice.”

Isn’t it a tragedy that a judge who strove to deliver justice all his life had to suffer such injustice?

(First published on 3 March 2010 in Gauri Lankesh Patrike. Translated by Bageshree S.)

Judges and the derailment justice is always in the news in our country. The retired judge AP Shah helped restore faith in the judiciary, wrote Gauri Lankesh. Shah recently expressed concern over Judge Brijgopal Harkishan Loya’s death in 2014.

Gauri Lankesh’s profile of Justice Shah, translated from Kannada, is excerpted here from The Way I See It: A Gauri Lankesh Reader – a selection of her writings, spanning different languages and publications – edited by Chandan Gowda, and published by Navayana and DC Books. The book was launched in Delhi on December 1.

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