Explained | The curious case of Justice Muralidhars transfer from Delhi High Court

Amid the violence that has rocked the national capital in the last few days, a voice from the Delhi High Court caught the imagination of many.

While hearing a plea filed by various activists, including Harsh Mander on the riots that ravaged Delhi, a Delhi High Court bench comprising Justices S Muralidhar and Talwant Singh, made some crucial observations.

One of them was pulling up the Delhi Police for not showing keenness on filing an FIR (First Information Report) against those who made inflammatory hate speeches before and during the tense situation in the capital city.

“Just register FIRs. You showed alacrity in lodging FIRs for arson, why aren’t you showing the same for registering FIR for these speeches?” Justice S Muralidhar asked.

The bench had made these observations after pursuing the video clips of alleged hate speeches being made by four BJP leaders – MoS Finance Anurag Thakur, Kapil Mishra, Parvesh Verma and Abhay Verma.

When Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said the “time wasn’t conducive” to file FIRs, Muralidhar retorted, “What is the appropriate time, Mr Mehta? The city is burning.”

Hours after the hearing, the Centre notified Muralidhar’s transfer to Punjab and Haryana High Court.  Although his transfer was recommended by the Supreme Court collegium on February 12, it had caused a split in the bar even then and the proposal was put on hold after several Supreme Court judges voiced their objection.

Read Also: Congress alleges ‘revenge politics’ behind Justice Muralidhar’s transfer, law minister hits back

This could be attributed to Muralidhar’s reputation of taking a clear stand and championing the cause of the disadvantaged. The judgments delivered by him are testimony to this notion.

Justice Muralidhar – along with Justice AP Shah – was a part of the Delhi High Court bench, which had first decriminalised homosexuality in 2009, and said Section 377 violated Fundamental Rights. It was a progressive verdict, in that, it read, “We declare section 377 of Indian Penal Code in so far as it criminalises consensual sexual acts of adults in private is violative of Articles 21, 14, and 15 of the Constitution.”

“As it stands, Section 377 denies a gay person a right to full personhood which is implicit in the notion of life under Article 21 of the Constitution,” the judgment noted further.

In 2018, the Delhi High Court ruling that sentenced Congress leader Sajjan Kumar to life for his role in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots was delivered by a bench which included Justice Muralidhar and Justice Vinod Goel.

While overturning his acquittal by a lower court, the bench observed that the trial court had evaluated evidence on “erroneous considerations” and that the police blatantly abetted the crimes committed by the rioting mobs.

Justice Muralidhar also noted that, “The criminals responsible for the mass crimes have enjoyed political patronage and managed to evade prosecution and punishment.”

In 2018, the same bench also sentenced 16 ex-police personnel to life for killing 42 Muslims in Hashimpura massacre of 1987. In that case, the verdict read, “We hold that this was targeted killing by armed forces of the unarmed, innocent and defenceless members of a particular community.”

In the same year, Muralidhar also set aside the remand of activist Gautam Navlakha for his alleged role in stoking violence in Bhima Koregaon.

As an advocate too, Muralidhar took up cases for the cause of the victims in the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, and for those who were displaced during the construction of the dam on the Narmada river. He has worked as a lawyer in the Delhi High Court as well as the Supreme Court.

After he read out his last judgment in the Delhi High Court, Delhi government additional standing counsel Gautam Narayan said it was an honour and a privilege to work with him. The same view was echoed by others and some younger lawyers also said he was an “inspiration”.

Justice Muralidhar’s transfer, especially in the middle of hearing the matter on Delhi violence, has not boded well with the Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms (CJAR) and several senior lawyers, who have issued a statement condemning the move.

“The fact that the notification of the transfer was issued on the evening he had done his duty to hold Delhi Police and the Union Government accountable for the loss of lives in the Delhi riots tell us the true nature of his transfer,” the statement read.

Asserting that there have been consistent efforts to remove Muralidhar from the Delhi High Court and raising suspicion of the order being passed at 11 pm, advocate Kamini Jaiswal said, “This raises a lot of questions. The government cannot hide behind the recommendation of the Collegium. There is no reason why he should have been shifted at this juncture, except if he was being shifted as the Chief Justice of another High Court.”

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