The Contested, Complicated Legacy of Justice Arun Mishra

Social Commentary

The Contested, Complicated Legacy of Justice Arun Mishra

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

After pronouncing his last judgement on the management of Ujjain’s Mahakaleshwar Temple, Justice Arun Mishra was overheard telling his colleagues on the bench “Shiv ji ki kripa se aakhri judgement bhi ho gaya.” Justice Arun Mishra of the Supreme Court retired on Wednesday, leaving behind a hotly debated, and contested legacy.

Justice Mishra’s farewell turned out to be as controversial as some of his judgements, with the Supreme Court Bar Association President Dushyant Dave writing to CJI Justice Bobde, expressing his disappointment, for not being invited to speak at the farewell.

“I will never again participate in any function being organised by the Supreme Court till my term is over in December,” Dave wrote in his letter to the Chief Justice of India.

Son of Hargovind G Mishra, a former judge of the Madhya Pradesh high court, Justice Arun Mishra belongs to a family of lawyers. After a stint in Madhya Pradesh, and as Chief Justice in Rajasthan and Calcutta, he took over as a Supreme Court Judge in 2014, during the tenure of then Chief Justice of India, RM Lodha.

As reported in The Wire, Justice Arun Mishra authored 132 judgments and he was part of 540 benches which delivered judgments in the apex court since the beginning of his tenure on July 7, 2014. From Justice Dattu, to present CJI Justice Bobde, successive chiefs reposed their trust in Justice Arun Mishra, assigning politically sensitive cases to benches presided over by him or of which he was a part.

During his tenure, Justice Mishra heard some of the most contested and politically sensitive cases – the Sanjiv Bhatt case, the Sahara Birla diaries case, the Haren Pandya murder, the medical college bribery case, the mess in the CBI leadership, anticipatory bail pleas of activists in the Bhima Koregaon case, and the land acquisition matter in which he headed the bench to review a ruling he himself was part of.

As written by Ananthakrishnan G in Indian Express, “For critics, from the bench to the Bar, experts to court watchers, he became emblematic of a court that has diluted its check-and-balance role when it comes to questioning the Executive. In most of these cases where the government was involved, his critics say, Justice Mishra’s bench gave it the benefit of the doubt.”

When the then Chief Justice Dipak Misra assigned the Judge BH Loya case to him, ignoring nine other senior judges, it led to that unprecedented press-conference by four of the senior most judges in the court. When CJI Ranjan Gogoi was accused of sexual harassment, he constituted a special bench with himself as the presiding judge, and one of the other two being Justice Arun Mishra.

In an international judicial conference in February, Justice Mishra described the Prime Minister as “a versatile genius” and “an internationally acclaimed visionary”. The comments attracted widespread criticism. How could a judge be impartial to the executive, showering such praise in public, everyone asked.

Before retiring, a bench headed by Justice Mishra held senior advocate Prashant Bhusan guilty of criminal contempt of court, for two tweets. The decision once again kicked off a storm, as the bench held that “the tweets could shake the confidence of the people in the judiciary.”

In a scathing piece in the Indian Express, former High Court judge Rekha Sharma wrote, “If indeed public confidence in the Court was shaken, it was when its four senior-most judges held an unprecedented press conference stating that democracy was in peril. If public confidence in the Court was shaken, it was when one of its staffers made allegations of sexual harassment against the then CJI, and, without hearing the complainant, Justice Mishra almost gave a clean chit to the accused and gagged the press. If indeed public confidence was shaken, it was when the Court pushed matters pertaining to habeas corpus involving the civil rights and liberties of citizens, in the wake of the abrogation of Article 370, to another unknown day.”

Most judges tend to have quiet exits, Justice Arun Mishra clearly isn’t one of them.