Justice Katju: The judgment which almost cost me my job

Justice Markandey Katju-

(Justice Markandey Katju is a former Judge, Supreme Court of India, and former Chairman, Press Council of India. The views expressed are his own)

I was appointed a Judge of the Allahabad High Court in November 1991 and was almost sacked a few months thereafter. This is an untold story which the readers may find interesting.

A few months after I was appointed a Judge of the High Court a case came before me, Naresh Chand vs. District Inspector of Schools, Ghaziabad (see online) which I heard and decided.

The facts of the case were that a young man, Naresh Chand, had been appointed a biology teacher on an ad hoc basis by the management of an obscure High School in District Ghaziabad in the State of U.P. in India. Under the relevant rules, his appointment had to be approved by the District Inspector of Schools.

The D.I.O.S. refused to approve his appointment on the ground that Naresh Chand belonged to an O.B.C. (Other Backward Castes, which are the intermediate castes in India in the social ladder, below the so-called ‘upper castes’,  but above the Scheduled Castes or Dalits ), while the post had been reserved for a Scheduled Caste candidate.

Consequently, his appointment was canceled by the management of the school and his service was terminated. Naresh Chand challenged this termination order before the Allahabad High Court, and the case came before me.

I have always been passionate about science, and have always believed that science is the means of solving India’s huge problems. This case gave me an opportunity to put forward my philosophy in a judgment.

Caste reservations for admission to educational institutions and granting government jobs had been upheld by the Indian Supreme Court, e.g. in Indra Sawhney vs Union of India, as a compromise between merit and the need for advancement of the historically suppressed castes like Dalits and OBCs, and so I could not invalidate them altogether.

However, as mentioned above, I have always had an intense zeal and passion for promoting science, as I regard it as vital for India’s progress.

Now a Judge, while giving his verdicts, is supposed to set aside his personal beliefs, predilections, and notions, and decide cases according to the law alone. Normally I abided by that principle, but in some exceptional cases, where I thought a vital interest of the nation was involved, I departed from it to some extent.

As said in a Latin maxim  “interest republicae suprema lex” (the interest of the republic is the supreme law). Caste-based reservations, though ostensibly intended for a wholesome purpose, had in reality degenerated in India into a vote-catching device in our elections. And I simply could not bear its dilution of science, which was damaging the national interest.

So, the view I took was that though reservation on a caste basis may be acceptable in other fields, they were just not acceptable in the fields of science and technology because these fields were vital for India’s progress, and hence no compromises were permissible in these fields. Consequently, there could be no valid reservation in these fields, either for admission to educational institutions or for jobs pertaining to these fields.  I remember a few passages of my judgment:

“The policy of reservations is basically a compromise between the need for excellence on the one hand, and the need to help the historically socially and economically disadvantaged classes on the other. However, in my opinion, there can be no compromise in the fields of science and technology.

Today our country is passing through one of its worst patches in our country’s 5000-year-old known history. It is only science that can save us from total ruin. Unless we now adopt the scientific path and scientific outlook foreign nations will totally dominate and plunder us.

When our country was on the scientific path it prospered. With the aid of science, we had built mighty civilizations thousands of years ago when most people in Europe, except in Greece and Rome, were living in forests. We had made outstanding scientific discoveries, e.g.decimal system in mathematics, plastic surgery in medicine, etc. In the Harappa-Mohenjodaro civilization 4000 years ago our ancestors had built the Lothal harbor and a drainage system on a scientific basis.

However, we subsequently took to the unscientific path of superstitions and empty rituals, which has led us to disaster. The way out, therefore, is to go back again to the scientific path shown by our ancestors, the path of Aryabhatta and Brahmagupta, Sushrut and Charak, Panini and Patanjali, Ramanujan and Raman.

When we examine the validity of the reservation policy we must keep the above considerations in mind. While the socially and economically depressed classes should certainly be helped, the interest of the nation cannot be overlooked. As is said ‘ Interest Republicae Suprema Lex ‘ (the interest of the republic is the supreme law). A line has to be drawn somewhere to the policy of caste-based reservations, and I draw the line at science. Science has no caste or religion. Hence there can be no valid reservations in the field of science and technology.

For making an appointment of a person as a lecturer in chemistry, physics, biology, mathematics or any other scientific subject, or in making admissions in scientific institutions or colleges, or in making appointments on jobs in the field of science and technology, one has to choose the most meritorious candidate, and caste and religion are wholly extraneous and illegal considerations. In my opinion, the reservation policy cannot be extended to the scientific field (which includes medicine, technology, and mathematics).

For example, when a man goes to a doctor, he does not see the doctor’s caste or religion but he goes to the doctor who has the best reputation. In fact, an incompetent doctor can endanger public health, just as an incompetent engineer can endanger public safety by constructing a defective bridge or building that may collapse.

Similarly, when the Government wants to set up a nuclear reactor it seeks the most distinguished scientists and does not seek scientists of a particular caste or religion. When we launched the Agni Rocket surely the scientists involved in this great achievement were not chosen because of their caste.

In my opinion this country can only progress if it adopts a scientific attitude and scientific thinking. Caste reservations in teaching posts in science (including medicine, engineering or mathematics), or admission in educational institutions in the scientific field, or making appointments in scientific posts on the basis of religion or caste is wholly arbitrary and against the country’s national interest of scientific development. An appointment of a Lecturer (or any other teaching post) in chemistry, physics, biology, mathematics or any other scientific subject can be made on the basis of merit alone, and as such teaching posts in the science and mathematics faculties cannot be validly reserved on the basis of caste or religion, and the same principle applies to admission in educational institutions or jobs in the scientific field.

The argument in support of the reservation policy is that it aims at equality. The argument is that since the scheduled castes and other backward classes have been oppressed and downtrodden for long, compensatory state action is required for the purpose of making such people equal to the upper castes.

The point, however, remains that this desire to make unequal equal cannot go to the extent of subverting the national interest, and hence it cannot be extended to the field of science and technology. I have already mentioned that we are now standing at a crossroads in our nation’s long history. We must now either adopt the scientific path or perish. It is a matter of life or death for us.

Those who have read science know that it permits no compromise. It is a relentless pursuit of objective truth and must maintain very high standards. To dilute science by the policy of reservation is permitting impermissible compromises in a field that is of paramount importance to our nation’s destiny.

Those who talk of reservation in the scientific field probably do not know of the advances in modern science achieved by Western nations They would not know the meaning of quantum mechanics, and the difference between quantum mechanics (as propounded by Heisenberg and Schrodinger) and the quantum theory (as propounded by Max Planck, and as explained by Einstein) and the researches of Prof. Stephen Hawkins on black holes (see ‘A Brief History of Time”). They may not know of the brilliant discovery by Ramanujan (before whom even the greatest mathematician of the world, Hardy, bowed his head) of the mock theta function, made when he was practically on his deathbed at the age of 32 (see ‘The Man who knew Infinity’). They may never have heard of the Raman effect or the Chandrashekhar limit. They possibly do not even know of the great discovery of Rutherford who through his famous gold foil experiment propounded the modern atomic theory, which was subsequently modified by Neils Bohr, Heisenberg, and Schrodinger’s equation. They may never have heard of the outstanding research in social science by Morgan, who studied the lives of the American Iroquol’s Indians whose Seneca tribe had adopted him (see Morgan’s ‘Ancient Society’).

It is distressing to note that while Western nations are day by day advancing in science and technology, thus widening the gap between their level of advancement and ours, some of our people are insisting on caste-based reservations in the scientific field which can only keep us backward. One can understand political compulsions, but then everything has a limit, and the limit is crossed when caste or religion-based reservations are sought to be made in the field of science or technology ”.

With these observations, I quashed the order canceling the appointment of Naresh Chand and ordering his reinstatement.

This judgment, delivered in 1992 (shortly after I had been appointed a Judge of the Allahabad High Court ), created a furor all over India. While huge rallies, particularly of students, were held in support of my judgment in many parts of India, there were counter-rallies elsewhere, branding me of being casteist. The media commented on it widely for several days, a large section supporting me, but another section attacking me.

In Allahabad an organization called, ‘Social Justice Movement,’ publicly burned my effigy and copies of my judgment. They resolved to place a lock on the gates of the Allahabad High Court but were prevented by the police from doing so. A large contingent of policemen had to be placed around the premises of the Allahabad High Court to protect it. I started receiving death threats by anonymous letters and on the telephone.

From the newspapers, I learned that the members of Parliament belonging to the Scheduled Castes and Tribes of all political parties held a meeting in Delhi and decided to bring a bill to Parliament for my impeachment.

My wife and other family members were scared. I had just been appointed a High Court Judge, and here I was, on the verge of being sacked! For a long time, I could not go for walks (which I am fond of), and except for going from my residence to the High Court by car had to remain confined to my house.

Some senior judges of the High Court told me that I had destroyed my career, as our politicians of all parties, who were all supporters of caste reservations, would never allow me to reach the Supreme Court.

Fortunately, the storm blew over and I survived.

But it was a narrow shave.



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