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Asked for One but got Two

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By Madan Mohan

Enarada, June 14, 2013, 10.00pm

Original prayer was for one. But what was ultimately got was two. And the denouement though inordinately delayed comes rather unexpectedly as a pleasant surprise. The happy tidings have extracted heavy price, since Karnataka, had to wait for four decades to achieve the objective.

This in nutshell is the story of the culmination quest for   the permanent   the bench of the Karnataka High Court in the Northern Karnataka region, which has materialised just now, with the central government deciding to elevate the circuit benches functioning in Dharwad and Gulbarga for the past five years.

The formality of the notification from the President of India is all that is required before the permanent benches become functional, since the necessary infrastructure has already created at a cost of   around Rs. 200 crores in these two places.

With  this,  Karnataka, makes  mark on the judicial map of India,  as the 9th state in the country, privileged to have more than one  bench  located away from the principal seat of the High Court., others being Allahabad, Bombay,   Calcutta, Gauhati, Jammu and Kashmir,  Madhya Pradesh, Madras and Rajasthan. Of them the Bombay has three,  Gauhati, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, two each, and   Calcutta, Jammu and Kashmir Madras and Rajasthan, one each outside the principal seat. The remaining states have only High Courts without benches. A bench of the Bombay High Court is located in Panaji in Goa, called as Panaji bench. The Calcutta bench sits in Andaman for a week in a month, with the judges, and lawyers traveling in the same plane.

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The development, coming as it is in the wake of the approval of the special status for the Hyderabad Karnataka, a sub region of the Northern region, through a constitutional amendment , which ensures special flow of funds for  expediting the development of the backward region,  has cockled the hearts of many, since largesse received by Karnataka, is unusually large. It has come as a suomotto action on the part of the Central government without waiting for agitation, and public uproar, which is normally true in such circumstances.

Four decades delay has been the price Karnataka had to pay in the process mainly because of its cussed approach. When a simpler option was available, the promoters of idea chose a wrong route. Were Karnataka to emulate Maharashtra, which initially set up a circuit bench, at Aurangabad, which got a permanent status as the days passed, Karnataka would have realised objective much earlier, may be in the latter half seventies or early eighties, or more than a decade now and could have been spared the trauma of agitation, agony and anxiety, besides reaping the benefits of the decentralized system judicial administration.

It may be noted here that procedure laid down under the States Reorganisation Act, under which   high court benches are established,  is simpler in cases of circuit  bench  and more complicated and time consuming in the case of permanent bench.  Going in for a circuit bench is matter which can be decided locally between the state government, the Governor and High Court. But   in the case of permanent bench, , the Centre comes in the picture, since the Centre has to act on a proposal sent by the State Government  in consultation/concurrence with the High Court and getting a nod from the Centre is not easy as bitterly experienced by Karnataka. Even when the same Congress party held power both in the state and Centre it did not happen. And from 1983, invariably a party opposed to ruling party in the state is in power at the Centre and vice versa. (The just concluded assembly election is the lone exception to the rule in recent times, since Congress has wrested power in Karnataka, at the fag end of its reign at the Centre).

Ultimately, after getting its fingers burnt by opting for complicated route, which it had spurned twice, once when the original move was made in the seventies, and second time, when the agitating lawyers shot down the offer made by Krishna government (1999-2004), Karnataka, was forced to rethink its strategy.

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Gulbarga High Court Building copy

The demand for the establishment of bench of the Karnataka High Court in the Northern part of the state is as old as the formation of the new state of Karnataka and was articulated for the first time in the seventies. The demand for single bench for the region comprising of eight districts (now increased to twelve) of   Bombay and Hyderabad Karnataka regions and the district of Bellary. There was no controversy over the location and the choice was Hubli Dharwad.  (Gulbarga entered the race later on).  It was mooted when   Mr. D K Naikar, a politician from Dharwad in Northern Karnataka was the Law Minister under the Devaraj Urs government (1972-78).  This had also been voiced publicly for the first time at the State Level Conference of lawyers held in Dharwad and the then Chief Justice of the Karnataka High Court, Mr.  Justice D M Chandrasekhar was in favour of it.

Mr.  Naikar stood firmly in favour of the permanent bench and did not countenance the idea of having a circuit bench at all. What all it required then was a nod from the Central government, which was not forthcoming notwithstanding the fact that both Centre and State were under the Congress rule. May be the Karnataka  had no clout in New Delhi to get the matters done or that New Delhi did not take  Karnataka’s case seriously, the matter was allowed to linger on endlessly as it were.

The delay brought its own share of complications. Firstly, Gulbarga in Hyderabad Karnataka region entered the race staking its claim for the location of bench. For quite some time, the competitive claims between Gulbarga and Hubli Dharwad provided a convenient alibi for the government to defer the decision.  At one stage, the High Court found it difficult to take any decision on this account.

Secondly,  the  interpretation by Supreme   Court  of  “consultation “ as “concurrence” and  of  opinion of the Chief Justice as that of the full court in what has come to be known as the Judges transfer case, before a formal proposal is sent to the Centre, added another dimension giving a decisive power to the High Court. And the matter hit a road block, since the High Court in its wisdom declined to concur with the state government in matter. And no formal proposal could be sent by the State Government, despite periodical agitations witnessed in the region and of repeated resolutions passed by the state legislature. The Central Government repeatedly made it clear to the delegations, which called on the Prime Minister and to plethora of memoranda submitted that there was no formal proposal by the state government before it.

The only initiative that the Centre took in the meantime, to constitute Commission headed Judge Jaswant Singh to look demand in this connection made by states including Karnataka.  The Commission instead of pronouncing opinion on the pending cases referred to it, came out with guidelines of “dos and don’ts” for evaluating claims for the benches, and its locations. There was no follow up and the report got buried in the cupboards of the Government of India .And the state government allowed its case go by default because of the delay in giving its observations of the recommendation of the Commission.

Thirdly, the agitating lawyers made their contribution to the host of complications too. The agitation lacked unified approach, with the Bar Associations spearheading the movement   were found to be deeply divided, with practically all the district headquarters towns, with the exception of Bidar and Karwar, vying for the location and provided the detractors with another alibi to postpone the decision. The difference in the approach of the Bar Associations was so different that the Bar Associations in the twin cities of Hubli and Dharwad spoke differently on the location, with Hubli lawyers pleading the case of.

Fourthly, the states advocacy of the caused mainly suffered for want of follow-up work on the part of the state government while dealing with the High Court and the Central government. No Law Minister who succeeded Mr. Naikar after 1978 put in his heart and soul in the efforts to sort out the difficulties. They were hardly able to convince the High Court about need for having the bench. They handled it rather casually.

It was in this mood of stalemate, that much awaited break through came in 2004. The then Congress led coalition government Mr. Dharma Singh was able to prevail upon the then Chief Justice of the Karnataka High Court on the need to do something in view of rising sentiments. Without getting entangled into the question of permanent benches, they decided to go in for establishment of the circuit bench to sort out. To avoid any controversy over the location, it was decided to set up benches both at Dharwad and Gulbarga, Mr.  Justice Jain signed the orders before demitting office on superannuation in 2004. And it is this breakthrough, which enabled the circuit benches to start functioning since 2008. which are being elevated as permanent benches.

As coincidence would have it, everything regarding the permanent bench has happened under the aegis of Congress. The move was initiated in seventies, when a Congress government was in office. The breakthrough in the stalemate came in 2004 during the days of the Congress led coalition in 2004. And the Centre’s clearance has come under the Congress led Central Government, thanks to behind the scene lobby made Union Minister for Labour, Mr. Mallikarjun Kharge. The credit for achieving what was once considered not possible should be shared equally between the three leading politicians of Northern Karnataka namely, D K  Naikar, Dharam Singh and Mallikarjun Kharge at the relevant times.

One question which has been puzzling is whatever made the Centre to be unusually generous towards Karnataka in general and Northern Karnataka in particular. Has it got something to do with forthcoming loksabha elections, with Congress depending Karnataka to make up for possible loss it may suffer in Andhra Pradesh? Ones guess is as good another.

(Author is a Senior Journalist and Columnist.  Mobile: +91 94480 74872     Email : madan.mm@gmail.com)

One thought on “Asked for One but got Two

  1. Jay

    Thanks for the detailed coverage. Thanks to Dharam Singh, else Gulbarga was found not-suitable for the bench location. Now it is definitely Kharge’s influence which got these benches permanent, this time Dharwad just got lucky as Kharge couldn’t do it to Gulbarga only…

    Reply

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