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10 May 2017 Editorial


10 MAY 2017

Justice Karnan, the recalcitrant judge


UPDATED: MAY 09, 2017 23:17 IST

It is doubtful if sending Justice Karnan to jail is the most judicious way of restraining him

It is singularly unfortunate that the Supreme Court's efforts to discipline Justice C.S. Karnan of the Calcutta High Court has had to end in a six-month prison term for contempt of court. With the recalcitrant judge making it a habit to bring the institution into ridicule by his aberrant behaviour, the court probably had few options but to act in defence of its reputation by holding him guilty of contempt of court - a finding that is unexceptionable. He had not only flung irresponsible charges of corruption against several judges, but also sought to make political capital out of his Dalit identity. He had repeatedly sought to pass purported judicial orders in his own cause. His arrest will undoubtedly mark an abysmally low moment in the country's judicial history. Therefore, it remains a pertinent question whether the court could not have waited for his imminent retirement so that the country is spared the unseemly event of a high court judge being arrested while in office. It was only last week that the court itself doubted whether Justice Karnan was of sound mental health. After all, it is highly unusual for a judge to charge other Supreme Court judges with committing ‘atrocities' against him and threatening to prosecute them - an act that could only do harm unto him. As expected, Justice Karnan declined to subject himself to a medical examination by a team of mental health professionals as directed by the court.

Having gone so far as to question his mental soundness, it would have been pragmatic to let things be until his retirement, due in a month. After all, Justice Karnan, having been denied judicial work, posed no threat to the administration of justice. At the same time, it was increasingly clear that nothing was really going to chasten him or prevent him from challenging the Supreme Court's authority. It is doubtful whether sending him to jail will achieve anything other than possibly encouraging him to play martyr and portray himself as a victim in his ‘war' against judicial corruption. That the only punishment that the highest court could come up with against a sitting high court judge was imprisonment speaks volumes about the total absence of any disciplinary mechanism short of impeachment to deal with contumacious conduct by a member of the higher judiciary. It is a pity that a case of proven misbehaviour did not attract the attention of the political class, which alone can initiate impeachment. The court's gag order on the media from reporting Justice Karnan's purported orders and comments only adds to the sense of unease about the whole episode. The lesson here is that while the collegium system had been unable to stop someone of his nature entering judicial office, maintaining internal discipline in the judiciary is an equally vexing issue.


Chasing peace in Syria

The latest de-escalation bid for Syria is the most realistic agreement yet

The so-called de-escalation agreement reached among Russia, Turkey and Iran last week in Astana is the latest in a series of attempts to bring the six-year-old Syrian civil war to an end. Previous ceasefire plans have either failed to take off or collapsed soon after, given the continued hostility between the regime of Bashar al-Assad and rebels. Still, the latest agreement is significant for a number of reasons. First of all, any attempt to cease violence is welcome given the destruction the war has wreaked in Syria. More than two million people are estimated to be living in rebel-held territories (barring areas controlled by the Islamic State) in terrible humanitarian conditions and under constant fear of aerial bombing. For them, an end to the Russian-Assad regime strikes is a great relief. Second, the agreement involves the three main external players in the civil war. Russia and Iran are the key backers of the regime, while Turkey supports some rebel groups. Under the agreement, Syria and Russia will stop bombing rebel-held areas, divided into four zones in Idlib, Homs, Damascus suburbs, and southern Deraa and Quneitra towns, to de-escalate tensions. The regime will also allow "unhindered" humanitarian supplies to rebel-held areas and provide public services. In return, the rebels should stop fighting government forces. Third, this appears to be a more focussed, phased attempt to end violence. The agreement was reached barely weeks before a two-track political process was to begin. In June, the government and rebel representatives will meet for negotiations in Geneva, while the Russia-led talks of external actors will continue in Kazakhstan in July. If the de-escalation plan holds, it will be a big boost for the political process.

But implementing the agreement itself will be a major challenge given the complex nature of the civil war. For the deal to hold, Russia and Iran will first have to rein in the Assad regime. In the past it has shown little interest in a political solution. Foreign Minister Walid Muallem's comment that the regime would not allow UN monitoring of the implementation of de-escalation is not in the spirit of the agreement. A bigger challenge for all actors involved is how to tackle the threats from al-Qaeda-linked groups. The Astana agreement is clear on that - Russia and Syria will continue to attack them. In Idlib, the Qaeda-linked Tahrir al-Sham is the main anti-regime militia. In Homs and the Damascus suburbs, they have joined hands with other groups. So if the government continues to attack them, it could drag more rebel groups into the fight, risking an end to the ceasefire. Ideally, the regime should exercise restraint and the non-jihadist rebels distance themselves from Qaeda-linked organisations, while allowing Russia, Turkey and Iran to play the role of facilitators. To take the political process forward, everyone has to act more responsibly, keeping in mind the humanitarian situation.

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