While not making it easy for us to like him, Markandey Katju is upholding the rare values of free speech in our democracy. The pedigreed former Supreme Court judge has been called a talky pamphleteer for the ruling party, but waves a disarming humanist kerchief soaked in compassion and morality. Only, the quality of his caring comes from a high perch and is both salty and sandy for easy acceptance.

The many violent reactions to his various pronouncements would seem to suggest there is something morally and ethically wrong about what he is saying and the fact that he is saying it at all. Yet isn’t that what a robust democracy demands, at least from those of its citizens who have the intellectual horsepower to go with their public standing?

When Katju petitioned the Maharashtra governor seeking mercy for filmstar Sanjay Dutt, it was in his capacity as a citizen of this country, one who has had a bird’s eye view of the seamy as well as the philosophic. Topping the merit list of his LL.B. exam, and the experience of having served as a judge of the Supreme Court of India and before that as the chief justice of the Delhi high court and the Madras high court should qualify him for that. To his credit, he has never in public cited his own illustrious family which included his grandfather, Kailash Nath Katju, one of India’s leading lawyers and a freedom fighter to boot, who went on to become the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, besides holding various cabinet-level positions in the Nehru government.

Markandey Katju’s petitions, his harangues, his appeals and his admonishments are a part of what he has always stood for. As a judge, his natural humanism was seen in his several unusual decisions often favouring the liberal over the strictly institutional. Whether it is his views recognizing the rights of a woman in a live-in relationship or his path-breaking support for those who attempt suicide, he has always been for the underdog, the victim.

Which is not to say he doesn’t have his quirks. Some of what he says is laughable, for instance invoking the Dutt family’s great sacrifices in seeking mercy for the son. Maybe, he even spoils his own case a bit by doing so. But that’s the whole point about free speech, it often cuts both ways.

That he has surprised everyone with his proactive and activist outpourings as chairman of the Press Council is also because the earlier incumbents were largely passive and did little to mediate on behalf of or against the media. Choosing the path of least resistance is the time-honoured style of most of our public functionaries. Katju just isn’t that man: accepting the status quo isn’t his thing. Whether it is in his criticism of Narendra Modi, or his affinity for a particular party, the thing about the man is his transparency. He will rail and rant often to our consternation.

And in that he shows us the way to rescue our moribund democracy: talk, petition, discuss, debate, make a nuisance of yourself. Free expression does present difficulties. Often it is not palatable. “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you mad," wrote Aldous Huxley. When Katju said 90% of the people voted like cattle, he was articulating what we all know to be true but don’t want to accept perhaps because we are not sure whether we belong to the 10% minority or the blighted majority.

Even if Katju can unleash a culture of vigorous but civil debate (as opposed to the TRP-driven insultiads we see on television every evening), his gadfly-like status would be worth it. Every society needs provocateurs such as Arvind Kejriwal or Arundhati Roy, our very own Susan Sontag. Katju belongs to this group. His contrarian views are surprising coming as they do from a pedantic judge whose coin is latinate uber-correctness. What is more irksome is the insistent and brash style of his contrarianism. Used as we are to public smarminess and private judgementalism, Katju’s style of public judgementalism is new to us. But men of spine, such as Mahatma Gandhi or C.R. Rajagopalachari, have often said things eminently unlikeable but needed all the same.

As a democracy, we should stop worshipping the powerful and the rich and listen to the aristocracy of achievers with their not-always-kind voices. India’s fractious polity could do with some Swiftian but passioned plainspeak. There’s been too much uninformed verbiage by PR counsels and other old queens.

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