The transfer of Delhi high court judge S. Muralidhar hours after he criticized the Delhi Police for inaction during the recent sectarian violence sparked political recrimination on Thursday as well as strong protests by city lawyers.
The Centre notified the transfer of Muralidhar to Punjab and Haryana high court late on Wednesday night. The notification was seen as unusual because it marks a departure from practice by failing to give the judge time to make his move.
It was also a politically significant development as Muralidhar had expressed his “anguish" on Wednesday morning over Delhi Police’s failure to register first information reports (FIR) against political leaders for allegedly making hate speeches leading to sectarian violence in north-east Delhi.
He had asked Delhi Police to take a “conscious decision" to register the FIRs while hearing a plea on the violence.
To be sure, the transfer does not come out of the blue, the Supreme Court collegium headed by Chief Justice S.A. Bobde having recommended Muralidhar’s transfer on 12 February. The five-judge collegium had also recommended the transfer of Bombay high court judge Ranjit More to Meghalaya high court and Karnataka high court’s Ravi Vijay Kumar Malimath to Uttarakhand high court. The two judges were also transferred as per the Centre’s notification.
Muralidhar’s transfer order prompted criticism from Opposition politicians and wary comments by lawyers.
“The midnight transfer of Justice Muralidhar isn’t shocking given the current dispensation, but it is certainly sad and shameful," Priyanka Gandhi tweeted on Thursday.
Law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad in a series of tweets replied that a “well-settled process" was followed, which includes taking the judge’s consent. “By politicizing a routine transfer, Congress has yet again displayed its scant regard for the judiciary," Prasad tweeted.
But senior advocate Abhishek Manu Singhvi tweeted said transferring a judge without giving him or her time to make the shift was “unprecedented".
“Having spent a lifetime at the Bar, I do not remember ever having seen a Presidential order of high court judge transfer where central govt adds ‘and directs him to assume charge’ as judge, PHhighcourt! See yday order re Muralidhar J. Unprecedented, " Singhvi said in a Twitter post.
Earlier notifications of transfer orders gave judges a week or a fortnight to join while in Muralidhar’s case there was an implied order to join immediately.
Senior advocate Mohit Mathur, president, Delhi High Court Bar Association (DHCBA), said: “There is nothing which is alarming about the language of the order. Normally a date is mentioned, but here it isn’t, that’s about it. He could have joined at a later date as well."
However, he added that there is an uproar among advocates due to the timing of the transfer and because Muralidhar is “loved and respected by everyone since he was a pro-litigant judge and very accommodating".
According to people aware of the development, the matter of transferring Muralidhar arose twice earlier, but was dropped due to opposition within the collegium.
The DHCBA has condemned Muralidhar’s transfer and requested the collegium to recall the decision. It has also asked its members to abstain from work on 20 February. “The majesty of our revered institution is at stake," it added.