Tearer of Maps Rajeev Dhavan Has Never Shied Away From Controversy

Dhavan has also had heated exchanges in court with former CJIs Thakur and Misra, and upset Justice Markandey Katju.

5 min read
Tearer of Maps Rajeev Dhavan Has Never Shied Away From Controversy

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On the final day of the Supreme Court’s marathon hearings in the Ayodhya Case, a curious incident went viral.

Senior advocate Rajeev Dhavan, who represented Muslim parties in the dispute, began to tear up a map and other documents handed over to him by a lawyer for All India Hindu Mahasabha, one of the parties in the case, prompting shock, disapproval and a fair bit of laughter as well.

To be clear, this wasn’t some sort of temper tantrum because Dhavan didn’t quite like the map.


While making his final arguments for the Mahasabha, senior advocate Vikas Singh had sought to use the map and other material from Kishore Kunal’s book titled Ayodhya, Revisited, to show the ‘exact spot’ where Ram was born.

Dhavan objected to the submission of material belatedly, long after all documents and evidence were supposed to be placed on record. He was about to throw them away when Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi told him he could shred them. The CJI clarified post lunch that he had suggested and allowed Dhavan to do this.

Even with the clarification, Dhavan’s actions were, to anyone vaguely familiar with the dreary way in which courts generally function, a tad over-dramatic.

Journalists exclaimed at how unprecedented the move was, with right-wing media houses clutching their pearls even after the CJI’s clarification. Lawyer pontificated over if it was acceptable conduct. And, the Akhil Bharat Hindu Mahasabha (not even the same Mahasabha whose papers he tore) were so distraught that they filed a complaint against Dhavan with the Bar Council of India.

It was almost like this was the day’s most shocking news and not that of India’s dismal indicators in the Global Hunger Index.

Whatever your views on the rights and wrongs of it may be, one thing is certain – this is hardly the first time Dhavan has found himself embroiled in courtroom controversy. The 73-year-old lawyer is a well-known raconteur who has had numerous run-ins with judges over the years. Here are some examples:


CJI TS Thakur: ‘Browbeating’ Bench During Subrata Roy Parole Hearing

Dhavan was involved in many Sahara-related matters, including the important Sahara vs SEBI ‘Media Guidelines’ Case where he argued fiercely against censorship of press when it came to reporting on cases being heard by the courts, though he was representing journalists’ groups.

While the Supreme Court eventually held it could issue ‘postponement orders’ against reporting on cases where a risk to the fairness of the trial was posed, a number of safeguards were laid down, in part thanks to Dhavan’s arguments on freedom of speech.

However, Dhavan’s argumentative manner didn’t always pay dividends. The apex court had granted his client, Subrata Roy, parole after he’d been in jail for two years. In September 2016, when Dhavan asked the Bench headed by then-CJI TS Thakur for an extension, the court wasn’t inclined to agree.

Dhavan pressed his case in a way that didn’t impress the judges. In fact, they actually got so angry they ordered Roy to return to jail within a week. “There are some senior advocates who are disrespectful to the court and play with its dignity, it was very unfortunate,” the Bench, which included Justices AR Dave and AK Sikri, observed to Dhavan’s co-counsel Kapil Sibal.


“One may be very eloquent, scholarly but that doesn't mean one can browbeat the court. You should present your case politely. There should be threshold of tolerance,” CJI TS Thakur said. Following an unconditional apology from Sibal, the judge agreed to reconsider the parole extension and further clarified he didn’t have a problem with Dhavan.

Dhavan, however, wasn’t done. He issued a statement saying it was “most unfortunate that the Chief Justice of India made uncharitable comments about me as a lawyer and my conduct in court behind my back.” He added that the order passed by the judges was “inappropriate and unbecoming” as it had been passed in a temper.

“I don’t apologise for what happened in court. It is not my fault at all... It is the duty of the lawyer to tell the judge where there is a failure of justice and due process.”
Rajeev Dhavan’s statement

Needless to say, Sahara announced soon after that Dhavan would no longer represent them in the matter.


CJI Dipak Misra I: ‘Retirement’ After Delhi vs Centre

The Delhi vs Centre Case had seen fractious arguments spread over several weeks, as Arvind Kejriwal’s AAP government took on the Lieutenant Governor of Delhi over what they perceived to be interference and obstruction by the Centre.

Rajeev Dhavan was among the lawyers who argued for the Delhi government. On the final day of the hearing – 6 December 2017 – then CJI Dipak Misra was initially unwilling to hear further oral arguments by Dhavan but permitted him to do so if he avoided any of the points already raised by co-counsel Gopal Subramanium.

Dhavan began making some arguments about Article 239 of the Constitution when CJI Misra objected, saying this was not an issue in the case. Dhavan soldiered on, but things got a bit testy, leading to CJI Misra finally exclaiming (according to Live Law),

“You go on shouting. You are always like that. We will give our judgment.”

Dhavan took exception to the CJI’s words, and a few days later told Live Law that he was going to give up court practice after what happened at court, “I was humiliated. The whole court was laughing at me. This is my final decision. I have decided not to make any appearance in any court.”


CJI Dipak Misra II: Ayodhya Shade

However, he did agree to continue arguments in the Ayodhya Case – where he’d already had a heated exchange with CJI Misra, which might have played a role in the judge’s choice of words.

A day before, Dhavan, Kapil Sibal, and Dushyant Dave had strongly urged a Bench headed by CJI Misra to refer the matter to a Constitution Bench as there were some issues which needed to be decided by more than three judges. They further argued that the case should only be taken up after the 2019 Lok Sabha elections to avoid the BJP exploiting it.

Voices were raised, tempers flared, and at one point, this reporter heard Dhavan shout that the hearings in the matter couldn’t be completed before October 2018. CJI Misra’s retirement date was 2 October 2018 and it was known that he’d wanted to end the long-drawn dispute.

After these incidents, CJI Misra raised concerns about senior advocates raising their voices and shouting at judges, which he saw as an attempt to ‘browbeat’ them into giving favourable orders.

“Unfortunately, a small group of senior counsel think they can raise their voices. But they must understand that raising voices will not be tolerated,” the then Chief Justice commented.


Justice Markandey Katju: Of Circuses and Atticus Finch

In 2011, Dhavan wrote an opinion piece in a national daily where he compared Justice Markandey Katju’s court to a “circus”. Unsurprisingly, Justice Katju didn’t take too kindly to his comparison, and expressed his disapproval to the daily.

No apology was forthcoming from the veteran lawyer then, but Justice Katju, who would famously face a contempt case from current CJI Ranjan Gogoi in 2016, decided not to take the matter further.

Fortunately, the incident didn’t lead to lasting bad blood between them. Justice Katju, now retired, wrote a glowing article in praise of Dhavan’s work in the Ayodhya Case, saying he is the “Atticus Finch and the Clarence Darrow of the Indian bar.”

Atticus Finch is, of course, the hero of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. He is the lawyer who defends a black man who’s been wrongfully accused of raping a white woman and Clarence Darrow was a legendary US lawyer who was willing to take cases even if they posed personal danger.

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