"When is the appropriate time? The city is burning. When you have multiple clips of inflammatory speeches, what are you waiting for?" Dr Justice S Muralidhar asked the Delhi Police.
The year was 2020. The city of Delhi was aflame with riots. Prominent Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders had been accused of making inflammatory remarks, and the Delhi Police had informed the Delhi High Court that they would take a call on registering an FIR against the leaders at an "appropriate time."
The police were then asked to take a decision on the FIR within 24 hours and let the court know. Within eight hours, reportedly, Justice Muralidhar was transferred to the Punjab and Haryana High Court.
He retired as the Chief Justice of the Orissa High Court on 7 August, with many legal analysts noting that the fact that Justice Muralidhar could never make it to a Supreme Court bench reeks of a miffed Executive’s will. And the Collegium did not help.
"The Collegium system, despite all its flaws, drew support from various sections because it is seen as a bulwark against authoritarian moves to destroy judicial independence. But if the Collegium is singing the same song as the Executive, then what is its relevance?" Livelaw’s Managing editor, Manu Sebastian, wrote.
But Justice Muralidhar has no regrets. In his outgoing speech as the Orissa High Court Chief Justice, he reportedly said: "I consider myself most fortunate to have been sent to this wonderful state of Odisha as its Chief Justice."
Many Wins in Orissa HC
During his stint there, which began on 4 January 2021, Justice Muralidhar secured a number of wins for the High Court. These included the introduction of regional judicial academies, digitisation of records at a monumental scale, and the bringing of video-conferencing facilities to every district of the state.
Justice Muralidhar made technological transformations to such an extent that even Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud – who too favours the use of new-age tech for seamless legal and judicial work – lauded his efforts.
Even on Justice Muralidhar’s last day, two new e-initiatives were launched in the Orissa High Court.
What’s more, Justice Muralidhar noted in his outgoing address that his Bench disposed of over 33,000 cases during his time in the Orissa High Court.
But his wins in Odisha are a mere fraction of the monumental impact he has made as a judge.
Effectiveness and Empathy: Beyond Orissa HC
"He (Justice Muralidhar) has earned his mention in the books of history as one of the most courageous judges India has had in recent times," Senior Advocate Sanjoy Ghose wrote in an article for Bar and Bench.
As plumes of smoke emanated from the burning wreckage of Delhi amid the 2020 riots, Justice Muralidhar refused to flinch and look away.
He was proactive not only in demanding accountability from political leaders and the police – an act that many say cost him his place in the Delhi High Court and subsequently a stint in the Supreme Court – but he also ensured that help came for those who needed it.
On one such violently cold February night, shortly before his transfer, a midnight hearing was held at Justice Muralidhar’s residence. The situation amid the riots was assessed, a mobile-phone call was made to the relevant doctor, and a bench of Justices Muralidhar and Anup J Bhambani gave immediate directions to the police to ensure that 22 severely injured riot-victims were safely shifted to hospitals that had the facilities to treat them.
"As the news of the High Court’s intervention went viral, the riots ebbed... Countless lives were saved by his action that night, supported by another stellar judge of the High Court," Ghose wrote in his recollection of that night.
And while his transfer actually materialised in the days after his February 2020 orders, Justice Muralidhar’s firm and effective approach predates the North-East Delhi Riots...
In 2018, a division bench of Justices Muralidhar and Vinod Goel reversed the acquittal of Congress leader Sajjan Kumar in a case pertaining to the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. In their order, the bench noted:
"The criminals responsible for the mass crimes have enjoyed political patronage and managed to evade prosecution and punishment. Bringing such criminals to justice poses a serious challenge to our legal system."
...As does his empathy and sensitivity:
In 2009, Justice Muralidhar was part of a Delhi High Court bench that first decriminalised homosexuality.
"We declare that Section 377 IPC, insofar as it criminalises consensual sexual acts of adults in private, is violative of Articles 21 [Right to Protection of Life and Personal Liberty], 14 [Right to Equality before Law], and 15 [Prohibition of Discrimination on Grounds of Religion, Race, Caste, Sex or Place of Birth] of the Constitution."
In 2019, Justice Muralidhar passed an order noting that the forceful, unannounced eviction of slum-dwellers without proper rehabilitation plans was against the law.
The bench of Justices Muralidhar and Vibhu Bakhru observed that many slum-dwellers "travel long distances to reach the city to provide services, and many continue to live in deplorable conditions, suffering indignities just to make sure that the rest of the population is able to live a comfortable life."
The judgment also said:
"The right to housing is a bundle of rights not limited to a bare shelter over one‘s head. It includes the right to livelihood, right to health, right to education and right to food, including right to clean drinking water, sewerage and transport facilities."
But his ability to feel the pain of others and to be there for them, was not limited to his judicial decision alone.
As noted by Ghose, the judge and his wife took care of Professor Lotika Sarkar in her old age, enveloping her "with selfless love and compassion." In turn, when the infirm professor wanted to provide for them in her will, the idea was "resolutely opposed by them".
In his farewell speech at the Orissa High Court, the outgoing Chief Justice said:
"Those who do not know enough about Odisha…are stunned, astounded by richness of Odisha, of the humaneness of the people of Odisha, of the culture, of the traditions, of the spirits of people of Odisha."
But can the same not be said about Justice Muralidhar?
(With inputs from Livelaw, The Indian Express, Bar and Bench and The Print.)