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An old apocryphal anecdote from a Kerala joint family goes somewhat like this:

It’s lunch time and, as a rule, children are served first. Because it’s a joint family there are some 15 of them children. To maintain order in the dining area, the Patriarch had ordained that the kids should be allowed in only after rice and other accompaniments are laid out on the banana leaves meant for each one of them. And once this is done, the Patriarch himself takes an inspection tour before signalling the children to go for it.

As he steps into the dining area he spies a massive heap of rice on one leaf. In wonderment he shouts: “Ha! Who in this house will eat so much?” To which the senior maid servant answers in muted words, “that’s for Babumon.” “Okay, some buttermilk (beaten curds) will level it off,” says the Patriarch and moves on. ‘Babumon’, by the way, is the Patriarch’s own son and if it’s for him it’s alright, the lesson being, we tend to treat our own with kid gloves.

The story kept coming back to my mind after reading about the goings on between the Supreme Court and C.S. Karnan, a judge of the Kolkata High Court. The papers are full of the Karnan story almost on a daily basis, so a recounting is not necessary but the honourable judges are tasked with judging one of their own. Patriarchs in joint families can rule the roost but Their Lordships are guided by the age-old dictum: be you ever so high, the law is above you.

So the court has ordered a medical examination of Justice Karnan. Now, that’s couching it in generally acceptable terms. To put it more bluntly, what has been ordered is that Justice Karnan should be examined by a shrink or a team of shrinks.

The judge, who according to senior lawyer Ram Jethmalani has “lost his mind”, is in no mood to oblige the apex court. On the contrary, Karnan has issued his own orders that the seven judges, no less, of the Supreme Court panel be subjected to an examination by a psychiatric board! Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander and all that.

Apparently anticipating such shenanigans, the court has ordered the Director-General of Police in West Bengal to send a team to “assist” the medical examiners in carrying out their duty, the implication being the judge may need a little more convincing to get him to obey the orders. The court has also said that with effect from February 8, 2017 no order by Justice Karnan should be deemed valid.

This leads us to the somewhat perplexing question as to what of those orders before February 8. If, for instance, the medical examiners find that the judge has not been completely in control of his faculties for a period extending beyond February 8, what happens to all those verdicts that he had given out while suffering from an unsound mind? Can the doctors put their finger on the exact date on which the judge began to lose it? If not, what is there to stop someone from saying the problem had started from Day One?

Before being moved to Kolkata, Justice Karnan was on the bench of the Madras High Court. When you are at that level, the cases that come before you will be high value stuff, including those involving life and death. Won’t the litigants who had ended up on the wrong end of the stick in Karnan’s court be morally and ethically right in wanting a review of their cases though the legal tenability of such a demand may be doubtful? And who will pay for those reviews? What about those who had been sent to jail by Justice Karnan? How will they be compensated? And then the ultimate conundrum: did he send anyone to the gallows? Scary thought indeed!

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