Meet Sanjib Banerjee, the feisty Chief Justice who is making waves

India-Sanjib Banerjee
Sanjib Banerjee took over as the Chief Justice of Madras High Court in January this year. Image Credit: Madras High Court

Kolkata: When Hon’ble Mr Justice Sanjib Banerjee took over as the Chief Justice of Madras High Court in January this year, he sent out an important message: ‘‘I am a judge first, and a Chief Justice later.’’

The way he tore into the Election Commission of India on Monday, holding it responsible for the second Covid wave in the election-bound states by allowing the political parties to stage rallies in his observation while hearing a public interest petition filed by M.R. Vijayabaskar, Tamil Nadu transport minister and AIADMK candidate from Karur – showed the 59-year-old judge has his heart in the right place. ‘‘Were you (living) on another planet?,’’ the bench comprising of Chief Justice Banerjee and Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy asked about the commission officials.

Banerjee went a step further in his observation – saying that the Election Commission could be tried for ‘‘murder charges.’’ Strong words these which has already prompted debates if it’s a form of judicial activism. A few days, the Delhi High Court was as scathing when it censured the government and asked them to moblise oxygen cylinders at the earliest. The bench of Chief Justice Banerjee has asked the Election Commission to take all the steps necessary to ensure Covid safety and fair counting on May 2 – barring which they may ask the counting to be stopped.

While Chief Justice Banerjee’s observation had met with a strong approval from Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, it faced a severe resenment from the state’s Bharatiya Janata Party headquarters. Samik Bhattacharya, the state’s BJP spokesperson said: ‘‘I’m saying this with full respect ofor the judiciary, this statement has tainted the entire judicial system. What the Trinammool Congress says in Bengal and what Madras High Court has said in it’s statement are almost set to the same tune. There must be an investigation into it.’’

Chief Justice Banerjee’s came in for allround praise from opinion-makers and social media across the country – and it’s not the first time he has shown such daring. It was barely six-seven months back when Banerjee, then with Calcutta High Court, had issued a landmark order to curtail celebrations and gatherings during the Durga Puja festivities – the biggest relgious festival in that part of the Meetin light of the pandemic. The bench of Banerjee, alongwith Arijit Bandopadhyay, endorsed the advice of doctors’ fraternity that the Pujas should be celebrated with no public gathering and limited the number of organisers in the pandals with an eye towards social distancing.

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Elections in five states over March-April has been witnessing huge rallies attended by supporters of all political parties. Image Credit: AP

Born in a family of lawyers on November 2, 1961, Banerjee studied in St. Xavier’s Collegiate School in Kolkata and St. Paul’s School, Darjeeling. An Economics honours graduate from St.Xaviers in 1983 and LLB in 1986-87 – both from the University of Calcutta, he was enrolled as Advocate on November 21, 1990.

His uncle, the late Umesh Chandra Banerjee, had been a Judge of Supreme Court and a venerable name in the Bar Library circles while grandfather was Nalini Chandra Bandopadhyay had also been an advocate. It was a given that law would be his calling, but Justice Banerjee’s first professional assignment was – believe it or not – sports journalism. He did a five-year stint with the Kolkata-based newspaper The Telegraph as a member of their sports desk, covering cricket and tennis at a number of high profile events like the 1987 Reliance Cup and ‘89 MRF World Series.

Putting the lawyer’s garb, Justice Banerjee practised in the High Court at Kolkata as well as in the Supreme Court of India, other High Courts and Tribunals, primarily in Civil, Company, Arbitration and Constitutional Law branches. He was elevated to the Bench of the High Court at Calcutta as a permanent Judge in 2006 and has delivered judgments in issues of several important public interest litigations.

The surge in curiosity level about him since Monday had been huge, so is the call for him to be elevated to the Supreme Court of India. Only time can tell…