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Kuldip Singh: A name that politicians dread

February 19, 2008 08:55 IST

Political heavyweights may be still recovering from the tectonic changes brought about by the Delimitation Commission headed by Justice Kuldip Singh after about six years' labour, but to those who have watched this barrister who came from Chandigarh to be elevated almost immediately to the bench of the Supreme Court in 1988, it was not a surprise.

He had earlier taken on mighty ministers like Satish Sharma in the scam involving the distribution of petrol pumps and LPG agencies, Sheila Kaul for out-of-turn allotments of government houses, and a serving minister for diverting the course of a river to build a motel in the Himalayas.

Several minor figures in the ruling establishment were also scalded in his six-year term when this burly no-nonsense judge passed orders to clean up the Augean stables.

Industrialists also quaked in fear when he led the environmental bandwagon. Justice Singh devised the "precautionary principle" and the "polluter pays" principles. He asked the high courts to set up "green benches" to tackle local ecological hazards created by industries.

In one series of orders, he ordered the closure of aged and coughing textile mills functioning in congested areas of the capital, and asked the authorities instead to develop one-third of the land released as "green lungs" for the choking city.

It was not just Delhi; he spearheaded the shifting of tanneries from Kolkata to a new industrial estate. He once ordered the Kolkata building commissioner to appear in court in two weeks to present a detailed plan for dumping garbage. "We are very strong and long-armed," Justice Singh warned the advocate general.

Unable to endure the common sense approach and speed with which he delivered orders, some corporate counsel who delight in wallowing in technicalities described his court as the "Star Chamber". He only smiled at the epithet.

A national newspaper called him "Caligula's Horse" in an editorial, suggesting that the Rajiv Gandhi government had elevated him for his loyalty. But all these vilifications did not find lasting support as his crusade against corruption, environmental damage and other social issues overshadowed his idiosyncrasies.

He wrote over 220 judgments, ranging from Mandal to the right of commercial speech. In the Mandal decision, he said that caste system, with its religious sanction, sent a message to the invaders, that amounted to saying, "We are divided, come and rule us."

In the Tata Press case, he expanded the freedom of expression, stating that "it cannot be denied by creating a monopoly in favour of the government or any other authority. The publication of advertisements is commercial speech."

Perhaps only once did he regret his decision. In that, he called for the immediate implementation of the Uniform Civil Code, an issue that confounds successive governments even now. He hastily "explained" his bonafides and declared that it was not binding on the government.

After his retirement in 1996, he shortly dabbled in politics and became the president of the World Sikh Council, following which he was at the receiving end of litigation for some time.

However, his buoyancy has not withered even now. Some months ago, he put down hecklers at a meeting in Hyderabad who demanded the creation of the Nizamabad rural assembly segment. "Shut up and sit down," he shouted back, "don't entertain any notions that you can force me to consider your demands by creating a ruckus."

And therein lies the truth behind the current silence of the political tigers, who have accepted his delimitation report like lambs.

M J Antony