During his illustrious career, Justice CK Thakker has donned many hats: those of a Supreme Court judge, a distinguished author, a lawyer and even a part-time lecturer. In this conversation with Bar & Bench’s Aditya AK, the retired judge takes us through his journey in the legal profession, his relationship with noted British jurist Lord Denning, and more.
The first thing you notice about Justice Chunilal Karsandas Thakker is his infallible memory. He recounts each and every detail from his childhood, including the name of the bus that took him to school, after he would walk for three kilometres from his village in Saurashtra’s Ghed area.
He remembers those days of hardship like it was yesterday.
“I was the youngest in my family, the seventh amongst four brothers and two sisters. My elder brothers couldn’t educate themselves. But they, along with my father, who was a primary school teacher, insisted that I pursue my studies.
I was the first student from my village to have passed the matriculate examination. Then I got admission in Bahauddin College in Junagadh. The term fee was 36 rupees, and since I belonged to a backward area, 25 per cent was given off. I paid 27 rupees.”
And after standing first in the BA Economics and Politics course, he stumbled upon law purely by chance.
“Frankly speaking, I had no idea about LL.B. After graduation, I was appointed as a teacher, earning a total of 140 rupees. So, the professor in charge of the legal department told me, ‘If you want to do LL.B., we will not charge tuition fees from you.’ I became really interested in law after the first day. I was the first student to clear the college’s LL.B. course with first class.”
It was in this background that he started practice in the Gujarat High Court.
“There were great judges like Justice Bhagwati, and others. Back then, we were not aware of several legal provisions and decided cases.
We even had difficulties with the language, because we had studied in Gujarati throughout. But the judges were very encouraging.”
He worked as a government lawyer for nearly seven years, before starting his own practice.
“I cannot say that I had a lucrative practice, but I had a good practice. In 1989, I was first sounded by the Chief Justice for appointment as high court judge. I politely refused. That was because my wife had also become an advocate and she was also actively practicing. I felt that it would be better that we both practice.”
One year later, he was offered judgeship a second time, and this time he would not refuse. After serving in the Gujarat High Court for ten years, he was appointed Chief Justice of the Himachal Pradesh High Court in 2000. A year later, he was transferred as Chief Justice of the Bombay High Court by then CJI SP Bharucha.
During his tenure, he would receive a rather unusual communication from the office of the President of India.
“There was a communication from the President, Abdul Kalam ji and it stated that Chief Justice CK Thakker was appointed as Governor of Maharashtra.
I did not stay in Raj Bhavan, I used to continue to stay in the Chief Justice’s house only. It was stated that it was only for about 10-15 days, but then it continued for a month and then it was said that thereafter also it may take some time. It took more than three months.”
In the current scheme of things, the chances of a Chief Justice of a high court holding an executive post would be close to nil. So how did Justice CK Thakker manage to steer clear of controversy while being placed in this situation?
“I made it clear that I would not take any policy decision. I was aware that I was not a regular Governor and that I was not supposed to interfere with day to day management or administration of Raj Bhavan.
So I said that unless it is absolutely necessary, the files should remain as they are. In fact, I also avoided going to public speeches or meetings unless it was absolutely necessary.”
Two years later, he would be elevated to the Supreme Court, where he would serve for more than four years. Recounting his experiences, he says,
“I must admit that I really enjoyed the work. No doubt about it that there was more work, particularly on miscellaneous days, that is Friday and Monday. On Friday there were about 50-60 matters and on Monday there were about 70-80 matters.
When I was to retire, Manmohan Singh ji was Prime Minister and Pratibha ji was President of India. Both of them had asked me to stay in Delhi and to head some commission. But I refused. I wanted to go to my native place, Ahmedabad, because since 1967, I had left my original native place and practiced here and become a judge here.
Here, I do arbitration and opinion work, and you must also be aware that I am fond of writing books.”
And it was this passion for writing that formed his relationship with legendary British jurist, Lord Denning.
“I had sent him my book through Justice PD Desai. After going through my book, he wrote a letter to me saying that he was extremely happy with the book. We had a regular correspondence after that. He invited me to London to meet all the famous lawyers, law lords and retired justices. I told him that I would come when he completes 100 years.
In 1999, he completed 100 years of age, but I could not go to meet him. At that time, there was no e-mail, so I sent him a telegram in January. In March, I received a letter from him stating that he had received more than 25,000 telegrams and letters from around the world. He mentioned that mine was a special one! So, I thought of replying.
But by that time, in March, Lord Denning had passed away.
I thought I would visit it him, but I could not.”
At this point, the septuagenarian takes a moment to wipe away a solitary tear from his eyes that has betrayed his otherwise dispassionate persona. And after taking a moment to remember his pen pal, he retains his judge-like qualities. He flat out refuses to talk about the perceived problems related to the institution that made him what he is.
“Though I am a retired judge, and there is no restriction on me not to express any opinion, I am a soldier of the court.”
He is, however, willing to speak about his most memorable judgments as a Supreme Court judge.
“I was part of the bench that decided the cash for query case, where parliamentarians said that we would put some questions in exchange for money.
In my judgment, I had said that such persons must be debarred from parliament and that action must be taken by the Speaker of the House.
I was also part of a seven-judge bench that decided an important arbitration matter. Under section 11 [of the Arbitration Act], the Chief Justice of India makes the appointment of an arbitrator. The question before the court was whether that function is judicial or administrative. Earlier, two five-judge benches had held that it is administrative.
Six of the judges said that the earlier judgments were wrong and that it was a judicial function. I thought that earlier judgments were correct and it is merely administrative function, so I wrote a dissenting opinion. I was told that in London a few articles had appeared that stated that the view taken by the dissenting judge by minority was correct and the majority was wrong.
Within a few days, a matter came before me relating to appointment of arbitrators and the lawyer who was appearing made a submission that my view in that case was against him. So, I told him that I was also bound to follow that judgment. I cannot say that I will follow my view or say that I was right. I have always kept judicial discipline.”
From here, the conversation moves on to the style of writing in his books, and the importance of using simple language in law textbooks.
“I had studied in vernacular language, so I knew the difficulties of the students. In my books, the language is very simple. It is difficult for students or junior advocates if the language is very difficult.
So whenever I used to refer to provisions of law or even judgments of the Supreme Court or any other court of law, I first read them carefully. I would paraphrase it, put it in simple language and thereafter write it down. My consistent practice from day one till today is that I don’t dictate, I write in my own handwriting and then give it for typing or press. Legal language must be such that a solicitor can appreciate it and a rustic girl can also appreciate it.”
Heaping praise on the members of today’s higher judiciary, he ends with a request that hints at where his allegiance lies. It is also one that is particularly relevant, given the tense equations between the executive and judiciary of late.
“I hope that in the future, the government will take care of judiciary and there will be sufficient number of judges so that there should not be an issue in dispensing justice.”
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