Katju & Arun trade blows

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By OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
  • Published 18.02.13
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New Delhi, Feb. 17: Arun Jaitley today locked horns with Markandey Katju over Narendra Modi, in an unprecedented war of words between a lawyer-politician and a retired judge of the Supreme Court, who is now Press Council of India chairperson.

Jaitley, the leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, hit out at Justice Katju and demanded his resignation two days after the press council chairperson wrote an article critical of the Gujarat chief minister.

The opinion piece, which appeared in The Hindu on Friday, said: “All the perfumes in Arabia cannot wash away the stain on Mr Modi.”

Justice Katju wrote that “there is still a mystery of what happened in Godhra” and that it was difficult to believe that Modi was not involved in the 2002 riots.

“Giving concessions to big industrial houses and offering them cheap land” cannot be termed development, he further said.

The concluding paragraph was the most stinging. “I appeal to the people of India to consider all this if they are really concerned about the country’s future. Otherwise they may make the same mistake which the Germans made in 1933,” the retired judge wrote.

Jaitley responded sharply in a written statement released by the BJP today. “His appeal is political. He appears to be more Congress than the Congress party,” the BJP leader wrote. “He should quit before actively participating in politics or be sacked.”

The job of the press council chairperson “requires fairness, impartiality and political neutrality”, Jaitley said. “Additionally, a judge, whether sitting or retired, is expected to conduct himself with sobriety, dignity and grace. He cannot be loud, crude, outlandish or behave like a megalomaniac,” he wrote.

The BJP leader accused the retired judge of targeting only non-Congress governments and cited his criticism of Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar. “His attacks on non-Congress governments whether in West Bengal, Bihar or Gujarat seem more in the nature of thanksgiving to those who provided him with a post-retirement job,” he wrote.

Justice Katju responded sharply, accusing Jaitley of “twisting facts” and “talking rubbish” and demanding that he quit politics.

“Mr Jaitley is clearly guilty of twisting facts. He has criticised me for a report against the Bihar government for suppressing press freedom. That was not my report, but that of a three-member team of the members of the Press Council of India,” he said. The team had slammed the Nitish Kumar government for using advertisements to curtail press freedom.

The press council chairperson said he had been critical of Congress governments too, pointing out that he had written a “very strong letter” to Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan after the arrest of two women over a Facebook post following the death of Bal Thackeray and to Himachal Pradesh chief minister Virbhadra Singh over threats to a journalist.

“I would urge Mr Jaitley to take sanyas from politics. He twists and distorts facts. He has no business to be in politics,” said the former judge who is known to speak his mind.

Months after praising Mamata Banerjee for her “impeccable integrity” and “devotion to the welfare of the people”, he told her last November what few people dare to: that her “ministers and bureaucrats are afraid to speak out their minds fearlessly before you and are terrorised by your unpredictable and whimsical behaviour”.

In response to Jaitley’s statement that “retired judges must remember that the rental for occupying a Lutyen’s bungalow post-retirement has to be political neutrality, not political participation”, Justice Katju reminded him that the post of the press council chairperson has by convention been given to a retired judge of the Supreme Court.

“Why does Mr Jaitley forget the post-retirement appointments given by the NDA when he was the law minister?” At least two judges were transferred from their parent high courts to Rajasthan High Court “for reasons well known to Mr Jaitley and about which I do not wish to comment,” he said.