Judge shows way: keep the tainted away

Supreme Court judge Mohan Shantanagoudar's refusal to share the dais with two tainted Karnataka ministers Vinay Kulkarni and Santosh Lad at a function at Karnatak College, Dharwad, recently has sent a salutary message to society. Kulkarni has been linked to a murder case and Santosh Lad has faced serious charges related to the illegal mining of iron ore. The message conveyed by the judge's unwillingness to sit with them is that however high a person's position is and whatever be the power that he wields, there are places where his presence is unacceptable and his company is unwelcome. Fortunately, there are people like Shantanagoudar who would not be constrained by courtesy and decorum in making it clear that they would be happy to shun the company of persons under a cloud and would even insist that persons with dubious credentials are not seen with them.  

Shantanagaudar might have imagined a scenario in which a case relating to one of the ministers reaches him and a lawyer makes a demand that the judge recuse himself from the bench because he was once seen on the dais with the accused. That is good precautionary thinking, but the meaning and implication of the judge's action go beyond judicial protocol and practice. It is true that nobody should be considered guilty until proved to be so. But there is a wider measure, based on social instincts and collective experience, and judged by that, both the ministers might be held guilty until proved innocent. Whatever the judge felt, judicial propriety demanded that he is not in the same frame as the tainted men. A picture is worth a thousand words, but there are occasions when the absence of a picture is also worth as much. Shantanagoudar's refusal to be in the same picture with the ministers conveyed a moral message in so many words. That message has political salience, too.

The judge's action does not declare the ministers guilty. But norms of personal morality or judicial propriety, which dictate a distance from men under cloud, have a value in society and politics. Unfortunately, there is a premium on position and power, and a clean reputation and conduct are often discounted. Those who face charges of corruption, misconduct and misdemeanour or are even convicted for crimes have better chances of winning elections. But governments, politics and public life would be better if people decide to keep a distance from them. Judge Shantanagoudar had the power of his office to keep the errant ministers away from him. The people, in fact, have even greater power to keep the tainted out of politics, but most people do not realise that.  

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