Justice Arun Mishra #2: A Judicial Portrait

Of the several judgments authored by Arun Mishra J, there seems to be an emphasis on property law and land acquisition matters.

Arun Mishra J, as we noted earlier, has authored 132 judgments in his 6-year tenure at the Supreme Court. Most of his judgments are on property law and land acquisition. On the day of his retirement, we take a look back at some of his significant judgments.

Regarding Lapse of Land Acquisition Proceedings

In Indore Development Authority v. Manoharlal, a Constitution Bench had to settle the interpretation of Section 24 (2) of the Land Acquisition Act, 2013. The core issue was whether land acquisition proceedings could lapse merely if the State had not deposited compensation in a landowner’s account. The Constitution Bench had to examine two three-judge precedents with conflicting decisions:  Indore Development Authority v Shailendra (Dead[2018] and Pune Municipal Corporation v Harakchand Misirmal Solanki [2014]. In Pune Municipal Corporation the Court had answered in the affirmative, i.e., the acquisition proceedings could lapse if the State could not deposit the compensation in a landowners account. However, the Shailendra judgment held the opposite.

One of the first arguments before the Constitution Bench was regarding the recusal of Arun Mishra J, as he was a part of the bench in the Shailendra judgment. The counsels noted that Mishra J suffered from a perceived bias. Mishra J in a 60-page order dismissed claims for his recusal and heard the matter till its fruition. In the end, the five-judge bench sided with Shailendra, which was also determined by Mishra J.

Several prominent members of the Bar criticised Mishra J’s refusal to recuse himself. One noted that Mishra J should have recused if not in the interest of bias, at least of propriety.

The Coparcenary Rights of Daughters

In 2005, Section 6 of the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 (‘Act’) was amended to confer legal rights and liabilities in ancestral property upon daughters of a Hindu Undivided Family (‘HUF’), equivalent to that of a son. Since the amendment, a question that came up before the Court was whether Section 6 of the Act could be retrospectively applied. In Vineeta Sharma v Rakesh Sharma, the Court had the opportunity to clarify this issue.

Mishra J wrote the unanimous judgment on behalf of a bench consisting of himself and S Abdul Nazeer and MR Shah JJ. The Court held that the purpose of the 2005 amendment that accorded daughters with equal rights was to ensure constitutionally-protected gender justice. Concluding that the amendment must be retrospectively applied, the Court further added that the amendment was made with the express intention to overrule the discriminatory and oppressive application of the original statute, and this intention must be given full effect.

While this judgment could potentially be the first step to affirm gender equality in Hindu property law, some argue that it falls short in realising a progressive, feminist framing.

Scheduled Castes & Preferential Treatment

State of Punjab v Davinder Singh arose in the context of a challenge to the constitutional validity of the Punjab Scheduled Castes and Backward Classes (Reservation in Services) Act, 2006 (Act) that provided ‘first preference’ for the Balmikis and Mazbhi Sikh castes under the reservations for Scheduled Caste in public services. The Punjab and Haryana Haryana High Court relied on E.V Chinnaiah v State of Andhra Pradesh to categorically hold that sub-classification within Scheduled Castes for the purposes of reservation would be unconstitutional.

On 27 August 2020 a five-judge bench comprising of Arun MishraIndira BanerjeeVineet SaranM.R. Shah and Aniruddha Bose JJ decided to refer E.V. Chinnaiah to a larger bench. Mishra J authored a unanimous judgment on behalf of the bench. The Court disagreed with E.V. Chinnaiah. It held that inequality existed within Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes and reservation must be designed to eradicate even inter se inequality. The Court went a step ahead and noted that denial of sub-classification would result in denial of equality. The State Legislatures, who are best placed to implement statistically-informed reservation policies, have the power to sub-classify.

Since Davinder Singh and E.V. Chinnaiah are both judgments by coordinate benches, the Court has referred E.V. Chinnaiah to a bench larger than 5-judges.

Contempt Case Against Prashant Bhushan

On July 22nd 2020, the Supreme Court issued Prashant Bhushan a suo moto contempt notice based on his two tweets: the first regarding the CJI riding a Harley Davidson motorcycle, and the second about Mr. Bhushan’s assessment of the role of the Court in the ‘destruction of democracy’. A three-member bench of the Supreme Court, comprising of Arun Mishra, B.R. Gavai, and Krishna Murari JJ, delivered their judgment, finding Mr. Bhushan guilty of having committed criminal contempt of court, and in a separate sentencing judgment fined Mr. Bhushan INR 1.

This judgment was significant in that it examined the conflict between the right to freedom of speech with contempt of court as an exception to that right. It held that for speech criticising the court to be characterised as ‘fair criticism’ and be protected under Article 19 (1) (a) it needed to be based on ‘authentic and acceptable material’. If any speech created doubt about the ‘integrity, ability and fairness of the Judge’, such speech would amount to contempt of court.

The Court’s decision to hold Bhushan guilty received criticism from several quarters, with some cautioning that this decision would have a ‘chilling effect’ on freedom of speech.