On 29th March 1985, Chandmal Chopra filed a Writ Petition in the Calcutta High Court stating that publication of the Quran attracts Sections 153A and 295A of the I.P.C. because it “incites violence, disturbs public tranquility, promotes, on ground of religion, feelings of enmity, hatred and ill-will between different religious communities, and insults other religions or religious beliefs of other communities in India”. He also prayed for a rule nisi on the Government of West Bengal “to show cause as to why a writ of mandamus be not issued to it directing it to declare each copy of Quran whether in the original Arabic or in any of the languages as forfeited to the Government” in terms of Section 95 of the Cr. P.C.
The Writ Petition came up before Mrs. Justice Padma Khastgir on 1st April 1985. After two postponements, the matter appeared on her list on 12th April. The government of West Bengal filed its due response to the petition, the details of which have already been shared in a previous article (Link at the bottom). According to a staff Reporter of The Telegraph: “Justice Khastgir had asked the state government and the Union government to show cause as to why the Quran should not be banned. The order created considerable resentment at the Bar Association [in Calcutta] where Muslim lawyers had called an extraordinary meeting and moved a motion for condemning Justice Khastgir for having admitted the case. The motion was, however, defeated as the lawyers moving the motion could not muster enough votes.”
For reasons unknown, Justice Khastgir released the matter from her list on 2nd May. On 7th May, the Advocate-General of West Bengal requested the Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court to assign the matter to another bench. Finally, on 10th May, the Chief Justice chose Mr. Justice Bimal Chandra Basak for hearing the Writ Petition.
The Chief Minister, Mr. Jyoti Basu, engaged in contempt of court by discussing a subjudice matter on the floor of the Parliament and calling the submission of the petition a ‘despicable act.’ He further instructed the advocate general to talk to the chief justice of Calcutta high court in this regard. The Court did not take any action, nor did it issue any warning to the Chief Minister. Later on, the matter was raised by two MPs, one from Congress and the other from CPM on the floor, and was supported by the Speaker, who went on to allay his fears about how this petition could invoke communal riots in the country. Once again, the Court remained silent on this blatant attempt by a responsible member of the government’s machinery to provoke the minority community and encourage them to come out on streets like gangs. And this point, although the government of West Bengal had submitted its preposterous response to the petition, the judiciary was still trying its level best to shirk its responsibility of examining the petition. In fact, this is what The Telegraph wrote on 10th May.
“There is a serious difference of opinion between Chief Justice Satish Chandra and Justice Padma Khastgir on the one hand and the advocate-general Mr. Snehangshu Acharya and a large number of lawyers on the other, on whether Justice Khastgir had admitted a writ petition demanding the banning of the Quran. Justice Chandra and Khastgir maintain that the petition moved by Chandmal Chopra and Sital Singh was not admitted in the court. However, the advocate-general and a large number of lawyers are convinced that the petition was admitted by Justice Khastgir.”
“Justice Khastgir told The Telegraph that she issued directions on the petition as she would not turn down any petitioner. Meanwhile, the registrar of the high court has informed The Telegraph that he has been directed to state that the petition under Article 226 had not been admitted by Justice Khastgir.”
The reason why the government decided to make itself party to a petition while it was still undecided whether it should be considered valid or not. The reasons behind this decision were purely political in nature, overriding the legal proprieties of the matter. As narrated in The Telegraph, “The Union law minister, Mr. Ashoke Sen, informed the advocate-general that the Union government would make itself a party to the case as it would affect the Muslim community all over the country and that the case would have international ramifications.”
As gangs got together to raise hue and cry o the streets of Calcutta and Bihar, a separate drama was unfolding inside the High Court. As stated earlier, Justice Khastgir had directed Chandmal Chopra to file his affidavit-in-reply by 17th May. He was busy preparing it when he received a message on the midnight of May 12-13 that the matter would appear “to be mentioned” on May 13 before Justice Bimal Chandra Basak. When Chopra appeared in the court, Justice Basak directed him to move the Writ application afresh as a Court Application. Chopra had to abide by this instruction. The opposite side had come fully prepared to argue and counter argue the fat volumes they had brought with them. Chopra requested for an adjournment on the ground that he had received notice only for “to be mentioned”. But his request was rejected. The Advocate- General of West Bengal and the Attorney-General of the Government of India were directed to proceed with their arguments against the Writ Petition, for which the petitioner was only given an insufficient intimation and a notice of couple of hours. Chopra tried his best to counter the argument, but the petition was dismissed and decision reserved for another date. Justice Basak delivered the judgement on 17th May in the form of a lengthy document, which noted in copious amounts, some passages about the profundities of Islam, India’s philosophy of Secularism and a few observations on the mighty transcendental supreme power. In addition, the judgment included scathing criticism towards Judge Padma Kashtigar for allowing the petition. It pronounced that the petition should have been rejected forthwith and labelled “unworthy of its consideration as soon as it was moved.” This further instigated the mobs already ready to pounce, and there were demands for action to be taken against Kashtigar for ‘hurting the sentiments’ etc.
According to a PTI report reproduced by Navabharat Times, New Delhi, dated 22nd May, the Chief Minister of J&K, G M Shah said that “action should be taken against the judge who permitted the petition to be filed”.
This led to extended violence on the streets which went on for several days resulting in loss of several lives as well as damage to public and government property. Chandmal Chopra filed a Review Petition on 18th June, 1985 stating that the premises on which the judgment was based were not sound. He gave eight grounds on which the judgement could be reviewed. In violation of the normal judicial procedure, the Review Petition also came up before Justice Basak on 21st June. He dismissed it the same day for purely technical reasons without going into the grounds. The only concession he made was that some of the grounds “may or may not be grounds for appeal”.
As the minions of the Nehruvian state scrambled to restore ‘secular normalcy’ in the country, a venerable relic of imperialism called the judiciary did all that was required of it to snuff out the small petition, using all judicial prerogatives and knowledge in its might.
DISCLAIMER: The author is solely responsible for the views expressed in this article. The author carries the responsibility for citing and/or licensing of images utilized within the text.