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After Telangana judge’s outburst against media, colleagues say, ‘always maintained low profile’

New Delhi: An outburst against the media by Telangana high court (HC) judge M. Laxman last week has come as a surprise to his colleagues, who describe him as one who has “always maintained a low profile”.

“I have greatest regard for press and news media, which is the fourth estate and forerunner in preserving democracy, Justice Laxman had said, while granting anticipatory bail to member of Parliament from Andhra’s Kadapa constituency, Y.S. Avinash Reddy, before going on to add “They have every right to express their opinion touching merits of any decision, which is essential in rightful democracy. Day-by-day, the reputation of such an important institution is eroding, but for some individuals.”

Avinash is accused in the murder case of his uncle — a former minister of Andhra Pradesh, Vivekananda Reddy, who was also uncle to Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jaganmohan Reddy. Vivekananda had been found dead in his residence, with stabbing wounds on his body, in March 2019.

Avinash had moved the Telangana High Court in April, this year, seeking protection from arrest by the CBI.

Avinash’s father, Y.S. Bhaskar Reddy, is also an accused in the case and is currently in jail. On 6 June, a special CBI court reserved its judgement on Bhaskar’s bail application.

Vivekananda Reddy’s daughter, Suneetha Narreddy, has accused both her uncle and cousin of being part of a conspiracy to murder her father.

In a 30-page order, Laxman hit out at “certain attempts made by selective media to thwart and derail judicial process” by tarnishing his image through reports and panel discussions.

Justice Laxman’s order also mentions TV debates on the murder case and the Kapada MP’s anticipatory bail application. These discussions were telecast even before the judge could hear and decide the case.

A speaker in a debate on a Telugu television channel — a suspended judge of a lower court from Andhra Pradesh — had reportedly said that it was not correct on the part of a High Court judge to grant relief which was not sought in the MP’s anticipatory bail petition (what relief?). “If the judge had given relief not sought in the petition, he had taken bags,” the speaker reportedly said in the debate.

Justice Laxman’s criticism of the media’s role has surprised the legal fraternity of Telangana High Court. Lawyers ThePrint spoke to described him as a judge “of high integrity”, one who never got dragged into “any controversy”.

Advocates also confirmed to ThePrint that it was the first time Justice Laxman had taken took up the matter since the murder was reported in March 2019. “The case got marked to him by chance, since he was on a vacation bench at that time,” a senior government law officer told ThePrint.

Hearing of the Vivekananda Reddy murder case got transferred from Andhra Pradesh to Telangana in November last year, on the directions of the Supreme Court, which allowed a petition filed by Narreddy and her mother, raising doubts about a fair probe and trial in Andhra Pradesh.

Narreddy had alleged that Avinash enjoyed tacit support in Andhra Pradesh, as he was a part of the ruling political party there, the Yuvajana Sramika Rythu Congress Party (YSRCP). Earlier, in March 2020, the Andhra Pradesh HC had transferred investigation in the case from the local police to the CBI based on her plea.

Avinash’s bail petition got listed in Justice Laxman’s court in May this year, on account of a recent Supreme Court order, which directed the Telangana HC to decide Avinash’s anticipatory bail plea expeditiously.

On 23 May, an apex court bench of justices J.K. Maheshwari and P.S. Narasimha expressed displeasure over the “delay” on the HC’s part to decide the bail petition, which was moved in early April and remained pending despite it being heard multiple times.

On 24 April, the top court had given the MP an interim protection, but at the same time had asked the HC to decide his petition soon. The HC had heard the petition twice by then, but posted it for further hearing on 5 June, after the end of  the HC’s summer break.

Following the SC order to the HC to take up the matter during the summer recess itself, the anticipatory bail was listed before Justice Laxman, who was then heading a vacation bench.

Also read: ‘Throat slit with razor, body stuffed in trolley bag’ — Ghaziabad woman held for lover’s murder

‘Got dragged into political fight’

Talking about the case, the law officer quoted above said, “The media in Andhra Pradesh is divided on political lines. He [Justice Laxman] got dragged into this political fight.”

Another lawyer, who was Laxman’s junior at Osmania University, claimed the judge had never had any political affiliation as a lawyer. “Therefore, it (debates) must have upset him. He got dragged into the political fight unnecessarily,” he said.

Justice Laxman’s elevation as a HC judge was not in the lawyer’s category. He was a serving district judge in Telangana and got promoted to the HC in 2021 under the services quota.

According to his profile on the Telangana HC website, Justice Laxman enrolled as a lawyer in 1991 and has practised predominantly in the Andhra Pradesh High Court.

In 2008 he joined the state district judiciary. Following the bifurcation of Andhra Pradesh and the creation of Telangana, Justice Laxman became part of the Telangana’s subordinate judiciary where he served till 2021 when he was elevated to the state HC in October that year.

A lawyer in Telangana HC recalled that before he got into legal practise, Justice Laxman got selected for Group 1 services for Andhra Pradesh (which includes the state’s seniormost officers). “But he did not go for it and joined the Bar. Within a span of 4 to 5 years he started making appearances in the HC,” the lawyer said.

While he was in the state judiciary, Justice Laxman served as principal district judge in important districts, including Hyderabad. In September 2021, the Supreme Court collegium headed by the then Chief Justice NV Ramana cleared him and six other judicial officers for elevation to the HC. The government notified the appointment in October 2021.

“It was a deserving elevation,” said a senior advocate practising in Telangana High Court. “He never courted any controversy as a District Judge, even though he presided over some sensitive jurisdictions,” he added.

A second advocate, also requesting anonymity, said: “As far as my knowledge goes, Justice Laxman has served as a judge in different capacities and proved to be the best. His erudition in law is commendable. He has never been hostile towards the Bar and has always had a cordial working relationship with all. Therefore, this sort of open criticism of the media in his order has left us all surprised.”

However, some members of the Bar also feel it was justified on Justice Laxman’s part to speak out, considering the case he decided has got politicised by the two main parties of Andhra Pradesh. A political commentator, who wished not to be named, said: “TV channels are divided on political lines today. They insinuated and levelled allegations against the judge, even though he had never heard the case until he took up the anticipatory bail matter. It has become a horrible case.”

‘Discharge duties without fear’

In his 30 May order, granting bail to Avinash, Justice Laxman said on seeing the TV panel discussions, he first thought of recusing from the case. However, he changed his mind to “discharge his duties without fear,” and directed the HC registry to place his order and video clippings of the two debates before the Chief Justice of the HC. He left it to the Chief Justice to take an appropriate decision.

He even raised doubts over the CBI probe in the matter, including the veracity of the approver’s statement recorded by the central agency. Justice Laxman further said grant of anticipatory bail does not preclude the agency from calling the accused for questioning.

Moreover, Avinash, the court noted, had responded to CBI summons for interrogation. He did not respond to two summons issued in April because his mother was hospitalised, for which he had provided adequate documentary evidence to the agency, Justice Laxman has recorded in his order.

Meanwhile, Narreddy has already moved the top court against Avinash’s bail order. The appeal was mentioned before the apex court vacation bench Thursday morning. The appeal is likely to be heard Friday.

Earlier too, she had challenged the HC’s 18 April order which barred CBI from arresting Avinash till 25 April, told the MP to appear before the CBI and ordered the federal agency to provide him with a written questionnaire during the interrogation.

Setting aside this “extraordinary” direction, the top court on 24 April said HC had “misapplied itself” by passing an order that “will stultify the investigation.” In the same order, the top court had fixed 30 June as the deadline for the CBI to complete its probe in the case.

Another controversial order in the case by the Telangana HC was set aside by the SC on 27 May. In connection to a bail petition filed by co-accused Gangi Reddy, the HC had on 27 April directed him to surrender in the case. However, in the same order, the HC also said Gangi, on his surrender, shall be remanded to judicial custody till 30 June, following which he should be released on bail.

On an appeal filed by Narreddy, the HC stayed the operation of that part of the HC order where it directed the trial court to grant bail to Gangi by 1 July.

(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)

Also read: UP gang war & rain of bullets: The 1991 murder behind don Mukhtar Ansari’s 5th conviction in 10 mths

Source: The Print

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