The man with the big stick

When Justice Markandey Katju took over as chairman, Press Council of India, on October 7, there was a feeling in media circles that finally, something good could happen; that the media at large had gotten an ombudsman-style personality who was known to be both just, and fair -- and not above calling a spade a spade when necessary.

That optimism, at a time when scandals such as paid news has dimmed the luster of the media, stems largely from Katju's tenure as a judge -- a tenure that has seen him serve stints as acting Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court, then Chief Justice of the Madras High Court and then the Delhi High Court, before taking office as judge in the Supreme Court in April 2006. He retired in September this year ending a 20-year career in jurisprudence, before taking up the lead role at the Press Council.

Katju's reputation stems from two factors: in his landmark judgments, the jurist has been painstakingly fair, even on occasion apologizing publicly when he felt he was in the wrong. A case in point was in July 2009, when he apologized and, in tandem with Justice Raveendran, withdrew an order in a case involving students wearing beards as part of their religious beliefs. Katju had, in his original statement, talked of such practices leading to the Talibanization of India, but was quick to retract when confronted with the anguish of the concerned community.

In a career studded with landmark judgments, the year 2011 was still eye opening. In March this year, he delivered a judgment that legalized passive euthanasia and permitted the withdrawal of life support systems for patients deemed brain dead. In May, he directed trial courts to award death sentences to those who carried out honor killings. And in the same month, he was part of a Supreme Court bench that deemed fake encounters as on par with brutal murders, and asked that police personnel guilty of such acts be awarded the death sentence.

In a free-ranging conversation on Shekhar Gupta's Walk The Talk program, Justice Katju draws on sources as diverse as Ghalib and the Ramayana to discuss issues ranging from lawyer Prashant Bhushan's recent comments on Kashmir, to dowry deaths, honor killings, the nature of justice itself -- and, of course, the ills that ail the media. On this last, he recounts the recent case of a woman candidate who complained to him that representatives of a leading national daily had asked her for Rs 18 lakh in return for "positive coverage", and talks of what can be done to stem such practices. Here is the video: