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Crusader against corruption, or man with persecution complex?

The loner who shook Indian judiciary Who is Justice CS Karnan
news Judiciary Thursday, May 11, 2017 - 08:54

He will go down in the history of Indian judiciary as the first sitting High Court judge to be charged with contempt, with the Supreme Court sentencing him to six months’ imprisonment.

He is the first Indian judge to have openly pointed out corruption in the higher judiciary, with specific names of SC judges being publicly released. Having sparked an open battle with the apex court of the country, he will also be known as the first judge to have openly disgraced the judiciary, by disregarding and overturning orders passed by the SC against him. Some see him as a whistleblower, who is being targeted, but others see him as a divisive force insulting the institution of the judiciary.

We all know CS Karnan as the above – but who is he, really? What’s his history?

Growing up

Chinnaswamy Swaminathan Karnan was born into a Dalit family at Karnatham village in Cuddalore district of Tamil Nadu on June 12, 1955.

His father C Swaminathan was a reputed teacher and his mother, Kamalam Ammal, was a homemaker. The couple had eight children and Karnan was their second son. 

While the judge was named S Karunanithi at birth, it was changed to Karnan in 1991 in accordance with numerology.

In an interview to Rabi Banerjee of The Week, Justice  Karnan spoke about growing up in a poor family and the hardships that he had to face.

"From the time I turned five, I used to spend most of my time in a forest as our land was inside a forest. Till I was 19, I had to toil hard in the fields. I used to walk three miles a day to reach my school," he said.

Antony Lazaro, a family friend of Justice Karnan, told The Week that his family's financial condition was so acute that they often did not have proper food.

"As a child, he often had to eat frogs, snakes and wild animals as his family often went without proper food. But he never complained," he said.

Justice Karnan's family includes his wife Saraswati, a government school teacher in Chennai, and two sons who are engineers and based in Paris and Chennai.


While he finished his high school from Mangalampet High School, he went to Virudhachalam Arts College for his Pre-University course.

He then pursued a B.Sc from New College in Chennai and went on to study law at the Madras Law College. After finishing his law degree in 1983, Karnan enrolled as an advocate before the Bar Counsel of Tamil Nadu.

Karnan told The Week that judiciary was not really his first choice as a profession. "But, age was not on my side. I had got seven job offers, but I thought I would be able to work independently in judiciary. So I joined the Madras High Court as an advocate," he told the publication. 


In a profile of the judge, Dhananjay Mahapatra of The Times of India writes that Karnan had an inclination towards politics and became an AIADMK booth agent during the 2002 assembly polls. However, according to the Intelligence Bureau, he was disillusioned by the party and moved to the Congress. 

Meanwhile, Karnan continued his work in the legal field and was selected as legal adviser to the Tamil Nadu Metro Water department, and also appeared as a government advocate in civil suits and as standing counsel for the central government in HC.  

According to a lawyer who worked with Karnan in the 1990s, Karnan was a humble and hardworking man. “We were attached to the office of then state AG, K Subramanian. Karnan used to work hard. He had few friends even then. He showed signs of insecurity, and gets angry very quickly if mistakes were pointed out,” says the lawyer to The News Minute. 

“He would get into trouble with some work and not accept his mistake, but after two days he will accept it. We never thought he would go on to become who he is now, so outspoken,” he says. 

His former colleagues in the Madras HC, Dhananjay mentions, described him "as a loner who gave vent to his persecution mentality".

He served as a judge in the Madras High Court from 2009 till February 2016, when he was transferred to the Calcutta High Court. He is due to retire on June 11 this year. Many believe that he was very close to former CJI KG Balakrishnan, which could have propelled his career. 


While CS Karnan has become a national sensation in the past few months, his proclivity for controversy goes way back, to his early days at the Madras High Court.

The rise of Karnan as the man of controversy began soon after he became a judge. “One judge insulted Karnan, telling him that if he was not capable of writing a judgment then he should ask others to do it for him,” says a lawyer who has tracked Karnan’s career for decades.

Karnan is reported to have taken deep offence to this, “He perceived that many judges did not like him, which he thought was linked to his caste. I don’t think what he perceived was always true, but his notions only got worse,” the lawyer adds. 

As Namit Saxena of Live Law points out, in 2011, Karnan wrote to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC) alleging he had faced caste-based harassment from other judges at the Madras High Court. He had stated that his brother judges, belonging to more influential castes, were insulting him. This was frontpage news in Tamil Nadu, leading to a media overdrive. He even held a press conference in his chamber, something which HC judges rarely do.

Further, he was also known to be close to other controversial figures of the Madras High Court circuit, like advocate Peter Ramesh Kumar. Last year, advocate Peter had been sentenced to six months imprisonment for contempt of court.

When TNM asked Peter whether his association with Karnan had soured the latter's relationship with fellow judges, the advocate said that it was possible.

Peter claimed that Karnan had been assaulted and abused by other judges of the Madras HC on different occasions.

"One judge had kicked him, another had abused him. A lot of times his chamber was kept under lock and key by other judges," he alleged.

In fact, Peter continued, Justice Karnan's mistrust in his fellow judges is so deep that he wouldn't consume the medicines kept in his chamber .

"He would go all the way to Srikalahasti in Andhra Pradesh to get his medicines every month," Peter said.

While the current whereabouts of Justice Karnan are not clear, it was reported that he was expected to reach Srikalahasti, a holy town, on Wednesday and offer his prayers on Thursday morning.

In 2014, in a move that irked the SC, Karnan "barged into a court room at Madras High Court during a hearing before a special bench of a PIL on a matter relating to the appointment of certain judges". He called the selection unfair.

Following this behaviour, that the SC termed as "unexpected", "uncharitable" and "ungenerous", the then Chief Justice of the Madras High Court RK Agarwal even wrote to the then CJI Justice P Sathasivam asking for Karnan's transfer.

In 2015, he began suo motu contempt proceedings against Sanjay Kishan Kaul, the then Chief Justice of the Madras HC. Karnan alleged that he had been harassed by Kaul because he is a Dalit. 

In February last year, he again accused Kaul of corruption following which he was transferred to the Calcutta High Court.

Karnan, not one to give in easily, put a stay on the SC order. When two apex court judges lifted the stay, he issued an order directing a case to be registered under the SC/ST atrocities law against the former.

After a contempt case threat by the SC and a talk with the then CJI TS Thakur, Karnan finally agreed to the transfer.

In January, 2017, Justice Karnan wrote a letter to the Prime Minister which included "an initial list" of 20 sitting judges of both the Supreme Court and High Courts levelling corruption allegations against them. 

In February, the Supreme Court, in an unprecedented move issued, a contempt notice to Karnan, a first for a sitting HC judge in India. 

And the events of the last few months spiraled beyond anyone's imagination.  

Karnan's appointment as judge in 2009 has also been a not so clear one. 

A collegium headed by then CJI KG Balakrishnan appointed Karnan as a judge in the Madras HC.

Then Chief Justice of Madras High Court AK Ganguly had given his recommendation. Ganguly would later say that he did not remember how Karnan's name had come up for recommendation.

Another Madras HC judge who was part of the collegium said that he regretted his decision of recommending Karnan. Justice PK Misra told The Hindu, "I am extremely sorry that I was part of the collegium that recommended such a name. It was Justice Ganguly [Chief Justice A.K. Ganguly, who later went to the Supreme Court] who suggested his name. I said that I do not know him and he replied that he (Justice Karnan) is on the panel of the Central government counsel.”

This again raised questions on the selection process of judges in the country.

While the defiant judge has mostly been in news for his allegations against fellow judges, many say that this only highlights the corruption and the caste discrimination prevalent in the judiciary. 

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