A distinguished jurist (1948-2017)

Justice Altamas Kabir, who served as the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for around nine months before retiring on 18 July 2013, had a distinguished career at the Bar and a long tenure as a judge of the Supreme Court to which he was elevated in 2005.
Kabir was the son of a leading Congress leader Jehangir Khan who served in the ministries of B.C. Roy and P.C. Sen and also in the non-Congress government of Ajoy Kumar Mukherjee. His uncle Humayun Kabir was a renowned Bengali writer and a minister in the Union cabinets headed by Jawaharlal Nehru and Lal Bahadur Shastri. Altamas Kabir was born in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in a prominent Bengali Muslim family and studied law in the University of Calcutta after obtaining a post-graduate degree in Arts. He soon became a leading civil and criminal lawyer practicing in Calcutta courts before becoming a permanent judge in the Calcutta High Court in 1990.

As the acting Chief Justice of the Calcutta High Court, he was responsible for the computerisation of the entire data of the Calcutta High Court, City Civil Court and the other courts in Calcutta. Kabir also served as the Executive Chairman of the National Legal Services Authority. He later assumed charge as a judge of the Jharkhand High Court before being appointed as a permanent judge in the court. Justice Kabir also served as the Chief Justice of the Jharkand High Court from March 2005 to September 2005. He was elevated as a judge of the apex court on 9t February 2005, and became the Chief Justice on 29 September 2012, and retired on 18 July 2013. In his capacity as the CJI he was the Chancellor of the West Bengal National University of Judicial Sciences, and Chairman of the General Council of Gujarat National Law University.

As a judge of the Supreme Court Justice Kabir delivered several important and path breaking judgments, and right through his career as a legal luminary he made a name for himself in the fields of human rights issues and in the matter of election laws. On his last day in office Justice Kabir authored a controversial judgment when by a majority of 2-1 he quashed the single window National Eligibility–cum- entrance test (NEET) a common mode of admission for all MBBS, BDS and MD courses, which would have come as a boon for private colleges. The judgment was later set aside by the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court.

The eminent jurist was known for his erudition and tongue-in-cheek humour and endeared himself to his fellow judges and lawyers with his amicable nature. Justice Kabir, who was only the second CJI (Chief Justice of India) after his predecessor to be born in post–Independent India, though gentle in demeanour, was firm in the matter of handling court work and the administrative jobs assigned to him. The learned judge in one of his addresses bemoaned the fact that corruption had become a way of life in the country. He emphasised on the need for sensitivity and values in governance which alone could curb the menace. He further observed that unless there is a change in the mindset, elimination of corruption could only be an Utopian dream. After his retirement he returned to his first love, teaching, and taught at the West Bengal University of Judicial Sciences.

Justice Kabir passed away in Kolkata at the age of 68 succumbing to multiple ailments. In his condolence message, the President of India Pranab Mukherjee paid rich tributes to the late Justice Altamas Kabir describing him as a brilliant judge and recalled his association with Justice Kabir during his tenure as the Chief Justice of India. Hailing his contribution to the initiatives in the sphere of legal reforms, he also touched on his eminence as a progressive jurist who had earned a fair name for himself with his path breaking judgments.

– C. V. Aravind is a Bangalore-based freelance journalist.