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Justice Abhay Shreeniwas Oka: A strong votary of public liberties, principles enshrined in Constitution

Justice A. S. Oka, prior to being elevated to the Supreme Court, was the seniormost among the Chief Justices of the High Courts.

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Justice Abhay Shreeniwas Oka was born on May 25, 1960. He has done BSc and LLM from the University of Bombay and subsequently enrolled as an Advocate on June 28, 1983.

His practice started in Thane District Court in the chamber of his father Shreeniwas W. Oka. In 1985-86, he joined the chamber of V. P. Tipnis, a former Judge of the Bombay High Court and former Lok Ayukta.

Justice Oka has served for 18 years as a Judge. He was elevated as Additional Judge of the Bombay High Court on August 29, 2003 and appointed as a permanent Judge from November 12, 2005. He took oath as the Chief Justice of High Court of Karnataka on May 10, 2019, where he graced the office for two years and three months.

As a Judge of the Bombay High Court, Justice Oka was always perceived as a meticulous judge, undaunted by complexities or the case. Former Maharashtra Advocate General and Senior Counsel Darius Khambata is reported to have called Justice Oka as a ‘fearless judge’ and someone with an ‘infinite capacity’ for work for whom ‘justice is the single-minded goal’.

Justice A. S. Oka, prior to being elevated to the Supreme Court, was the seniormost among the Chief Justices of the High Courts.

The independence of judiciary is a fundamental aspect of Indian governance. It is rare when the government of a state apologises to a Judge. In Dr Mahesh Vijay Bedkar vs State of Maharashtra and Ors and connected matters, on August 29, 2017, Justice Oka with utmost grace, recorded the extraordinary events in the larger interest of the Judiciary. In relation to a noise pollution issue, allegations of bias were made. The Maharashtra government accused Justice Oka of “harbouring serious bias”. Subsequently, an unconditional apology was tendered.

Justice Oka has been a strong votary of public liberties and the principles enshrined in Indian Constitution. His sharp judicial mind has been of assistance in many notable judgments. During his tenure in the Bombay High Court, he has rendered many important judgments.

Dealing with the concept of freedom of conscience and the rights of ‘atheists’ in Dr Ranjeet Suryakant Mohite and Ors vs Union of India and Anr (2014), the bench of Justice Oka and Justice A. S. Chandurkar held, “The freedom conferred by Article 25 of the Constitution also includes a right of an individual to claim that he is an ‘Atheist’. As the freedom of conscience confers a fundamental right to entertain a religious belief, it also confers a right on an individual to express an opinion that he does not belong to any religion.” It was thus decided that “the Government Printing Press cannot deny request of a citizen to declare in the gazette that he does not belong to any religion.”

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In Sanjay Ananda Salve vs State of Maharashtra, the bench comprising Justices Oka and Revati Mohite Dere held that a Buddhist could not be forced to fold his hands when prayers are being sung, not when an oath is being administered. Justice Oka in his judgment held that the petitioner has a freedom of conscience and he could not be compelled a change in his belief.

He was also instrumental in striking down Section 5D and 9B of the Maharashtra Animal Preservation Act as unconstitutional. In Shaik Zahid Mukhtar vs State of Maharashtra and other connected matters, on May 6, 2016, the Bench of Justices Oka and S. C. Gupte considered the case of a complete prohibition on slaughter of bulls and bullocks, in addition to the slaughter of cows.

In a sharp razor-like precision, the Bench observed that in section 5D, the focus is on consumption of beef as an item of food. It held that “consumption of food which is not injurious to health is a part of individual’s autonomy or his right to be let alone. Hence, it was an infringement of his right to privacy.”

The Bench upheld the validity of beef ban law dealing with transport, export, sale and purchase and punishment for violation of these provisions, but struck down the provision prohibiting possession of beef from an animal slaughtered outside Maharashtra.

In Jan Adalat & Anr vs State of Maharashtra and Ors, (2017) the Bench of Justice A.S. Oka and Justice AA Sayed considering the unsatisfactory conditions in jails issued directions to the state government regarding prison reforms. The Bench also considered the Nelson Mandela Rules or more formally the United National Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, and held that the object of the prisoners meeting they respective families can be achieved if there are proper arrangements. 

As the Chief Justice of the Karnataka High Court, His Lordship ensured that the High Court was effective during the pandemic.

On April 21, 2021, justice Oka, sitting with Justice Suraj Govindaraj, in a major relief to the citizens during the D. S. Ramachandra Reddy vs Commissioner of Police and Ors, held that if the footways or public streets are encroached upon in any manner including by parking of vehicles, it will amount to violation of fundamental rights guaranteed under Article 21. It directed the respondents to ensure that the public streets are kept free of obstructions, including illegal parking.

In February 2020, the Hubli Bar Association took out a resolution, barring lawyers from appearing for Kashmiri students, who were arrested on charges of sedition for allegedly raising pro-Pakistani slogans. Justice Oka had criticised the resolution and said the resolution “of the Bar Association had set a bad precedent.”

“We do not run ‘Kangaroo Courts’ in India and even Ajmal Kasab was given a full trial. Here, the advocates are not allowed to appear in bail applications. This is nothing less than sheer militancy,” Justice Oka had said.

In a statement issued by him on February 3 this year, it was observed that the members of some Bar associations had resorted to acts of abstaining from or boycotting the Court for various reasons.

Also Read: SCBA writes to CJI NV Ramana, seeks changes in SOP for physical hearings

Coming from the Chief Justice of the High Court, it is his modesty and administrative prowess that he termed it as “an appeal to the member of the Bar” to cooperate with the court for disposal of maximum number of cases and refrain from abstaining from Court work or boycotting the Court proceedings, irrespective of the genuineness of the cause.

In April 2020, Chief Justice A. S. Oka sitting with Justice B. V. Nagrathna, who has also been elevated to this institution, in Mohammad Arif Jameel vs Union of India, considered the case of identification of migrants who are in streets, beggars, homeless persons and other vulnerable sections without shelter and pulled up the government in considering their welfare in the pandemic.

Recently on June 15, 2021, the Bench of Chief Justice A. S. Oka and Justice Ashok S. Kinagi in Environment Support Group and Anr vs State of Karnataka and Ors also issued directions with regard to maintenance of lakes in Karnataka.

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