As the chief justice of the Bombay High Court in 2017, Justice Manjula Chellur caused a furore when she told protesting Maharashtra doctors that they were “not factory workers” and if they were so scared of being beaten up they should resign and stay home. Doctors had gone on strike following growing number of assault incidents against them and were demanding safer working conditions. Shocked by her words, petitioners had asked her if she would react the same way if lawyers and judges were treated in a similar manner.
Known to be an “upright judge”, the retired Justice Chellur, the first woman chief justice of the Calcutta High Court, has now been appointed to monitor a special investigation team formed to probe alleged post-poll violence in West Bengal. She has been appointed as a Supreme Court judge was unavailable to oversee the SIT probe, according to the acting chief justice of the Calcutta HC.
According to her profile on the website of the Calcutta High Court, Justice Chellur was born on December 5, 1955, at Bellary in Karnataka. She completed her BA from Allum Sumangalamma Women’s College in Bellary and then joined Renukacharya Law College, Bengaluru. She graduated and obtained her LLB in 1977, following which she had the opportunity to visit the Crown Court at Hurham, UK, during a one-year stay in the country. She was also the first woman advocate to practice in Bellary. She specialises in civil and criminal law and has worked for the welfare of transgenders in Karnataka. In recognition of her outstanding contributions in the field of law, she was honoured with a degree of Doctor of Law (Honoris Causa) by Karnataka State Women’s University, Bijapur in 2013.
She assumed charge as acting chief justice of the Kerala High Court in November 2011, and became chief justice in September 2012, her first appointment as chief justice of a high court. She then went on to take charge as the chief justice of Calcutta HC in August 2014, and then retired as the chief justice of the Bombay High Court in December 2017. Apart from being the first woman chief justice of Calcutta HC, she was also the first woman judge of the Karnataka High Court.
Her high-profile cases include ponzi scams during an eventful tenure in Kolkata. While presiding as chief justice of the Kerala HC in 2013, a bench comprising her and Justice Vinod Chandran had asked the state government to submit a statement in the high-profile rape case against the then deputy chairman of Rajya Sabha PJ Kurien, as reported by Firstpost. The report said a PIL sought a direction to the state and director general of police for a probe against Kurien in light of the victim’s allegations against him.
As chief justice of the Bombay HC in 2017, and as only the second woman to head it, she also made headlines when she slammed a female journalist for “inappropriate court attire”, and asked if this was “Bombay culture”.
“Lawyers and judges have a dress code. I don’t expect others to come in uniform. But if you go jogging, you wear shorts. They can’t be worn when you go to college. You can’t even sit cross-legged in the courtroom. Court is also a temple of justice… You should be decently dressed,” she had told The Indian Express.
The retired judge has also had her fair share of criticism with the most prominent being the Bombay Bar Association’s (BBA) statement condemning her when she transferred a part-heard matter after allegations of bias against Justice Abhay Oka. In a report by Times of India, it is said it was the first time in the Bombay HC’s history that the BBA has protested against a chief justice for “interfering with administration of justice”.