Many newspapers in India earlier this year carried the story of disarray in the Supreme Court of India with a beaming headline, “No, Your honor.” India has indeed witnessed an extraordinary news conference by four members of the Collegium revealing the skew in the allocation of work and lack of transparency by Dipak Misra, the Chief Justice of India.
It has been reported that this is the first time in history that four senior judges, Jasti Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, Kurian Joseph and Madan B. Lokur, brought the inner workings of this revered institution to the forefront of the public debate. The most notable aspect of this development is that these four judges have asserted that they have done this to preserve democracy for India.
According to Justice Chelameswar, the second senior most judge, “We tried to persuade the CJI to take steps but failed. Unless the institution of Supreme Court is preserved, democracy won’t survive in this country.” He also added that they were left with no choice and did not want people to accuse those 20 years later that they did not take care of the institution.
To the keen observers of the recent political dynamics in the country, this development may not come as a huge surprise. The traditions and protocols that preserved the independence of the Supreme Court have been under siege lately like many other institutions in the country. For those who are concerned about the very concept of equal justice under law, the Supreme Court in India is found to be their last refuge. If that institution is also interfered with or politicized, India would join the ranks of banana republics and would effectively cease to be a constitutional democracy.
The recent turn of events was triggered by the actions of the chief justice who started allocating cases of far-reaching consequences without transparency, indicating selective assignment of cases to preferred judges. One of those cases involved the murder of CBI judge B.H. Loya who was hearing the Sohrabuddin Sheikh Murder trial in which BJP president Amit Shah was accused. He appeared to have mysteriously died in 2014. CJI allotted a petition seeking independent inquiry into the death to Justice Arun Mishra who is 10th in seniority.
Then there was the medical admission scam involving sitting and retired High Court judges. They permitted private medical colleges to admit students to MBBS despite Supreme Court bar. Justice Chelameswar set up a bench to hear it, but CJI sent that to another bench saying he alone has the right to draw up the roster. There was also a procedural fight over the norms to appoint HC and SC judges, and CJI sidelined the five-member constitutional bench from such a critical decision making by selecting a small three-judge bench headed by himself.
Many of these actions by CJI have created dissension in the ranks that may point to not only selective justice for the powerful and well-connected, but are instances when the very lives of justices are placed on line. Although some may question the rationale for an open news conference, these four judges are known for their impeccable integrity and impartial judgments. It is also apparent that the Supreme Court is currently lacking any mechanism to evaluate the inner workings of the court or streamline the process to resolve deficiencies resulting from wrong decision making.
The Supreme Court is not the only the institution that is under siege in today’s India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ill-advised demonetization program shed light on the stress and strain that the Reserve Bank of India was placed under along with its Governor Urjit Patel. At one point, tensions have boiled over between India’s central bank and the government over the monetary policy as the country was facing its weakest growth after its much-heralded demonetization policy. Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has often pointed out about the danger to the banking system due to its constant modification of policies and procedures.
Another institution that has come under considerable scrutiny is the Election Commission of India. The so-called delay to hold the election in Gujarat on time appeared to have given a lot of flexibility to BJP to suit its political ends. The ongoing complaints about the EVM machines, though not substantiated, have cast a pall over the integrity of the voting system and the legitimacy of the election itself.
If democracy has to survive the public has to gain a better understanding of the importance of an independent judiciary, impartial prosecutors and unbiased law enforcement system that can ensure the rule of law and effective protection of fundamental rights and freedoms for every citizen regardless of color, caste, creed or religious affiliations.
Indian Overseas Congress USA