A sizeable section of the population believes that the Supreme Court runs virtually everything in India, almost a parallel government apart from the elected one. The perception is wrong. But it reveals how the SC in the last four decades, since the Keshavananda Bharti judgment in 1973, has risen to the occasion and protected the rights of citizens, forests, river beds and precious mineral resources from greedy hands.
Armed with the sword of rule of law sharpened on the constitutional stone, when the SC punishes the rich, the powerful and the high and mighty who trample upon citizens’ rights, run timber or mining mafia devouring forests and minerals and polluting the environment, it naturally wows commoners who don’t have the wherewithal to even question them.
Judges of the SC should feel proud to be associated with a great institution. This feeling should be in spite of their meagre salaries compared to the astronomical sums charged by successful lawyers, thin bank balances and nominal assets. The personal wealth of lawyers pales before the judges’ contribution in assisting a troubled society and individuals.
Judges earn respect and dignity in abundance when they scrupulously adhere to constitutional values and go beyond their jurisdiction to improve the condition of helpless citizens by hearing their cries for justice. Why is this feeling of contentedness lessening among judges?
Social media, web portals and a plethora of blogs are as much a boon for rapid dissemination of news and views as a tool to spread canards in abuse of the right to freedom of speech and expression. Judges, who enjoy an elevated position under the Constitution, find themselves increasingly vulnerable and defenceless against scurrilous attacks through new-age social media tools, which have taken freedom of speech to uncharted territory.
In the last four years, there has been a systematic assault on the reputation and dignity of judges and the judiciary, both from within and outside. Those who have made a fortune, both in terms of wealth and a specific type of reputation, by practising in the SC and high courts, have generously fed receptive ears in court corridors to spread perceptions about the integrity and political leanings of judges. The stories go viral in no time. Those who hear these stories add generous amounts of spice while retelling them with enthusiasm.
The attack is also from within the legal fraternity. Not long ago, there was a loud SC judge who wore his attitude on his sleeve and considered himself the most learned. He never missed an opportunity to crudely ridicule advocates while claiming to have mastery over English, Hindu, Urdu, mythology and ancient scriptures. But he was unusually generous towards the family of a particular activist lawyer and mostly gave relief in the cases they argued before him. After his retirement, he was prolific in writing blogs and offered unsolicited advice to lawyers, judges, journalists and politicians.
When Justice H L Dattu was a few days away from taking oath as CJI, this learned retired judge tried to circulate a bunch of papers among journalists and egged them on to write against Justice Dattu. When the scribes told him that the documents would require verification, the disappointed judge took them back saying “by the time you verify the papers, he will become CJI”.
Since Justice Dattu’s retirement, rumour mills continued to churn out canards whenever a new judge was to take oath as CJI, be it T S Thakur or J S Khehar. The rumour mill’s attack on a CJI is multi-pronged — question moral character, allege corruption or express surprise over their children’s income. These modes have wounded several CJIs’ reputations in court corridors. Willing ears and loudmouths have magnified the stories and made them masquerade as shocking revelations.
Danger lurks when judges start believing in these canards. Wily lawyer-politicians are waiting to stoke the fire rising from these make-believe stories. When politician-lawyers and activist-lawyers find a confluence, an unprecedented press conference takes place, robbing the incumbent CJI of the vestige of dignity. Three of the four rebel judges who held the press conference have since retired. Could they have chastised the CJI differently than resorting to a press conference?
When judges heap ignominy on the CJI, then even the most conscientious lawyer starts believing every canard that he hears in the corridors. The disgrace takes no time to seep into the vitals of the judiciary, dissolving the prestige, dignity and respect attached to the institution and the CJI.
A year from the press conference, the present CJI has got embroiled in a sexual harassment complaint. A three-judge panel will determine the veracity of the allegation, but there is a force in the charge that the CJI violated procedure on April 20 by being part of the hurriedly convened bench. Though he recused when the court dictated the order, there are no two views about the argument that he should never have been part of a bench hearing an issue directly affecting him.
But what does a CJI do when faced with such a damaging allegation? Should he let go the only opportunity to vent his anguish, grief and defence? He could not risk holding another press conference as that would have attracted even more rabid criticism. The silence was never an option; for these days, silence is taking as acceptance of the charge.
Unlike lawyers faced with similar charges, the CJI could not have rushed to an HC to push things under the carpet and get a gag order against the media from a friendly judge. Should he have talked about his income and bank balance? He did so probably to tell the world that a judge’s integrity leaves him with a thin bank balance at the end of his career.