By K Raveendran
The Supreme Court has its image progressively being sullied for some years now. Things were never as bad as they have been during the tenures of three chief justices, including the incumbent.
The slide started with Dipak Misra at the helm, when the nation was shocked to see four senior ‘rebel’ judges stage a so-called ‘mutiny’, questioning some of the undesirable tendencies in the functioning of the apex court. Most significantly, one of them was a future chief justice, while the three were senior enough to occupy the highest position in the country’s judiciary.
That was enough to show the seriousness of the issues being brought into the public domain. The nation heard with disbelief the ‘call of national duty’ press conference judges raise serious concern about the ‘misuse’ of the master of the roster privileges of the chief justice to pick preferred benches to handle issues that were sensitive to the ruling Establishment. Obviously, the intent was that certain verdicts go a certain way, shaking the very foundation of our sense of justice.
Subsequent developments showed the extent to which the trust deficit among the judges had sunk. Presser-fame judge J Chelameswar even declined the invitation to attend his farewell function the Bar Association was planning to organise. This showed that they were too embarrassed to sit around a table, Judges, and perhaps exchange a few pleasantries. That marked a new low in the public esteem of the nation’s highest judicial institution.
It was hoped that when Justice Ranjan Gogoi, the future chief justice in the mutiny press conference, assumed office after the retirement of CJI Dipak Misra, we would see a break from the past as the incumbent was supposed to open a new leaf. But all such hopes were belied.
The man who had criticised his predecessor for ‘bench-hunting’ at the famous press conference, considered infamous by detractors, constituted a bench headed by himself to hear a sexual assault case in which he was the accused. That was the worst sin a venerable judge could have committed as it violated the key canon that no man can be judge in his own case. And it was case in which a retired judge had accused the sitting judge of being a ‘sexual pervert’.
His tenure also saw the delivery of a few verdicts, the judicial integrity of which was open to questioning, as these placated the powers that be, including the controversial Ramajanmabhoomi verdict. The so-called ‘excesses’ in these verdict gave ammunition to the detractors of his nomination to Rajya Sabha, which saw even his ‘mutiny’ colleagues turn against him.
Thankfully, the incumbent CJI, Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde, has been spared of anything similar. But that is no point of consolation. The Supreme Court under Justice Bobde has attracted criticism for being completely insensitive to vexed problems of contemporary India as it showed a tendency to take the government view as gospel truth. The court simply looked away when attention was drawn to the plight of millions of migrants, forsaken by their governments as they trudged thousands of kilometres in a desperate march towards home.
It was the height of insensitivity when a three member bench hearing a petition on the miseries of migrant labourers maintained that ‘it was not possible for the court to monitor who is walking and who is not walking’. It was only after eminent jurists and legal luminaries, along with thought leaders, joined the expression of outrage that the court woke up from slumber and ordered some positive action to mitigate the sufferings.
Last week, Dushyant Dave, an outspoken senior lawyer, took on the court for ‘only dictating what the solicitor general was dictating’. Dave, appearing on behalf of the Centre for Public Interest Litigation, was angry that the court rejected his plea for an immediate order for a national plan on use of the PM Cares Fund and did not even heed his request to hear the matter in two weeks. The court had bluntly told him: “It is difficult to pass ad interim order at this stage.”The PIL was about the opaqueness surrounding the PM CARES Fund, since it is not subject to a mandatory CAG audit and is even outside the purview of the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
When the migrants issue was first brought before the Supreme Court, it took a stand that it was for the state to decide on such matters. “Why should the court hear or decide?” it asked when a petitioner sought the court’s intervention to order the Centre to order food and water to the migrant workers on the move.
When its attention was drawn to the horrifying incident in which 16 migrants headed for Madhya Pradesh were run over by a cargo train when they fell asleep on the railway track out of sheer weariness at some place in Maharashtra, the court asked the most insensitive question: ‘how can anyone stop this when they sleep on the railway track?’.
And yet, when public heat mounted, the court relented a couple of weeks later and ordered the central and state governments to provide free transportation, food and care to the migrant workers. While the decision is to be welcomed by all means, it amounts to a sad commentary on the court’s approach. (IPA Service)