The Supreme Court was in total disarray on Friday after four senior judges of the apex court held a press conference and openly charged CJI Dipak Mishra with selectively assigning sensitive cases to “preferred benches”, implying he had an ulterior motive, and by afternoon the controversy had snowballed with at least one opposition politician jumping into the fray.
The four judges courted trouble and left the impression that there is something rotten in the state of Denmark, i.e., in the Supreme Court. The four – Justice Chelameswar, Justice Gogoi, Justice Lokur and Justice Kurian Joseph – questioned the CJI’s manner of functioning. To a question if the CJI should be impeached, Justice Chelameswar said, “We leave that to the people of India.”
Within minutes of the judges’ presser, Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. But the government decided to leave it to the SC Collegium to sort out the differences. CJI Dipak Mishra, who is the “master of the roster” and the top judge of entire India, did not react to the judges’ press conference
CPI MP D Raja was the first politician to intervene. He landed at Justice Chelameswar’s residence after the judges’ press conference. This when the four rebel judges took on a halo and said that “this is nothing political.” The four had come out first. They were the good guys speaking up against wrongs done. As far as they were concerned the CJI was in the dock. And the CJI has his ‘favourites’. With that the 23 other judges were consigned willy-nilly in this or that faction.
Raja went and shook hands with Justice Chelameswar at the official residence of the judge. He said later that he went to meet to the judge as an MP and was representing Parliament and that he knew Justice Chelameswar “for long time” and that “something extraordinary” had happened. Raja said Chelameswar told him that he (the Judge) was “very much distressed”.
The government said soon after Raja met Justice Chelameswar said that judges should not meet politicians. The Congress said the entire episode was “unfortunate”.
Earlier, the four judges alleged that certain judicial orders of the last few months had affected the justice delivery system and the independence of the high courts. The revolt, and it is a revolt no less, pointed to a SC riven in factions even though Justice Gogoi insisted that they had “not broken ranks” and that they would be in court on Monday.
Can we call the four judges “whistleblowers”? The four judges had written a letter to the CJI two months ago to air their grievances. But with no reply, they called on the CJI on Friday. But there was no resolution of the differences. So, they held a press conference because they “owed a debt to the nation.”
It is also being said the revolt had something to do with case of the mysterious death of Justice BH Loya who was hearing the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case. The case was to be heard on Friday in the SC by a bench headed by CJI Mishra.
“The convention of recognising that CJI is the master of roster and assigns cases to different benches is for disciplined and efficient transaction of court business and not a recognition of superior authority,” the four said in the letter. “The CJI is only the first among equals nothing more and nothing less.”
The four rebel judges said “democracy will not survive if the judiciary is not impartial.” They were annoyed that the medical college admissions scam was sent to court No. 7 after a Justice Chelameswar-headed bench sent it to a five-judge bench of himself, the CJI and Justices Gogoi, Lokur and Joseph.
The four said they wanted to highlight unspecified irregularities in the judiciary and that CJI Mishra as not doing anything to remedy the situation.
When the Justices were asked if the issues were to do with the Collegium as well, they didn’t confirm or deny it. When asked if CJI Mishra should be removed, one of them said, “Let the nation decide on his impeachment.”
They said they sent the CJI the letter but didn’t get a reply. “We collectively tried to persuade the CJI that certain things aren’t in order so take remedial measures but unfortunately our efforts failed,” said Justice Chelameswar.
The four judges said many “undesirable” things have occurred in the judiciary lately. “The administration of the SC is not in order and many things which are less than desirable have happened in last few months,” said Justice Chelameswar.
A few minutes before the press conference, the SC said, separately, that the “mysterious death of Justice BH Loya is a serious issue”. They asked the Maharashtra government to present all documents to do with his death to the court on Monday. Justice Loya was hearing the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case and died under mysterious circumstances.
The judges also had a grievance that the PIL seeking a probe into Justice Loya’s death was assigned to court no. 10 and not to any of the first four benches other than CJI-led bench. The judges acknowledged that what they were doing – in calling a press conference – was highly unusual.
“This is an extraordinary event and it is with no pleasure we are doing this…We are left with no choice but to address the nation,” said Justice Chelameswar. Justice Gogoi concurred: “It is discharge of debt to the nation which has brought us here.”
That said for the second time in 70 years the Supreme Court stood shaken. The last time was when five SC judges resigned when Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency.