By K Raveendran
Judicial academicians will do well to bring out the correlation, if any, between the tenure of Supreme Court chief justices and the quality of decisions pronounced during their respective tenures. The year 2022 would be a rich resource for any such study as it saw three different CJIs at the helm and interestingly, all the three accounted for landmark verdicts, all of which were different from one another in terms of their implications for the Executive and commitment towards it.
The most ‘independent’ judgment came during the tenure of Justice N V Ramana as CJI, when a three-member bench headed by the CJI hit the pause on the controversial sedition law, which the Union government has been using liberally to deal with critics, by ordering that no new case be filed under the outdated British-era sedition law and that sedition can no longer be cited as an offence in pending cases. But true to Justice Ramana’s ‘reputation’ for an unexplained inability to take any case to its logical conclusion, the verdict stopped short of striking down the law in its entirety. Of course, he was helped in this by a declaration by the government that it has already initiated a process for phasing out archaic laws that the country inherited from the colonialists.
The most controversial verdicts of the year were reserved for tenure of Chief Justice U U Lalit, when the court upheld reservation on economic basis, which has been widely seen as a challenge to the system of reservation as it has been pursued so far, and the decision that the Gujarat government had the powers to grant remission of the jail sentences of Bilkis Bano rapists despite the fact that the trial of the case had taken place in Maharashtra. On the reservation issue, Justice Lalit, however, recorded his dissenting order in which he strongly defended reservation as a tool to make amends for the centuries-old exploitation of socially backward and vulnerable sections of the society.
It is too early to evaluate the tenure of Chief Justice D Y Chandrachud, whose tenure is widely expected to be a landmark in recent judicial history, going by the liberal and unorthodox approaches that have characterized his judgments as a judge. Dr Chandrachud’s tenure at the apex court, where he is occupying the chair used by his equally illustrious father Y V Chandrachud nearly a half century ago, has already seen the relationship between the judiciary and the government hit a low. The tussle has acquired an institutional colour, with both sides hardening their respective positions.
The immediate trigger for the problem was the Collegium, where the court and the government are taking irreconcilable positions, with the latter blaming the system of collegium as it is followed currently is being blamed for all the problems with the judiciary. The problem erupted after the Modi government refused to clear the names recommended by collegium for the appointment of high court judges. The Supreme Court felt further offended by remarks made by Kiren Rijiju, who is seen carrying on a campaign against the apex court both inside and outside parliament. The minister has even accused the judiciary of ‘intense politics’ and squarely blamed the Supreme Court for the backlog of pending cases.
The judiciary versus executive controversy has always attracted curiosity. But it has reached a boiling point with the government telling the court that it is for parliament to make laws, but the Supreme Court turning around and reminding the Executive that while the legislature’s powers to enact laws are not questioned, the court’s powers for judicial review of laws enacted by the legislature are also well-established. The apex court has reminded the government that the system of collegium for the appointment of judges is the ‘law of the land’ and has to be followed in letter and spirit.
The fight over collegium may only be incidental, but Justice D Y Chandrachud’s tenure as CJI may be marked by the court redoubling its commitment in upholding constitutional values and morality, as evidenced by the judge’s approach in issues that concern personal liberty and freedom, an area that the Modi government is least comfortable with as it pursues the BJP agenda centred on nationalism and patriotism.
The incumbent CJI has powerfully articulated his position on this important aspect of the Constitution at various forums. He is known to consider dissent a ‘safety valve’ of democracy, and has expressed displeasure over government attempts to blanket label dissent as anti-national and anti-democratic and against the country’s commitment to protect constitutional values and promote democracy. (IPA Service)