The benches in the Supreme Court are all in an array. How orderly nobody knows. But the Bar Council of India (BCI) said on Monday warring Supreme Court judges are back to being best friends and that the country can heave a sigh of relief after three days in judicial wilderness. Attorney General K Venugopal used the slang “okay” to convey that all is well that ends well.
Well, to that, a home truth: None of the four senior SC judges who spilled a few bombshell secrets to the people of India have uttered a word. Neither did Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, who the four brother judges charged with a clutch of improprieties.
It was unprecedented, the mutiny, and whatever talk of peace is there, has to be taken with a pinch of salt. Especially, after four retired judges wrote a letter to the CJI on Sunday telling him in no uncertain terms that they “agreed” with the four senior SC judges that sensitive and important cases should not be sent to “handpicked benches of junior judges by the Chief Justice.”
The four retired judges – Justices PB Sawant, P Shah, K Chandra and H Suresh – told the CJI not to misuse “the power of the Chief Justice as master of roster to achieve a particular result” in important and sensitive cases. The insinuation that he was misusing his power to achieve a “particular result” was not lost on anybody.
But unlike Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick Dr Watson, the retired judges failed to make some elementary fact-checking. The Fourth Estate, however, made sure. The Times of India “tracked 15 ‘supersensitive cases of national importance” of the last two decades and found that all of them had one thing in common — they were all assigned by the then CJIs to “select benches” headed by junior judges!
The cases included Bofors, Rajiv Gandhi Assassination, Babri Masjid demolition, Sohrabuddin Fake Encounter and the Coal Scam. So much for “preferred benches” and “sensitive cases”. In fact, by picking on CJI Misra for allotting cases to junior judges, the four senior SC judges and the four retired judges cast the remaining 20 SC judges also in less than desirable roles.
“This issue needs to be resolved and clear rules and norms must be laid down for allocation of benches and distribution of cases, which are rational, fair and transparent. This must be done immediately to restore public confidence in the judiciary and in the Supreme Court,” the four retired judges wrote in their missive about himself to the CJI.
They forgot to mention that “public confidence in the judiciary and in the Supreme Court” eroded because the four senior SC judges held a press conference on Friday and aired their differences to drawing rooms across India. In fact, when they left it to the “people to impeach the CJI”, the four gave express permission to people at large to comment on happenings in the SC. “We leave that (impeachment) to the people,” they said.
Justices Jasti Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, Madan Lokur and Kurian Joseph made a big mistake by holding a press conference. They not only gave the man on the street a balcony seat, they also opened themselves to the same charge they levelled against the CJI. If the CJI wanted a “preferred bench” to achieve a particular result, the same could be said about the four senior SC judges – of wanting a bench other than the one assigned to a particular case by the CJI.
On Saturday, Justice Kurian Joseph told media in Kochi that the crisis would end soon. His brother judge Ranjan Gogoi said in Kolkata that there is “no crisis”. Saturday, the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) passed a resolution that “all PIL matters, including pending PIL matters, should be either taken up by the Chief Justice of India, or if he has to assign it to any other bench, “it should be assigned to judges in the collegium.”
But how can the accused and the accuser share a bench, especially with distrust between them? The charges made against the CJI are very serious. And those levelling the charges are the “judges in the collegium”. SCBA president Vikas Singh, who was additional solicitor-general in the UPA government, made it clear that by collegium, the SCBA meant Justices Jasti Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, Madan Lokur and Kurian Joseph. SCBA backed the Chelameswar Four.
The SC has two collegiums – One that has the CJI and two of his immediate juniors in a three-member panel to pick high court judges and the other that has the CJI and his four juniors to pick judges to the SC.
“Even the matters listed for Monday, January 15 should be transferred as per our request,” the SCBA said in a release that called the differences among the judges a “matter of grave concern” and requested the full court to consider the issue.
But as parleys continued to “resolve the crisis”, with media heavyweights contributing their two pence worth, it was clear that things would never be the same in the SC as it was before Friday took its toll. The point is, the four senior judges got themselves in a fix. By casting suspicion on the CJI they allowed a similar suspicion to cast a shadow on them, too.
BCI chairman Manan Kumar Mishra said on Monday that there was no rift in the SC; that whatever minor differences were there, they no longer existed. For all that, it is an uneasy truce. Mishra is said to be partial to the BJP. The lawyers know much more than they care to let out. Which bench hears the Loya case on Tuesday will throw more light on the State of the SC. At the end of the day, like eminent lawyer Soli Sorabji said, the press conference was a bad idea, it should not have taken place at all.