Free Press Journal

A Supreme Court divided against itself

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We are appalled at the sheer ugliness displayed by the purveyors of justice last week. Proceedings in the highest court in the land last Thursday and Friday did no one involve proud. How we wish the country was spared this sordid spectacle of the higher judiciary itself being bogged down in charges of corruption and wrong-doing. People expected better from Their Lordships and the lawyers who indulged in mud-slinging without any concern for institutional honour and dignity. Without doubt, the Supreme Court seems fully divided, not on matters of interpretation of law or the will of the founding fathers as expressed through the Constitution. No, it seems divided on factional lines stemming from partisan, extra-judicial agendas. Very briefly the trigger for the public display of bad blood between judges qua judges with a couple of self-important lawyers aligned with each group was the reported permission to a medical college despite a clear ban on admitting students. A former Orissa High Court judge, one I M Quddusi, was among those arrested by the CBI a few weeks ago on the ground that he was one of those who promised to get the ban lifted by the courts, including the Supreme Court, on payment of huge bribes. Forty-six medical colleges were barred from admitting students for two years following an inquiry. They lacked the requisite infrastructure. The Lucknow college was one of them. It wangled a judicial order for bypassing the ban courtesy Judge Quddusi.  Notably, the mention about the SC in the FIR nowhere mentions any name of any SC judge, the reference being on the basis of a claim made by Quddusi alone. Latching on to this FIR, a senior lawyer demanded that a particular judge of the SC list the case for hearing on an urgent basis. Instead of referring the matter to the CJI Dipak Misra, Justice J Chelameswar sitting with Justice Abdul Nazeer on Thursday passed an order asking for a five-member constitution bench to consider the allegation of judicial corruption, and pointedly, said that the bench should comprise five most senior judges of the apexcourt.

Clearly, a conspiracy was afoot against the CJI who was not only not consulted by Justice Chelameswar when he suo motu heard the plea of the former head of the SC Bar. The latter is in the habit of unleashing abuse against the judges from public platforms but has not been show-caused either by the professional body of lawyers nor hauled up for contempt by Their Lordships. The next day, a two-member bench heard an identical plea from an NGO, Campaign for Judicial Accountability and Reforms, fronted by the activist lawyer, Prashant Bhushan, who too is prone to grandstand allegedly for the sake of a clean judiciary. The two-member bench headed by Justice A K Sikri in this case took the correct decision, remitting the matter “to the CJI for passing appropriate orders for listing this matter”. Unlike Justice Chelameswar, the Sikri Bench had neither listed the matter suo motu before it nor had it specifically omitted the CJI from a five-member bench it ordered to be set up for hearing the Lucknow medical college case. A few hours later, on Friday itself, a five-judge Constitution Bench, headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra, unambiguously stated that by propriety and practice it was the prerogative of the Chief Justice alone to allocate work to judges and rejected the order passed a day earlier by the Chelameswar bench. During the proceedings, hot words were exchanged between the bench and Bhushan, causing at one point for the judges to threaten contempt proceedings against him. The court also turned down a plea for banning the media from reporting the proceedings. Without  doubt, the stormy scenes enacted in the sanctum sanctorum of the highest seat of judiciary in the country echoed the ones for which our legislatures have justly become notorious. But, regrettably, this only confirms our view that the courts too are subject to the same pulls and pressures, the same human failings from which all other institutions suffer. We have often made the case that the courts are no panacea for the failings of the executive or the legislature since they too are riddled with corruption and wrong-doing. The role of Justice Chelameswar has been devious for quite some time now. A member of the SC collegiums, he has often conducted himself in less-than-dignified manner. On Thursday too, he breached judicial propriety, opening himself to the charge of being part of an anti-CJI conspiracy.  The lawyers purportedly fighting to cleanse the judiciary seem to have their own axes to grind. Flinging unsubstantiated charges against the CJI brings into disrepute the higher judiciary. As the last defence against a rampaging executive, a dented and damaged judiciary is ill-positioned to defend citizens’ rights. PIL entrepreneurs should cease and desist from pelting the judiciary any further.