The crisis in the Supreme Court triggered by the unprecedented press conference by the four senior-most judges last Friday continues. Contrary to earlier reports, no less than the Attorney General K K Venugopal has publicly stated that it is unresolved. The same impression was given by the head of the Supreme Court Bar Association. Meanwhile, the judges, including the four recalcitrant ones, have resumed normal work. Justices J Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, Madan B Lokur and Kurian Joseph had openly cast aspersions on the Chief Justice of India, Dipak Misra, and a number of other judges, suggesting arbitrariness in the assigning of cases and an anxiety to keep the government in good humor.
They had also implied that the memorandum of procedures which is to inform appointments to higher judiciary, after the court had held the National Judicial Commission Act unconstitutional, was being framed in a hush-hush manner. Though, the press conference by the judges had shocked a lot of old-school jurists and constitutionalists well-versed in proper protocols and proprieties, by and large the media and the political class chose to see the unprecedented act through the prism of partisanship. That explained how despite the unpardonable breach of the hoary judicial traditions, Chelameswar and Co. virtually received endorsement for their defiance from large sections of the media and the opposition.
In the times we live in, higher constitutional concerns, apparently, must yield to immediate political interests. Happily, even amidst the confusing welter of approvals and criticisms, sensible judicial voices had minced no words in condemning the foursome for the press conference. On Monday morning, before the sitting of the court, all judges met briefly where the matter was raised by a judge whose integrity for fairness was imputed by the four judges when they suggested that he was pro-government. He minced no word in ticking off the four, asking if the CJI was only the first among equals, there was no basis for the four to claim seniority over others.
As judges of the same court, they all enjoyed equal powers and rights and were, therefore, fully capable of handling various matters. If the four felt contrite for the gratuitous insult of the said judge, they did not show. It takes a brave man to say sorry, the four having needlessly impugned the integrity of a fellow judge, did not have the courtesy to make amends. From all available accounts of the all-too-brief meeting on Monday morning, neither the CJI nor the troublesome four intervened in the informal proceedings. That would suggest that the distrust and discord within the court persists.
However, in the interest of orderly functioning of the highest court in the land, it is important that a modus vivendi is found to enable a working relationship among the judges. That the four were grievously wrong in airing their disgruntlement against the CJI, astoundingly posing as the saviors of democracy and justifying the wrong in the name of their consciences, is not in doubt. Since they have no intention of quitting a court which, on their own admission has strayed away from the established norms and procedures of conduct, they must be allowed a face-saver in the larger interest of the institution they are expected to serve with dignity and honor. Therefore, the CJI Misra should display statesmanship and grace.
He should call the four errant judges over for a quiet chat – and try and remove their misgivings, genuine or otherwise, in a spirit of accommodation. It is because the institution is greater than all of them. Regardless of the poisonous narrative being spewed by the viscerally anti-Modi elements, the truth is that the apex court is far more free and independent now than at any time before. Indeed, the lack of awareness of recent history has allowed the people to assume that the court had had its best time during the Nehru era.
A scholarly study of the apex court in the early 60s and 70s, which has now been updated for an authoritative book, establishes how till the early 90s the then ruling Congress had treated the Supreme Court as its extension. Those who demur, should go and read that book. The point is that today’s critics were yesterday’s wrong-doers. They should leave the Supreme Court alone for it to be able to sort out its own mess – and to restore peoples’ faith in it.