The manner in which four senior judges of the Supreme Court – Justices Jasti Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, Madan Bhimrao Lokur and Kurian Joseph – revolted against the administration of the apex court, principally Chief Justice Dipak Misra, and held a media conference to go public with their complaints has no parallel in post-independence Indian judicial history. For a start, the judges could well have gone to the Union Law Minister or taken their complaints to the President of India, but that they chose to voice their grievances before the media sets a bad precedent and has brought down the prestige and credibility of the country’s highest court.
This is not to deny that the aggrieved judges had reason to resent the manner in which they thought the Chief Justice overlooked them in assigning significant cases of major import, but the learned judges clearly jumped the gun. As a team leader, who is treated as a first among equals, the Chief Justice needed to show greater spirit of accommodation and should not have ridden rough shod. He can hardly be absolved of blame for his seeming lack of effort at effecting a compromise with a spirit of give and take. But, the ugly manner in which the whole drama unfolded before the public was certainly neither in good form nor unavoidable.
The four judges said on Friday that the situation in the apex court was “not in order” and many “less than desirable” things have taken place. In a letter that the four judges wrote to the chief justice before they escalated the issue before the media they said, “The convention of recognising the privilege of the Chief Justice to form the roster and assign cases to different members/Benches of the Court is a convention devised for a disciplined and efficient transaction of business of the Court, but not a recognition of any superior authority, legal or factual, of the Chief Justice over his colleagues.” This was indeed a censure of the CJI that showed up the deep fissures in the higher judiciary.
Significantly, Justice Chelameswar, currently the second senior most judge, was the only judge on the Bench who had ruled in favour of the government in the National Judicial Appointment Commission Act case where the court declared the NJAC Act unconstitutional. He had for some time been opposing the Collegium system and had complained that judicial appointments were many a time being made arbitrarily and to dole out favours to some people.
He is due to retire shortly. Justice Ranjan Gogoi is the 3rd senior most judge in the apex court and is in line to become the Chief Justice of India after Chief Justice Dipak Misra’s retirement on October 2 this year. Chief Justice Misra is yet to react to the revolt by the four senior judges, but the four judges said that they had tried to collectively tell the CJI that certain things in the administration of the apex court were not in order, but their efforts failed and that prompted them to say this before the nation.
When asked if their complaints include the case of the death of a CBI judge, BH Loya, Justice Gogoi said ‘yes.’ He however declined to elaborate. Judge Loya was hearing a case that accused BJP president Amit Shah of murder when he died in Nagpur in December 2014. His family has alleged that his death was unnatural and came after he was offered Rs 100 crore as a bribe to rule in favour of the BJP leader.
Medical records show Judge Loya died of a cardiac arrest. Within weeks of his death, Amit Shah was acquitted. The Supreme Court has been asked to order an independent inquiry into Judge Loya’s death. On Friday morning, the case was assigned to a bench that does not include the four senior judges who held the media conference.
Attorney General K K Venugopal said the unprecedented move by the four judges in holding a media conference “could have been avoided” and the judges would now have to act in “statesmanship” to ensure complete harmony. Venugopal, who had a meeting with Chief Justice of India (CJI) after the media conference, expressed hope that all judges, including the CJI, would rise to the occasion and “wholly neutralise” the “divisiveness”.
However, some opposition parties are fishing in troubled waters and have a stake in fuelling the embers of divisiveness to embarrass the Narendra Modi government. The Government, on its part, is looking at bringing about a compromise and nipping the issue in the bud. Whether the divergent views of most judges on the Supreme Court and the rebelling judges will escalate into more washing of dirty linen in public remains to be seen. Whatever the outcome, the revolt of four senior judges and the adamant attitude of the Chief Justice have set an unhealthy precedent. The sooner the differences are sorted out, the better it would be for the prestige and credibility of the judiciary.