At the outset, let us be clear that we suffer from no illusion that the judiciary, higher or lower, is an island of excellence whereas all around it are institutions which have strayed away from the ideal. To get a correct perspective on the most regrettable defiance of the established canons of behavior by the four senior-most judges of the Supreme Court, you will have to disabuse your mind of the lingering thought that somehow Their Lordships are free from the partisanships and prejudices that assail people in all other constitutional offices.
Having said that, we have no hesitation in holding both the factions in the highest court in the land responsible for dragging the institution into the public square for abuse and ridicule. You don’t wash your dirty linen in public, do you? But, it seems Judge Jasti Chelameswar and his partners-in-defiance, namely Judges Kurian Joseph, Ranjan Gogoi and Madan Lokur, wholly unmindful of the damage they would do to the very institution for whose protection they purportedly undertook the extraordinary step of rebelling against Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, did nothing else but wash the dirty linen before the world. Now, Misra may not be the most tactful of persons, may even lack leadership qualities, needed to reconcile clashing egos of fellow judges, but so long as he is the Chief, his position cannot be undermined by such trade-unionist action by a group of fellow judges.
Recalcitrant behavior in the normal course ought to have earned the quartet an outright ejection from their posts, but given the constitutionally-protected tenures, they are assured of job security. Exploiting such a privilege for raising the banner of revolt for nursing personal piques and advancing private agendas was unbecoming of Chelameswar and Co. He has a history of being at loggerheads with a succession of CJIs. The point is when you question the integrity and authority of the CJI, then you have no moral right to challenge his exclusive right as the master of the roaster to assign cases to whoever he likes. It takes two to tango, the CJI cannot be belittled and then expected to pay due regard to your seniority.
Yes, the question of CJI Mishra’s integrity is important, but is he the only one who is facing allegations of wrong-doing. Judge Chelameswar has not exactly been a model of judicial rectitude. Whatever the provocation, had the rebels accorded institutional propriety and honour due priority, they would have desisted from holding a press conference against the Chief. This is extraordinary. Indira Gandhi, in her quest for a committed judiciary, packed the apex court with yes-men; the consequence was the demolition of the Constitution in the Emergency. But, the wound inflicted on the judiciary last Friday was self-inflicted. If the fence starts eating the farm, nobody can save it.
As it is, the quality of men and women who man the judiciary at every level, high and low, leaves much to be desired. A majority of the judges of the Supreme Court have neither the depth of scholarship and knowledge of various constitutional jurisprudences nor the wisdom and statesmanship required to command respect. Yet, if the posts they hold entitle them to be treated with due deference, they ought to be careful not to un-earn that privilege by their wayward conduct. The Supreme Court as the last court of appeal has pontificated on all manner of issues, some strictly outside its domain. After the Friday split in the court, its moral authority stands further diminished. Unless it is able to put behind the ugly contretemps soon by demonstrably establishing that trust and order prevails among the judges, its capacity to deliver justice will be further eroded.
The malcontents on the bench must learn to behave, while the malcontents in the Bar, who too instigated this assault on the institutional sanctity of the highest court in the land, must be mercilessly isolated. Collusion between the bench and the Bar to undermine the institution must be exposed in the larger interest of the public. People of India deserve better from their judges. And not what they were presented last Friday. Hopefully, no judge will ape the rottenness that was on display last Friday. In the constitutional scheme of things, judges should speak through their judgements, not rebellious words said against one another.