The credibility of the Supreme Court was considered to be at the lowest ebb during the tenure of chief justice Dipak Misra. The so-called ‘mutiny’ by the four senior-most judges was described as the darkest hour of Indian judiciary, amidst allegations of the CJI misusing his Master of the Roster powers to constitute ‘pliable’ benches ready to do the bidding of interested parties, planting serious doubt in the minds of people about the integrity of the institution. Justice Misra has even been accused by a retired colleague of having behaved like an ‘agent’ of some external force, which the judge stopped short of identifying, but the reference was quite obvious.
It was widely believed that when Justice Ranjan Gogoi, who was one of the participants of the unprecedented press conference called by Justice J Chelameswar, since retired, as a ‘call of duty to the nation’, took office as the new CJI, there would be a break from the past and that he would restore the credibility of the apex court. But that was not to be. It is not even four months since Justice Gogoi took charge, but his tenure is already dogged by controversies. Gogoi used his ‘power as the chief justice’ to overturn the decision of the collegium headed by himself to elevate Justice Rajendra Menon and Justice Pradeep Nandrajog of the Delhi and Rajasthan high courts respectively to the Supreme Court and instead appointed Justice Dinesh Maheshwari and Justice Sanjiv Khanna.
Justice Maheshwari from the Karnataka high court is the one against whom Justice Chelameswar had raised serious allegations.It seems the Chief Justice was miffed by the ‘leak’ of the news of the appointments of Menon and Nandrajog to the media and apparently the decision is prompted by ‘additional material’. Justice Gogoi has taken great pains to explain why he changed the collegium’s decision, but most people in judicial circles and the public at large refuse to be convinced. In any case, the ‘leak’ has nothing to do with the calibre of the affected judges and as such the action amounts to punishing them for no fault of theirs, unless the leak itself can be attributed to them, which does not seem to be the case.
The verdict in the Rafale case, in which the court could not differentiate between the Anil Ambani group and the Mukesh Ambani ‘s original Reliance group, gave a clumsy picture of the commitment and application of mind of the judges to their work, apart from questions of judicial propriety in deciding substantive issues. The excuse of the court having been misled by the government is untenable as the court is supposed to have a mind of its own, capable of questioning the veracity of whatever is placed before it. As the judge heading the bench, the chief justice cannot run away from the blame.
The CJI’s performance so far by no means adds up to the expectation and there has been a big gap between word and the deed. He took office promising to reduce the huge backlog of cases, the biggest bane of Indian judiciary. Barely three months before he took over as the new CJI Justice Gogoi had stressed the need for the judiciary to be more proactive. “Not a reform but a revolution is what it needs, to be able to meet the challenges on the ground and to keep this institution serviceable for a common man and relevant for the nation. For the effectiveness of the judgments to show, the justice dispensation system has to be made more result oriented i.e. to say, more focused on enforcement,” he had thundered while delivering the Ramnath Goenka memorial lecture.
But there has been no change in the highly bureaucratic approach of the court under his leadership. His own approach in several instances has been far from being dynamic and proactive as he left everything to routine, which is what his predecessors have also been doing. If it has taken three months to decide on a date to resume hearing on the Ramjanmabhoomi dispute, one can imagine the time it takes to conclude the arguments and arrive at a decision on such a humongous case. The ‘routine’ manner in which the reconstitution of the bench to hear the case has been handled gives an unintended advantage to one of the parties by default although that may never have been in the court’s mind. This is certainly not proactive.
Even in terms of routine, there has been a certain lack of consistency in the CJI’s approach. This is particularly true in the case of the knotty Sabarimala case. The controversial verdict allowing the entry of a restricted category of women into the hill shrine had produced a deluge of review petitions. When the petitions came up before a CJI-headed bench just a few days before the three-month pilgrim season was to begin, the court decided to post the hearing for January 22. The uncertainty marred the crucial Mandalam-Makaravilakku pilgrimage, plunging the entire Kerala into turmoil and violence.
But when two activists, who entered the temple under the cover of darkness by disguising their identities with the help of police, approached the same bench asking for round the clock police protection, it heard the plea on an urgent basis and ordered the State government to provide such security. It is a mystery why the women directly approached the Supreme Court and the court obliged them when they should have actually gone to the Kerala high court, which already has a specialist bench to hear matters relating to Sabarimala. The only saving grace is that the Supreme Court saw through the game of the women, allegedly sponsored by the State government, to use the petition to force a decision against objections raised in the review petitions.
is a freelance journalist. Views are personal.