By flagging the poor quality of legislative performance and indiscriminate arrests, the Chief Justice of India, Justice N V Ramana, has raised two serious issues currently plaguing the Indian polity. His remarks were especially welcome as they came just ahead of the monsoon session of Parliament beginning today. At a function in the Rajasthan Assembly on Saturday, the CJI spoke of the ‘acrimonious’ state of politics in the country while pointing out that laws are being passed without adequate deliberation and scrutiny. He urged politicians not to turn political opposition into hostility as it negates democracy, and regretted that the space for the opposition is shrinking. Justice Ramana, harking back to a time when opposition leaders used to play a stellar role, said there was earlier a lot of mutual respect between the government and the opposition. His remarks will no doubt be seen as interference in the legislature’s domain but he makes a strong point when he says that diversity of opinion enriches society and the polity. While stating that the hostility being witnessed today is not a sign of a healthy democracy, the Chief Justice was quick to add that he has the highest respect for lawmakers and is not criticising them, but only expressing his concern. He said that laws which are not properly debated later add to the burden on the judiciary, because people file cases challenging them. The Chief Justice stressed that India was meant to be a "Parliamentary Democracy", not a "Parliamentary Government", adding that representation and plurality matter. B R Ambedkar’s caution against rule by majority is pertinent here, and it is important to reiterate what he said about majority rule being “untenable in theory and unjustifiable in practice”.
As the Parliament session gets underway, one can only hope that meaningful debates are held and legislation is not rushed through as has been the wont in the last several sessions. The BJP with its brute majority in the Lok Sabha and its impressive numbers in the Rajya Sabha has had its way on almost all issues and has succeeded in easily getting crucial Bills passed. The practice of sending them to standing committees and select panels has almost been given the go-by, so there is lack of careful scrutiny of important legislation. Disunity in its ranks has only compounded the woes of the opposition. Only a strong opposition can be an effective bulwark against a government when it makes mistakes. It is the duty of all stakeholders in a democracy to strengthen it and ensure that all its pillars are effective. In that sense, the CJI’s remarks are indeed a welcome wake-up call.
It is heartening that the CJI has also taken note of the recent tendency to arrest people hastily and arbitrarily, as also the difficulty in obtaining bail. Calling the process itself a punishment, Justice Ramana said the prolonged incarceration of undertrials requires urgent attention. His remarks assume significance in the context of the arrest and continued judicial custody of Mohammed Zubair, co-founder of fact-checking website Alt News, who has been slapped with a slew of cases for a 2018 tweet allegedly derogatory to Hindu gods, as well as the one-month incarceration of actress Ketaki Chitale in Mumbai charged with defaming NCP leader Sharad Pawar in a social media post. A host of political leaders, activists and journalists have in recent times been slapped with draconian sections of the law and put behind bars for months on end in a shameful travesty of justice, even as purveyors of hate speech making open calls for genocide of a community have been arrested only after prolonged delays – and released on bail in a surprisingly short period of time.
Justice Ramana’s remarks made at another function in Rajasthan on Saturday came close on the heels of a Supreme Court bench directing the Central government to frame a new law on bail to streamline the release of those accused in criminal cases, while pointing out that the present code of criminal procedure is a modified colonial-era law. The top court observed that in a democracy there should never be an impression that it is a police state. The Supreme Court enjoined investigating agencies to expedite the probe process and complete it within a prescribed time. The right to bail is an absolute one and cannot be taken away even in unforeseen circumstances such as the recent pandemic, the bench said. The court’s observations are welcome indeed, but one can only hope that their lordships’ words are taken seriously by investigating agencies and acted upon swiftly. Given the huge pendency of cases and the enormous political pressure on the police and probe agencies, this is not a problem that can be wished away overnight, and requires a concerted effort by all stakeholders concerned.