The 47th CJI will be remembered for his clean chits to his predecessor, as well as his successor, writes Olav Albuquerque

The 47th CJI Sharad Arvind Bobde will be remembered for giving a clean chit to his predecessor-in-office as well as his successor-in-office to enable the former to retire blissfully and the latter to be sworn in gracefully. His predecessor was Ranjan Gogoi who was allegedly linked to a sex scandal while his successor is CJI-designate N V Ramana against whom Andhra chief minister Y S Jagan Reddy levelled serious allegations of meddling in case-allotment to select high court judges from Andhra. CJI Bobde absolved Ranjan Gogoi and Justice Ramana in total secrecy of any wrongdoing.

Despite the Supreme Court Bar Association’s customary flowery speeches when he retires one week later, CJI Bobde has ensured both reports of in-house procedures held to probe the charge of sexual misconduct against Ranjan Gogoi, who preceded him, and judicial impropriety against his successor, Justice N V Ramana will never be made public—flouting the norm that openness is the rule and secrecy the exception.

Out-of-turn collegium meeting

In that respect, CJI Bobde miserably failed to uphold the citizens’ right to know how their judges who are selected in secrecy and not elected, function in their chambers – like Justices Gogoi and Ramana. That apart, CJI Bobde also has the dubious distinction of being the first CJI not to recommend a single judge for elevation to the apex court, despite calling for an out-of-turn collegium meeting. His failures are more than his successes.

“Who goes to the court? You wash your dirty linen in public. But the verdict never comes,” declaimed Ranjan Gogoi while reacting to charges levelled against him by TMC MP Mahua Moitra in the Rajya Sabha, at a media conclave. She uttered what lesser mortals dare not -- that the judiciary’s image is at a nadir with the executive transferring its powers from the lower-level munsifs and district courts to its own officials.

CJI Bobde has done little to stop this which has now become apparent when a principal secretary of the government gave him a bouquet of flowers when he was sworn in as CJI. For judicial independence appears to be a symbolism with the government paying the judges their salaries and pensions apart from allotting a part of the budget to pay the salaries of court staff and provide the funds for court buildings.

He could have tried to resolve the deadlock in the collegium over elevating Tripura high court Chief Justice Aqil Qureshi to the apex court but did not assert himself. Just as he did not assert himself to dig deep into Andhra chief minister Y S Jagan Reddy’s allegations against incumbent-CJI N V Ramana of meddling with case management in the Andhra Pradesh high court because of his alleged proximity to former Andhra Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu, son-in-law of the late N T Rama Rao.

After retirement, CJI Bobde will be the first to be paid Rs 70,000 per month as enhanced pension to a CJI apart from the chopdar, vehicle and office allowance to which he is entitled until death does him part from being a former CJI.

Question to rapist

During the hearing of an anticipatory bail hearing for Mohit Subhash Chavan, a technician with a Maharashtra State Electric Production company, accused of raping a minor, Bobde asked the accused “If you want to marry her, we can help you. If not, you lose your job and go to jail. You seduced the girl, raped her, will you marry her?” Again, he asked a lawyer when a man and a woman were married, whether forcible sexual intercourse without the woman’s consent could be called rape, “however brutal the man may be”.

Following such exchanges, women’s lawyers’ groups called on Bobde to resign for asking the accused rapist to marry his victim to avoid punishment. But Bobde clarified he was within his rights as a judge to ask the accused any question to ascertain the truth. Never mind if these questions imply an anachronistic mindset. The idea of marriage as a get-out-of-jail-free card-for-rape is illegal which is why women’s lawyers’ groups called for his resignation.

Stayed farm laws

Apart from staying the three contentious farm laws enacted by the government despite vociferous protests from the farmers, CJI Bobde has never resisted the government, which is the largest litigant in his court.

He advised the courts it was the executive which had the wisdom and the resources to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic, which implied the judiciary should think twice before passing orders which displeased the government. A bench (on which he was not sitting) asked the petitioners, “if the migrants want to walk back to their villages, what can we do?” conveniently forgetting the judiciary was the sole custodian of the fundamental right to life of these migrants left to die on the road.

Like his predecessors, CJI Sharad Arvind Bobde was never accountable to the people for his decisions. Whether he was accountable to the executive, we may never know.

The writer holds a PhD in law and is a senior journalist-cum-advocate of the Bombay high court.

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