The year 2021 which continued to reel under COVID-19 pandemic with the strict restrictions and its continued phases that followed after, there was no heading back to normal and only adapting to the new normal. However, what 2021 couldn’t continue to stop was India’s judiciary.
Apart from the major changes that we witnessed in the Judiciary as the courtrooms were substituted by virtual courts; paper books by computer files, this year also marked some key changes that shaped the legal landscape of India.
As year 2021 comes to an end, here's a look at the top judgements in some of the most important issues:
1. Supreme Court orders independent probe into Pegasus, says Govt can’t get free pass every time ‘national security’ is raised
In India, the Pegasus Project investigations alleged that the Pegasus spyware was used on ministers, opposition leaders, political strategist and tacticians, journalists, activists, minority leaders, supreme court judges, religious leaders, administrators like Election Commissioners and heads of Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI).Some of these phones were later analysed and were confirmed to have been targeted by the Pegasus spyware.
The Pegasus Project was a collaborative investigative journalism initiative undertaken by 17 media organisations. Pegasus is a spyware developed by the NSO Group, an Israeli technology and cyber-arms firm that can be secretly deployed on mobile phones and other devices, which run most versions of Android and iOS. Pegasus is capable of reading text messages, tracking calls, collecting passwords, location tracking, accessing the target device's microphone and camera, and harvesting information from apps.
Making clear that the state cannot get “a free pass every time the spectre of ‘national security’ is raised”, the Supreme Court ordered a “thorough inquiry” into allegations of unauthorised surveillance using the Pegasus spyware.
Ruling on a batch of 12 petitions which sought an independent probe into the alleged illegal use of the Israeli NSO Group spyware Pegasus, the bench of Chief Justice of India N V Ramana, Justices Surya Kant and Hima Kohli said “the Petitioners have placed on record certain material that prima facie merits consideration by this Court. There has been no specific denial of any of the facts averred by the Petitioners by the Respondent — Union of India. There has only been an omnibus and vague denial in the ‘limited affidavit’ filed by the Respondent — Union of India, which cannot be sufficient. In such circumstances, we have no option but to accept the prima facie case made out by the Petitioners to examine the allegations made”.
It listed what it called the “compelling circumstances that have weighed with us to pass such an order”:
Right to privacy and freedom of speech are alleged to be impacted, which needs to be examined.
The entire citizenry is affected by such allegations due to the potential chilling effect.
No clear stand taken by the Respondent-Union of India regarding actions taken by it.
Seriousness accorded to the allegations by foreign countries and involvement of foreign parties.
Possibility that some foreign authority, agency or private entity is involved in placing citizens of this country under surveillance.
Allegations that the Union or State Governments are party to the rights’ deprivations of the citizens.
Limitation under writ jurisdiction to delve into factual aspects. For instance, even the question of usage of the technology on citizens, which is the jurisdictional fact, is disputed and requires further factual examination.
2. Supreme Court says farmers have right to protest, but can’t block roads
The 2020-2021 Indian farmers' protest was a protest against three farm acts that were passed by the Parliament of India in September 2020. The acts, often called the Farm Bills, have been described as "anti-farmer laws" by many farmer unions and politicians from the opposition who say it would leave farmers at the "mercy of corporates".
Soon after the acts were introduced, unions began holding local protests, mostly in Punjab. After two months of protests, farmer unions—mainly from Punjab and Haryana—began a movement named Dili Chalo (transl. Let's go to Delhi), in which tens of thousands of farming union members marched towards the nation's capital. However, the year long protests were recently pulled back by Narendra Modi led central government and the farmers' unions announced to withdraw the protests.
The Supreme Court took the farmers’ side and the government engage in a verbal clash during a physical hearing. Farmers, represented by senior advocate Dushyant Dave and advocate Prashant Bhushan, said roads were deliberately blocked in order to turn public sentiments against them. The protesters should be allowed to enter the Ram Lila Maidan and Jantar Mantar to continue their protests against the agricultural laws.
A Bench led by Justice S.K. Kaul acknowledged that “there is a problem with movement, we are not going to accept there is no problem”. It stated that a solution needed to be found for the nearly two-year impasse between farmers and the Government.
Mr. Dave contended that the right to protest was a fundamental right. The roads were blocked by police. The government’s view on violence by protesters seemed to skewed. He asked why farmers were not being allowed at Jantar Mantar when Tuesday saw massive protests organised by the BJP in the area over the attack on Hindus in Bangladesh during Durga pooja. “The solution is allow us to agitate at Jantar Mantar...”
The court issued notice on new petitions filed by other private citizens seeking the removal of the blockades.
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3. Supreme Court declares Maratha quota law unconstitutional:
The Maratha Kranti Morcha, is a series of silent and pragmatic protests organized by the Maratha community in various cities across India as well as overseas. Other groups, such as religious minorities including Muslims, have also supported the Morcha. Maratha caste is the largest caste of India and dominate the power structure in Maharashtra because of their numerical strength, especially in the rural society.
The demand for reservations in educational positions and government jobs have largely been a part of these protests. The Bombay High Court had upheld the reservations granted to the Maratha community but also mentioned that the percentage of quotas given wasn't justifiable. Supreme court later, however quashed the Maratha community reservations.
Due to the lack of reservations, unemployment has become a major problem in the Maratha community. Some castes within the Maratha community, known as Kunbi, do receive the benefits of reservations provided to the Other Backward Class category; however, most people are allegedly out of benefits.
A five-judge Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court unanimously declared a Maharashtra law which provides reservation benefits to the Maratha community, taking the quota limit in the State in excess of 50%, as unconstitutional.
The Bench led by Justice Ashok Bhushan found there was no “exceptional circumstances” or “extraordinary situation” in Maharashtra which required the Maharashtra government to break the 50% ceiling limit to bestow quota benefits on the Maratha community.
The Supreme Court struck down the findings of the Justice N.G. Gaikwad Commission which led to the enactment of Maratha quota law and set aside the Bombay High Court judgment which validated the Maharashtra State Reservation for Socially and Educationally Backward Classes (SEBC) Act of 2018.
The High Court had, in June 2019, reduced the quantum of reservation for Marathas from the 16% recommended by the Gaikwad Commission to 12% in education and 13% in employment. The Supreme Court concluded that even the reduced percentages of reservation granted by the High Court were ultra vires.
In fact the Supreme Court held that a separate reservation for the Maratha community violates Articles 14 (right to equality) and 21 (due process of law).
4. "You can put your head in sand like ostrich, we will not," Delhi High Court's contempt notice to Centre on oxygen supply
During the second deadly wave of Covid-19, several hospitals in Delhi had approached the Delhi high court complaining of shortage of medical oxygen; there have also been instances of patients losing their lives due to its shortage.
Delhi had been hit by an unprecedented medical oxygen crisis. While several Covid-19 patients died waiting for beds with oxygen support, the family members of patients said they died inside hospitals due to oxygen shortage.
The Delhi government had claimed it continued to face oxygen shortage because of inadequate allocation and supply by the central government, but the crisis also seems to have been caused by its own failings, such as the inability to manage logistics or the absence of an allocation plan to hospitals.
The Delhi high court had issued a show-cause notice to the Central government over the “non-compliance” of its order to provide 700 metric tonnes (MT) of medical oxygen for the treatment of patients of the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) in Delhi. The high court directed the presence of Piyush Goyal and Sumita Dawra, additional secretaries in the ministries of home affairs and industrial promotion, respectively, before it to answer the notice.
The notice, it said, was also over the “non-compliance” of the Supreme Court’s order from May 2, directing the Centre to rectify the issue of shortage of medical oxygen in the Capital’s hospitals, on or before the midnight of May 3.
"You can put your head in sand like ostrich, we will not," the high court remarked.
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