Most of today’s judges on the Supreme Court bench were in their thirties on 7 May 1997 when, famously, the full court sat and issued a 16-point declaration called Restatement of Values of Judicial Life. That year was the 50th anniversary of our Independence. You can find the full text here.
Twenty years on, we should check if our most hallowed institution has lived up to it.
You might begin with the question: Why is it that the Supreme Court of India has been making headlines for controversies than for good news? The current Chief Justice of India, Ranjan Gogoi, as his two immediate predecessors, Justices Dipak Misra and J.S. Khehar, have faced crippling controversies. The two before them cadged convenient sarkari sinecures. One of these, regrettably, in a Raj Bhavan.
Khehar was “mentioned” in the diaries of dead Arunachal chief minister Kalikho Pul. Dipak Misra first faced an unprecedented joint press conference by his four senior-most colleagues, protesting what they saw as his high-handedness and lack of institutional democracy, and then an impeachment threat by the opposition. The ‘sexual harassment’ crisis facing Justice Gogoi now is the gravest.
Let’s presume that each of these was spotless and targeted by interested parties. But we simply cannot defend none of them facing any scrutiny. Mostly, it happened because there was no procedure, mechanism or institution for such an inquiry. And where there is one, the Internal Complaints Committee for Sexual Harassment under the Vishakha Guidelines laid down by the highest court, the matter has been referred to a specially constituted committee of SC judges first, which the complainant has rejected.
Here are the three key reasons our judiciary has dug itself into a deep hole. First, its insistence on ducking inconvenient questions by invoking stature and reputation. This means there’s never closure on any issue. Second, that while the court lectures us on transparency, it remains India’s most opaque institution. And third, there is no mechanism, even a council of respected elders, which could step in when a crisis of credibility or internal distrust became evident.
Parliament had tried to create the National Judicial Accountability Commission exactly for such situations, but the court struck it down 4-1 as unconstitutional. Three of the judges who served on that bench (including Chelameswar, the lone dissenter) figured in the four-judge press conference in Gogoi’s company.
Since Gogoi was the most senior among the four and the only one still in the chair, he needs to reflect on how his institution ended up here. Why is his Supreme Court looking like a big, flailing body oozing blood from a dozen, mostly self-inflicted cuts? And piranhas of various kinds are lurking.
It’s a tragedy when Supreme Court judges complain that they are victims of conspiracies. How did this most powerful institution, which is supposed to protect us and give us justice, become so vulnerable that busybody conspirators can threaten it? If it is so weak, where will we citizens go for justice?
The CJI’s office is a most exalted one. It is also possible that, as he and his brother judges in that most avoidable Saturday morning outburst indicated, there indeed is a conspiracy to undermine him. The Chief Justice of India deserves the fullest protection against interested parties throwing muck at him. But exactly the same principle should also apply to the complainant and the underdog.
Justice Gogoi and colleagues erred gravely in holding that peremptory Saturday morning sitting and pre-judging her case. Subsequent repairwork is now lost in the thickening murkiness, with an activist lawyer popping up with conspiracy theories. What these precisely are, we don’t know, because he has submitted them in a sealed cover.
The sealed cover has now become a defining metaphor for the last of the three big mistakes the court has made: Making itself the most opaque institution while preaching transparency from the Republic’s highest pulpit. Here is an indicative list. In the Rafale case, the government’s evidence is in a sealed envelope, as indeed are all the reports of the officer in-charge of the NRC process in Assam. In former CBI chief Alok Verma’s case the CVC report remains in a sealed cover, as do NIA’s reports in the Hadiya ‘conversion’ case.
The SC order to political parties to submit details of their donors to the EC is the latest example of this quaint judicial doctrine of the sealed cover. You might understand need for secrecy in a rare case. But if even the compensation for the assorted retirees heading the court-appointed Committee of Administrators of Indian cricket remains in a sealed cover for three years, it’s fair to ask why the court should be hiding behind secrecy when its entire BCCI excursion was about transparency.
Opacity is comforting. You can so easily get used to it. The SC protects RTI for us, but claims immunity for itself. Only seven of 27 SC judges have disclosed their assets. There is no transparency or disclosure of the collegium proceedings, or even explanation when it changes its mind on an appointment. Shouldn’t you have the right to know exactly how many special and empowered committees the court has set up, mostly as a result of PILs, their members—especially retirees—and compensations? If the executive hid such information from you, you’d go to the courts. Where do you go against the Supreme Court?
Judges are wise people. It follows that top judges should be among the wisest of all. They must reflect on the consequences of their making the judiciary an insulated and cocooned institution while being the supreme force for transparency and disclosure elsewhere. It is this contradiction and hypocrisy that the complainant against the CJI has laid bare. That’s why the court is looking unsure.
Read that 16th and last point in that 1997 Restatement of Values of Judicial Life: ‘Every judge must at all times be conscious that he is under the public gaze and there should be no act or omission by him which is unbecoming of the high office he occupies and the public esteem in which that office is held.’
The Supreme Court’s refuge in opacity does not live up to this principle. An institutional reset and retreat are called for here. Of course, while both the complainant and the CJI get justice.