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Judicial Independence: Developments that Tell Us Fair is Foul and Foul is Fair

It was unwise for a Chief Justice of India, whose controversial tenure strengthened the perception that the Judiciary could not take on the Government on crucial issues, to have accepted the offer of a Rajya Sabha seat.

Dr B. R. Ambedkar cautioned that the working of a Constitution does not depend on the document itself. Ultimately, its effect depends on those tasked with implementing it, …however good a Constitution may be, it is sure to turn out bad because those who are called to work it, happen to be a bad lot. However bad a Constitution may be, it may turn out to be good if those who are called to work it, happen to be a good lot.

The great Constitution of India was in good hands, fortunately, and well protected by the great institution - Indian Judiciary. The fundamental rights as envisaged in Part III of the Constitution of India could be realized because of the Supreme Court of India. It is this institution that protected the character of Constitution of India from being tampered by majoritarian democratic dictators, by discovering basic structure immunity. Great Judges like Justice H. R. Khanna sacrificed the top position of Chief Justice of India, to uphold the right to life from being decimated in emergency, that allowed the citizens to survive in authoritarian regimes. The Constitution of India protected us because of the shield and sword of the Supreme Court.

Dr. B. R. Ambedkar was worried and said: It is not that India was never an independent country. The point is that she once lost the independence she had. Will she lose it a second time? It is this thought which makes me most anxious for the future. What perturbs me greatly is the fact that not only India has once before lost her independence, but she lost it by the infidelity and treachery of some of her own people……

The 'Independence of Judiciary' is not to be determined in all its ramifications as some apriori concept but it has to be determined within the framework of the Constitution of India. The thrust is to ensure that adjudication is untrammelled by external or controls and 'Independence of Judiciary' under the Constitution of India is confined to the adjudicatory functions of the Courts or Tribunals and they are insulated from executives control in that behalf. A notable feature of the Constitution of India is that it accords a dignified and crucial position to the Judiciary in India. The existence of a fearless and Independence of Judiciary is thus founded in the constitutional structure in India. Independence of Judiciary is not genuflexion; nor is it opposition to every proposition of Government.

Present day anxiety is will India lose its Independence of Judiciary?
One or two aberrations or infidelity should not shake the foundations of Indian constitutional democracy that was protected by Judiciary. The cause of concern is, ever since the news of nomination of former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi to Rajya Sabha was flashed, there is an unprecedented surge in criticism, doubtful inferences and uncontrolled bashing of the system in print, electronic and social media and the judicial actions of former Chief Justice are brought into centre stage of this storm of adverse.

The nomination gives it the colour of a political appointment and, therefore, casts a shadow of doubt on the credibility of the Judgments delivered under his leadership as Chief Justice of Supreme Court of India and creates great consternation among informed citizens of India.

Most important in this context is to safeguard the people's faith in the Judiciary. For one incident of ethical controversy, the confidence of the people, that was built brick by brick over decades should not be allowed to be shaken.

The dark shadow cast on the high reputation of the Judiciary and on recent Judgments should be cleared as soon as possible by all legal means available to re-erect the edifice of faith of the society in the Institution. Because this is the only recourse for poor victims of executive arbitrary actions and draconian pieces of law rolled out from majorities in legislature. If morale of justices is diluted or polluted, perhaps there will be no hope for the constitutional governance according to rule of law. As Martin Luther King Jr said, injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

The Chief Justice of India and other Honourable Justices are requested to take positive steps to remove the possible adverse effects of spreading clouds on the Sun of faith in Judiciary. If it requires the Apex Judiciary may be prayed or it may act suo motu to use its extra ordinary jurisdiction under Article 142 of the Constitution of India, to have a relook into the Judgements rendered by the former Chief Justice of India in significant cases before his retirement.

This may be required to send across a strong message that Independence of Judiciary is secure in safe hands, and people can unhesitatingly depend on it for remedy, relief and justice. If not, the former Chief Justices of India or other former Justices should seriously think about ways and means to resurrect the image before it is further shadowed by uncontrolled social media attack.

In J. R. Parashar Vs Prashant Bhushan, (2001) 6 SCC 735. Para 12, the SC held that the civil society is founded in the respect for the law. If everyone chooses to break the law, no civil society can exist at all. The Governments at Centre, during the rule by Congress and BJP have undermined respect of the judiciary by such acts of luring the Judges in Office with post retirement positions in return to the favourable orders.

This question arises in the context of the Independence of the Judiciary which has been tested over the last couple of years as never before, except during the Emergency. There has been debate and discussion with regard to administrative matters such as listing of cases and other serious issues such as the appointment and transfer of judges. By and large, the Supreme Court has left quite a few wondering what's going on and quite a few making comments that are critical, bordering on the attribution of suspicion and accusations of bowing down to the wishes of those not necessarily supportive of an independent judiciary.

1. Sealed Cover Non-Jurisprudence

We have seen three developments during this period, with each one of them requiring a rethink and each one giving rise to that suspicion.

First, we saw the emergence of what is now called ‘sealed cover jurisprudence'. In this, the Court is handed over some papers in a sealed cover, the contents of which are not to be disclosed to anybody except the Judges.

This is recognised by the Indian Evidence Act but it requires a procedure to be followed - an affidavit to be filed by the Head of the concerned Department claiming privilege. But, on a perusal of the documents, the claim of privilege can be upheld or overruled by the Court.

Theoretically (and only theoretically - since no one has seen these documents) a claim for privilege could have been upheld on the Rafale documents and could have been rejected on the detention report of children in Kashmir. Unfortunately, our Judiciary has adopted an unacceptable practice of complete non-disclosure and the provisions of the Evidence Act have gone with the wind. On no occasion has the sealed cover procedure been adopted with a supporting affidavit claiming privilege.

Sure, the Courts have called for documents in the past and have not disclosed the contents, as for example investigation reports. But this has been only to ensure that the investigation is proceeding in the right direction and is not influenced by extraneous factors or considerations. But on no occasion has the decision of the Court been based on undisclosed documents. This has happened now, and is objectionable. For example, the final Juvenile Justice Committee report on the detention of children in Kashmir were not disclosed to the Petitioners or their lawyers and the petition was disposed of by the Court on their perusal. The right to know and the right to information are now passé - secrecy is the name of the game in which the State has been given the upper hand by the Courts.

The secrecy has extended to important administrative issues as well. The report of an inquiry in a sexual harassment allegations against a former Chief Justice of India (CJI) is in a sealed cover and the contents of the report have not even been disclosed to the complainant.

  • Should she not even know what the report says?

A follow up report by a retired Judge of the Supreme Court on an alleged conspiracy has also been kept in a sealed cover and we will never know if there a conspiracy or not.

  • Why is there so much secrecy in this?
  • Is the Supreme Court trying to hide something unpalatable?

Maybe. The complainant was dismissed before the inquiry but reinstated with full back wages after the inquiry. This makes sense only if there was some truth in her allegations of sexual harassment.

On the conspiracy question, if there was a conspiracy, why is the Court not acting against the conspirators? On the other hand, if there is no conspiracy, is there any harm in disclosing the conclusion and the reasons for the conclusion? How about taking action against the person who alleged a conspiracy in so serious a matter? The entire episode starting from the Saturday hearing presided over by the accused person himself now seems to be a charade. Perhaps one day, Deep Throat will tell us the truth.

While the Supreme Court keeps documents and information in a sealed cover close to its chest and bases its decision on it (as in the case of children detained in Kashmir) it has disapproved the High Court for following suit. Information contained in a sealed cover was used by the Delhi High Court to keep a former Cabinet Minister Dr. Farooq Abduallah and present Member of Parliament in detention.

The Supreme Court said:
"….. in present circumstance we were not very much inclined to open the sealed cover although the materials in sealed cover was received from the respondent. However, since the Learned Single Judge of the High Court had perused the documents in sealed cover and arrived at certain conclusion and since that order is under challenge, it had become imperative for us to also open the sealed cover and peruse the contents so as to satisfy ourselves to that extent.

On perusal we have taken note that.... Except for recording the same, we do not wish to advert to the documents any further since ultimately, these are allegations which would have to be established in the trial wherein the accused/co-accused would have the opportunity of putting forth their case, if any, and an ultimate conclusion would be reached. Hence in our opinion, the finding recorded by the Learned Judge of the High Court based on the material in sealed cover is not justified." (emphasis added)

The Ayodhya Judgment is a watershed for a different kind of secrecy. Perhaps for the first time, the specific author (s) of a Judgment has not been disclosed. This is truly amazing. Of course, the Judgment was unanimous, but then, why was there an addendum? Who authored the addendum? Only five people know the truth - the same number of people apocryphally believed to know the secret formula of Coca Cola.

A trend has been set and we have to wait and watch how far it goes.

2. Prioritising Hearings

The Supreme Court also set an avoidable precedent in the hearing and prioritising of cases, particularly Public Interest Litigations.

The twin requirements that a Public Interest Litigation litigant must cross are:

  1. show that he/she is a bona fide Public Interest Petitioner and
  2. the cause is being canvassed in Public Interest.

It is for the Court to take a decision on these threshold requirements. If the threshold is crossed on both counts, the Court takes over the conduct of the case till its logical end - no conditions can, should, or are attached. Of course, if the Court finds that even one of the requirements is not met, it will dismiss the Petition.

The Public Interest Litigation Petitioner usually assists the Court, but even if he/she does not or creates a hurdle, the Public Interest Litigation Petitioner can be replaced. This is precisely what transpired in a Public Interest Litigation filed by Sheela Barse who did not want to assist the Court after a particular stage, but petitioned for permission to withdraw her Public Interest Litigation. The Court did not grant her prayer, but substituted her with a legal aid body.

Similarly and more recently, Harsh Mander was replaced by an amicus curiae when the Court disallowed him from canvassing the cause of detenus in the detention centres in Assam, a cause in Public Interest. In other words, the Public Interest cause is more important than the Petitioner.

Contrast this with the view expressed by the Supreme Court in a Public Interest Litigation pertaining to police atrocities against students protesting against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act. The Court declined to hear till the violence stops.

What was the basis on which the Court concluded that the Petitioners or the victims of police atrocities were responsible for the violence, or that they were powerful enough to stop it?

Is it not possible to assume, conversely, that the violence would have been halted, by whoever was unleashing it, if the State had issued a statement that it will not implement the law for a few months? Perhaps that possibility was not considered and instead the citizens were put on the mat. Assuming the Public Interest Litigation Petitioners were guilty of the violence, they could have been immediately substituted, following past precedent, by an amicus curiae and the hearing in the Petition - that was clearly filed in Public Interest - could have proceeded.

Placing pre-conditions on hearing matters involving Public Interest is clearly inappropriate, particularly since most of such cases relate to issues concerning the depressed, underprivileged or disadvantaged sections of society. Again, the cause and not the person is important.
In this context, we have witnessed a ‘fresh' definition of urgency in hearing a case. Public Interest Litigations relating to the detention of children and the preventive detention of adults in Kashmir under the dreaded J&K Public Safety Act, 1978 were not taken up with due despatch, as one would expect while dealing with a Writ of Habeas Corpus.

With so many Judges in the Supreme Court, it is difficult to accept that it could not prioritise the hearing of the cases keeping the urgency of the situation in mind. The result is that even now, after more than seven months, some of these cases are pending in the Supreme Court and the High Court. Personal liberty has taken a severe hit due to this. It is true that it is for the bench to accord priority to a case for hearing it, but according no priority to a case raising a constitutional issue is rather strange.

What is the impact of this?
The absence of any urgency shown by the Courts in hearing cases concerning human rights has emboldened the executive, who now know that when such issues are raised, they can take it easy and even keep a person in custody on trumped up charges at least for a couple of days, if not longer. A few days in custody, I believe, is enough to shake up an innocent person. And so, cases of non-existent sedition are filed for keeping persons in detention till he or she learns the lesson that it is better to keep shut.

The sedition case filed against a teacher and the mother of an 11 year old girl for staging a play in Karnataka is a classic example of high-handedness in restricting personal liberty and getting away with it. A report published in the Hindustan Times in February notes that a total of 156 cases of sedition were filed between 2016 and 2018. Between December 11, 2019 and mid-February this year, at least 194 sedition cases have been filed - with many ‘accused' perhaps not being granted bail.

Such cases instill fear, and the Courts being sentinels on the qui vive must give confidence to the people that they are always available to protect their right to freely express their view, even if it is anti-establishment.

Less said the better about the ruthlessness shown by the police in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh and some other States like Telangana and Karnataka (to name a few) and the impunity with which they operate. They have left the Courts virtually speechless or have ‘compelled' them to defer to the powerful.

A recent example - the Government of Utter Pradesh put up hoardings in Lucknow displaying the photographs, names and addresses of alleged rioters who had participated in damaging public property, like burning buses. On a challenge to the hoardings through a Public Interest Litigation, the Allahabad High Court directed there removal forthwith. Rather than complying with the High Court order, the State Government preferred a Petition in the Supreme Court.

The Petition was treated as an urgent matter and taken up for hearing the very next day. Additionally, the (incorrect) precedent of not hearing a litigant till a condition is met was not followed. The State Government could very well have been told that the Court will not give it a hearing until the order of the High Court is complied with. Impunity extends to giving scant regard to the orders of the Courts - the Supreme Court did not stay the direction of the High Court and yet the State Government has not complied with it - that's the respect for the Court.
But who will bell the cat?

3. Appointment of Judges

The third unfortunate development is the successful flexing of muscles by the Government in matters of transfer of Judges and their appointment.

The transfer of Justice Akil Kureshi from Madhya Pradesh, where he was recommended, for appointment as Chief Justice to Tripura is well known, though the reasons are not. Similarly, the transfer of Justice Vikram Nath from Andhra Pradesh, where, he was recommended for appointment as Chief Justice, to Gujarat is equally inexplicable.

Much has been written about the almost midnight transfer of Justice S. Muralidhar from the Delhi High Court to Punjab & Haryana High Court. Despite what anybody may say, it was anything but routine - nobody gets transferred at an unearthly hour and also without any joining time, least of all a constitutional authority. The Supreme Court has maintained a studied silence at this treatment, which by the way, has recently been repeated, making it perhaps a new normal.

The appointment of Judges has been an equally tragic story. Recommendations are being processed at a snail's pace - no urgency, despite huge arrears. At last count, more than 200 recommendations were pending at various stages and levels. Worse, some recommendations approved by the Supreme Court Collegium have been returned for reconsideration by the Government without adequate reason. Some of these recommendations have been reiterated by the Collegium, but no warrant of appointment has yet been issued - the fate of these potential Judges hangs on a weighted balance. To make matters worse, there is at least one recommendation that has been twice reiterated, but not yet acted upon - with the Courts doing nothing about it.

So, Chief Justice recommendees have been at the receiving end as well as Judges and potential Judges. Judges recommended for appointment to the Supreme Court have been at the receiving end, with a long wait for appointment. Two well-known instances are of Justice K. M. Joseph and Justice Indu Malhotra. Where will this stop?

These and similar instances have led to the feeling among many that over the last couple of years, the Court has been executivised. This is a polite suggestion that the Independence of the Judiciary is in danger, through self-inflicted wounds and some inflicted by the executive.

And now suddenly comes the news that a recently retired Chief Justice of India having been nominated to the Rajya Sabha by the President of India on the aid and advice of the Council of Ministers.

  • How does the acceptance of the nomination impact on the Independence of the Judiciary?
  • What is the message sent out, keeping in mind the events of the last couple years?

From Supreme Court to Rajya Sabha.
For a Chief Justice of India whose tenure was marred by and mired in controversies of all three categories mentioned above and whose tenure strengthened the perception (beginning with the tenure of his predecessor) that the Judiciary could not take on the Government on crucial issues, it was unwise to have accepted the offer.

It is well known that the Judiciary is the weakest of the three pillars of democracy for it neither has influence over the sword or the purse. How then does it have its decisions and directions enforced- both judicial as well as administrative? If the Judiciary commands moral authority, and has the trust and confidence of the people, then the power and strength generated by that perception is enough to pressure the executive to obey the orders and directions of the Court.

By accepting an offer not commensurate with the dignity of the Office held a few months earlier, the former Chief Justice of India has led many to believe that he has been rewarded by the Government, the biggest litigant, for doing their bidding when it mattered. This may or may not be true, but that is the perception.

It may also not be a quid pro quo (as some would have it) or a favour for favour for some decisions (not necessarily Judgments). It could well be for staving off embarrassment in an administrative or judicial issue or playing ball through silence or failure to put one's foot down on an administrative issue or appointment or transfer of a Judge (s) - who knows? His acceptance of the nomination, and the criticism this has naturally generated, has considerably diminished the moral stature of the Judiciary and thereby collaterally impacted on its Independence of Judiciary. Public perception is important and it has been rendered totally irrelevant, thereby taking away one of the strengths of the Judiciary.

Whataboutery does not redeem the situation. No one has publicly applauded the earlier election to the Rajya Sabha of Justice Ranganath Misra or Justice Baharul Islam or the appointment of Justice Sathasivam as the Governor of Kerala in 2014. How then can anyone make use of these precedents to justify the nomination of the recently retired Chief Justice of India to the Rajya Sabha? If the precedents were wrong, the present nomination is wrong; if the precedents are acceptable, there is nothing to be disillusioned with the present nomination - and the Independence of the Judiciary be damned.

It may mitigate the damage if the former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi and the Government of India come forward to answer the following questions:

  1. Whether act of nominating and accepting the nomination as Rajya Sabha MP, within four months of retirement is not violating the spirit and letter of Constitution of India?
  2. Whether these acts violated basic structure of Constitution of India in keeping Executive separate from Judiciary?
  3. Whether serious crime of Contempt of Court was committed because it seriously undermined the credibility of judiciary as an institution and shattered the respect for position as Chief Justice of India among the people? and
  4. Whether principles of natural justice violated?

Written By: Dinesh Singh Chauhan, Advocate - High Court of Judicature, Jammu.
Email: [email protected], [email protected]

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