Among the cases pending before him, the Ram Janmabhoomi, Babri mosque title dispute is the most sensitive one.
Now that Justice Ranjan Gogoi is set to take over as the 46th Chief Justice of India (CJI) on 3 October, the incumbent Chief Justice, Dr Dipak Misra is left with precisely 16 working days over the next three weeks to complete his duty on the high post by deciding on a host of cases that are of immense national importance and are extremely sensitive in nature. That is a short but feasible window for the outgoing CJI to make judicial history in Indian democracy in the manner he led the move to remove the colonial-era Section 377 from the roster of valid laws.
Even as little time is left for Justice Misra to take call on vexed issues like Ram temple and Aadhaar, legal and political circles are divided over whether the CJI will, in his last days, take such bold decisions with far-reaching implications or leave that task to his successor. Optimists opine that if the recent verdict on Article 377 is any indication, the answer is an emphatic “yes”. The sceptics, however, are more in number and are looking a “disappointed” lot.
Among the cases pending before him, the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri mosque title dispute is the most sensitive one, which has been hanging fire for decades now. The three-judge Bench headed by Justice Misra is yet to pronounce its verdict, which it has kept reserved since 20 July on a supplementary theological question as to “whether a mosque is integral to Islam or not”.
Progress of the case has been marred by multiple efforts by known parties to prolong it beyond the general elections next year. So the question being asked by those eager for this issue to finally get decided is: Will Chief Justice Misra thwart the delaying tactics by delivering a final judgement in the case within his tenure?
Similarly, a five-judge Constitution Bench headed by him had reserved its order on 10 May on the constitutional validity of Aadhaar after a marathon hearing that lasted for 38 days. A final verdict is still awaited although five long years have elapsed since the first plea was filed in the case. It is now to be seen if the CJI will be able to give a final decision in this case before his retirement.
Other important and sensitive cases pending before him are: women’s entry into Sabarimala temple, live streaming of court proceedings, equality in penal laws on adultery, disqualification of lawmakers facing criminal charges, reservation in promotions, ban on legislators from practising as advocates, revision of anti-dowry law, guidelines to curb vandalism by protesting mobs, making the RTI Act disabled-friendly, female genital mutilation, Mullaperiyar dam water level issue in view of the massive Kerala floods, etc.
Though Justice Misra is known for some “bold and daring” decisions, some of his tenure was mired in controversies, the impeachment motion brought against him by a powerful lobby of lawyers being the worst. This move was unprecedented in the judicial history of the country, and may have dented the image of the judiciary to some extent. It was the legislature which finally came to his rescue when Vice-President Venkaiah Naidu, acting in his capacity as the Chairman of Rajya Sabha, struck the motion down.
A notable judgement Justice Misra has delivered is the midnight dismissal of Mumbai serial blasts convict Yakub Memon’s plea to stop his execution. In an unprecedented hearing at 3.20 am on 30 July 2015, a three-judge Bench led by him rejected Memon’s last-minute petition for a stay on his death warrant. A few hours later, Memon was hanged. Justice Misra even received a death threat in an anonymous letter saying “irrespective of the protection you may avail, we will eliminate you”.
Justice Misra also authored the landmark judgement on 5 May 2017 confirming the death penalty of four convicts in the brutal 2012 Delhi gang rape and murder case, known as the Nirbhaya case. Staying the ban on the release of movie Padmavaat by certain states was another of his bold verdicts in emotive and politically-surcharged issues.
Other important cases in which he delivered verdicts are: 120-year-old Cauvery water-sharing dispute, asking the Delhi Police to upload FIRs on its website within 24 hours of being lodged, upholding the marriage in the Kerala “love jihad” case, playing the national anthem in film theatres, upholding the constitutionality of criminal defamation, cases of honour killing, mob vigilantism and lynching, etc.
It was Justice Misra—who belongs to an illustrious judicial dynasty of Odisha—who had recommended Justice Gogoi’s name to the government, keeping to the established tradition of choosing the next senior-most judge of the Supreme Court to succeed. He has earned a lot of accolades for his gesture of choosing Justice Gogoi as his successor. According to his admirers, it shows that he is a man with “a strong mind but a big heart”. It also proves that he is a person who can rise above personal prejudices and stick to the rules come what may, they add. Will the Chief Justice then make his final days in office the most momentous in the judicial history of the nation? The next three weeks will tell.