Always imperious, Indira Gandhi wanted a committed judiciary. And duly turned the Supreme Court judges into cowering factotums who willingly extinguished the Constitution for her sake in the Emergency. But now the wound on the judiciary is self-inflicted. And the main player of the piece is none other than the senior-most judge of the court, who has had a problem getting along not only with the current Chief Justice Dipak Misra but his predecessors as well.
The unprecedented move to call a press conference to protest the functioning of the CJI did not really surprise anyone privy to the goings-on in the apex court. Lawyers close to the rebel-in chief were aware before it actually happened. Disharmony and bad vibes among judges were a public secret before Friday’s extraordinary challenge to the authority of the CJI.
Judge Chelameswar, who spoke for the quartet of senior-most judges, has been openly questioning the authority of the incumbent CJIs for some time now, having been at odds with the former CJIs T.S. Thakur and J.S. Kehar as well.
So to suggest that it is only something unacceptable that CJI Misra has done, or not done, that has upset Judge Chelameswar, and which impelled him to take the extraordinary step of convening a press conference during court-time on the lawns of his official residence, will be wrong.
What is special this time is that he seems to have succeeded in roping in three other brother-judges in the public challenge to the CJI. It is claimed it was in the interest of the judiciary, but the net effect can only result in further lowering its public standing. Judge Chelameswar has only exploited the contrary pulls and pressures which have always been present under the surface in any court.
Let us not delude ourselves. The damage that Indira Gandhi began inflicting on the institutional sanctity all around has not abated since. Corresponding to the decline in the quality of men and women manning the constitutional high offices, the higher judiciary too has suffered a perceptible decline in the intellectual and moral calibre of its personnel. Barring an exception or two, mediocrities dominate the court. Evidence can be found in the judgements. The Bar too is not exactly oozing with well-rounded minds, money being the only measure of success.
Yet, the façade of institutional dignity and honour was somehow preserved even under the most trying of circumstances. When a self-righteous father-and-son duo, who love money as much as any other lawyer, accused the SC judges of corruption, the court somehow found a way to put a lid on the controversy. Paramount being the concern for judicial dignity and honour, the SC judges washing dirty linen in public did not exactly show them as selfless men of high moral standing. Regardless of the effort to mask the extraordinary defiance of the canons of acceptable judicial conduct, their rebellion pulled them down as much as it degraded the institution they ought to have been proud of and refrained from inflicting lasting damage on its public standing.
Judiciary will not be the same after the Friday rebellion. Former High Court judge, C.S. Karnan’s antics that deservedly earned him time in jail might have been forgotten, but not so the wilful defiance of the established order by Judge Chelameswar. Henceforth, he will be the role model for every judicial authority, from the junior magistrate to the SC judge, harbouring a grudge against his superior. Judicial restraint and discretion were hit for a six by Judge Chelameswar who, along with senior members of the Bar, abetted an assault on the institutional order and dignity of the highest court in the land.
A few weeks ago, he had sought to bypass the CJI, arbitrarily listing before himself a PIL which questioned the role of CJI Misra in an alleged medical scam, and, then, ordering that the same be heard by a five-member bench excluding CJI Misra. He heard the case in spite of knowing that an identical PIL seeking identical relief was already listed before another multi-member bench.
What further lends weight to the suspicion that low intrigue and cunning informed the open attack on the integrity and functional autonomy of the CJI was the fact that the same lawyer, who had mentioned the collusive PIL before Judge Chelameswar, also wrote a scathing article in a prominent New Delhi daily on Friday morning, making the same charges—which the good Judge Chelameswar virtually rehashed verbatim at the press conference.
The concerted action leaves no one in doubt that Judge Chelmeswar and a section of the lawyers together undermine the constitutional institution for personal piques and private agendas, though, admittedly, they claim doing what they are supposedly to safeguard the prestige and power of the apex court.
A member of the collegiums, who talks a great deal about transparency, despite his best effort, Judge Chelameswar has not succeeded in transferring a judge back to the Andhra High Court. And, ironically the reason for not doing so lies in safeguarding transparency, because before his elevation to the bench, the said judge had practised law with Judge Chelameswar’s lawyer-son in the Andhra High Court. In fact, prior to elevation in 2013, he was specifically told that he would be transferred out of Andhra.
When the collegium headed by CJI T.S. Thakur did not relent, Judge Chelameswar began to sulk, claiming he had recused himself from the meeting, while the minutes of the meeting showed otherwise. The deviousness later caused CJI J.S. Kehar to ensure that the minutes of the collegium meetings are sent up to Judge Chelameswar for approval within minutes of the conclusion of the meeting. So much, then, for the credibility of the honourable Judge Chelameswar.
At the press conference, Judge Chelameswar pushed for CJI Misra’s impeachment. Being the next in seniority, the recalcitrant clearly fancies himself stepping into CJI Misra’s shoes. Both Judge Misra and Judge Chelameswar having been sworn in on the same day, but with the former taking the oath a few moments ahead of the latter, Judge Misra became the CJI and Judge Chelameswar a perennially disgruntled rebel, who has thumbed his nose at successive CJIs.
It is not that Judge Chelameswar has not tried to enlist the support of the ruling dispensation, but his efforts did not bear fruit. Secretly meeting senior figures close to the ruling party incognito, he takes care not to travel in his own official car. He was the only judge who had ruled against the collegium system while endorsing the National Judicial Appointments Commission Act. All others had held the NJAC Act null and void.
Meanwhile, the only argument that can be made in defence of CJI Misra for allocating key cases to junior judges is that when the seniors defy his authority, suspect his integrity, with some of them plotting to cause him public embarrassment, he cannot be blamed for taking literally his exclusive right to being the master of the roaster. The defiant judges cannot have it both ways, question the CJI and yet expect him to recognise their seniority and assign cases accordingly. When they refuse to defer to CJI Misra’s seniority, is he bound to recognise theirs? However, CJI Misra can be blamed for being rather tactless in antagonising his senior colleagues, barring, of course, Judge Chelameswar, whose recalcitrance was beyond repair anyway.