This publication has immense respect for the Indian judiciary. Across the decades, several of the finest jurists in the world have adorned the benches of the Supreme Court of India as well as the High Courts, not to mention the lower judiciary. Several of its judgements have become models for other countries, especially those having a less well developed judicial system. We welcome the manner in which the Supreme Court is reconsidering its earlier affirmation of the Victorian-era law that criminalises same sex relationships or seeks to ensure jail time for adultery. Such matters belong to the bedroom and not to the corridors of police stations, much less prison. A few days ago, the Supreme Court has correctly admonished the Maharashtra government for acting in the manner of the Saudi Arabian “muttawa” (or moral police) by refusing to sanction dance bars in the metropolitan city of Mumbai. On the one hand, the state government claims that it seeks to make the commercial capital of India the equal of Shanghai. On the other, it betrays a mindset similar to that found in closed and repressed societies. Will any state government shortly decree that women should only go about in robes that cover the entirety of their hands, legs and faces? It is astonishing that the Maharashtra government, through its standing counsel, told the nation’s top court that “no family with traditional values would allow their members to visit such places”. Is the government only meant to serve those citizens from a state conforming to its definition of “families with traditional values” or every individual? And who is to decide just which values are “traditional”? There was a time when the inhuman practice of “sati” was considered traditional, as also the vicious practice of untouchability. However, 2018 is not 1618, however much some individuals may wish it to be. Such musings are par for the course in a democracy, except when the bludgeon of law and the force of government are used to enforce what are at the base prejudices which have no place in a country that is so syncretic in its traditions, chemistry and outlook. Those heading the Maharashtra government have the right to believe that dancing is “immoral” and desist from the practice. But they have zero right to enforce such antediluvian views on the rest of society by declining permission for dance bars to be re-opened in Mumbai despite court orders to the contrary. That India’s most developed state should have at its apex those who exhibit such a regressive mindset is unfortunate.
While several of the Supreme Court’s verdicts have been admirable, news reports speak of a bench comprising Justices Ranjan Gogoi and Rohinton Nariman chastising officials connected with the ongoing preparation of the National Register of Citizens. The reason? That they spoke to the media over how the authorities would handle claims and objections. Surely it is in the interests of the people that they be made aware at the earliest of the parameters that will determine their inclusion or otherwise in the NRC. Surely in a democracy, officials should be encouraged to “talk to the media” rather than be told that “such actions would invite contempt of court”. Why and how is talking to the media a contempt of the court? Is it that officials should remain incommunicado to the media until a court verdict is announced at the level of the Supreme Court of India? This is a process that in India often takes decades, and in the meantime, is the public to be starved of information? There has been too much, indeed much too much, reluctance on the part of officials to share with the public through the media details of their work. Such observations would give such officials cover for ignoring the media, thereby leaving the public ignorant of several facets of a government supposedly elected by them and working on their behalf. The people of this country expect the Supreme Court to expand rather than reduce the already very limited boundaries of freedom of the ordinary citizen. In India, Victorian laws are implemented by officials who consider themselves a continuation of the colonial regime, a post-1947 version of the Imperial Civil Service. Both Justice Gogoi and Justice Nariman are outstanding jurists, who are the repository of the expectation of the people that our Supreme Court will ensure that the freedoms in a full democracy be ensured through its edicts, among them being freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The NRC is a matter of such sensitivity and importance that it mandates frequent interactions on the part of implementing officials with the media, not seeing contact with them as somehow deserving of punishment. The press is not an enemy of the people, and should not be shunned but be part of the process of transparency so essential to good governance.