The state of Indian democracy

The state of Indian democracy
For the first time in history, four sitting Supreme Court judges in India have openly spoken against the administration of the nation’s highest court. In an unprecedented move..

For the first time in history, four sitting Supreme Court judges in India have openly spoken against the administration of the nation’s highest court. In an unprecedented move, the four judges also openly spoke against the current Chief Justice of India and noted that the country’s democracy was at stake.

Background

The Supreme Court of India is the highest judicial forum and final court of appeal under the Constitution of India, the highest constitutional court, with the power of constitutional review. Consisting of the Chief Justice of India and 25 sanctioned other judges, it has extensive powers in the form of original, appellate and advisory jurisdictions.

As the final court of appeal of the country, it takes up appeals primarily against verdicts of the High Courts of various states of the Union and other courts and tribunals. It safeguards fundamental rights of citizens and settles disputes between various governments in the country. As an advisory court, it hears matters which may specifically be referred to it under the Constitution by the President of India. It also may take cognisance of matters on its own (or 'suo moto'), without anyone drawing its attention to them. The law declared by the Supreme Court becomes binding on all courts within India.

After gaining independence in 1947, governance in India takes place within the framework of its constitution. This means that India is a federal parliamentary democratic republic, in which the President of India is the head of state and the Prime Minister of India is the head of the government. The Indian constitution provides for an independent judiciary, which is headed by the Supreme Court. The court's mandate is to protect the constitution, to settle disputes between the central government and the states, to settle inter-state disputes, to nullify any central or state laws that go against the constitution, and to protect the fundamental rights of citizens, issuing writs for their enforcement in cases of violation.

The Chief Justice of India (CJI) is the head of the judiciary of India and the Supreme Court of India. The present CJI is Justice Dipak Misra and is the 45th CJI since January 1950. It has been an unbroken convention for decades now, to appoint the senior-most judge of the supreme court as the CJI.

Analysis

Four judges part of India’s Supreme Court openly have complained against the functioning of the highest court in the nation. They have also spoken against the current Chief Justice of India and noted that the country’s democracy was at stake. Among the complaints that have been raised was also the distribution of cases among the judges.

The press conference conducted by the judges indicates deep fractures within the nation’s highest court and the rift between the judges and Dipak Misra, the current CJI. The four judges are: Justice J. Chelameswar, Justice Ranjan Gogoi, Justice Madan Lokur and Justice Kurien Joseph.

 “The four of us are convinced that unless this institution is preserved and it maintains its equanimity, democracy will not survive in this country,” Justice Jasti Chelameswar said on the lawns of his residence in the Indian capital.

"We owe a responsibility to the institution and the nation. Our efforts have failed in convincing CJI to take steps to protect the institution," the judges said adding, “It is with no pleasure that we have been compelled to do this, administration of Supreme Court is not in order.”

In the letter, they also mentioned instances of cases with “far-reaching consequences for the nation and the institution” that were selectively assigned by the chief justice without any rational “basis for such assignment”.

This public retribution is stunning as one of the judges who complained, Justice Gogoi is slated to succeed Justice Misra as the next Chief Justice of India. The judges noted that they were moved to speak due the handling of the case on the death of special CBI Judge B.H. Loya. Medical records show Judge Loya died of a cardiac arrest. Judge Loya's family alleges that days before his death, he was offered Rs. 100 crores as a bribe to rule in favour of the BJP chief. Two weeks after Judge Loya died, the judge who replaced him in the Sohrabuddin case let off Amit Shah and ruled out a trial.

Justice Chelameswar said, “Sometimes, the administration of the Supreme Court is not in order. There are many things less than desirable that have happened in the last few months… As senior-most justices of the court, we have a responsibility to the nation and institution. We tried to persuade the CJI that some things are not in order and he needs to take remedial measures. Unfortunately, our efforts failed. We all believe that the SC must maintain its equanimity. Democracy will not survive without a free judiciary.”

The justices did not give any specifics on what they are seeking on what issues they raised. However, they have made the letter they sent to the CJI public. Post the conference, Post judges' press conference, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called on the law minister, law officer for a meeting to discuss the development.

Assessment

Our assessment is that this development is a stunning turn of events for the world’s largest democracy. The judges have implied that certain cases were being handed over to pliable judges who could be swayed. If this is true, then it certainly be a blow for the country’s democracy. This possibly also has repercussions in a number of cases that are currently being heard including Aadhaar. Additionally, this event would also hinder the government’s move to sell the nation as a transparent investment destination.

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