How Ex-Law Minister Kiren Rijiju Did More Damage Than Good to the Rule of Law

It is said that some people spread happiness wherever they go and some whenever they go.

4 min read
How Ex-Law Minister Kiren Rijiju Did More Damage Than Good to the Rule of Law

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“A much talking judge is like an ill-tuned cymbal”, wrote Francis Bacon in the sixteenth century.

Kiren Rijiju’s 22-month tenure as law minister was not only ill-tuned, but it struck more than a discordant note in the normal course of business between the executive and the judiciary.

However, that did not deter him from being a 'know-all', who said no to all in the judiciary.

The Role & the Required Skills

The ministry of law and justice, is often avoided by career politicians as a “dry” ministry, without allure or lucre. It is often farmed out to people with law degrees who need to be accommodated in the cabinet.

Eminent lawyers-turned-politicians are possibly the only seekers of the ministry.

The task of handling the framing of the laws and being in charge of judge-making requires great people skills.

As eminent a lawyer as Ram Jethmalani was, he had to be moved out of the law ministry in the Vajpayee cabinet, when he battled Chief Justice AS Anand and Attorney General Soli Sorabjee. He ended up writing a book on the experience called Small Men, Big Egos.

When Rijiju replaced Ravishankar Prasad, he was welcomed as a breath of fresh air. His North-Eastern roots were seen as an advantage as being unconnected to any of the traditional power centers of the judiciary.

But he was soon perceived as a hit man for a rampant executive.

Controversy, Crossfire & Tussle With Judiciary: Recalling Rijiju's Tenure as Law Minister

Rijiju often came up for praise and approbation in the media and in party forums, where the unsaid assumption was that uppity judges needed to be shown their place. 

Among the first actions of the NDA government was an almost unanimous constitutional amendment, bringing about the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC). The judiciary struck down the amendment a couple of years later, leading to an uneasy return to the existing collegium system of appointments.

Ever thereafter, there has been a persistent battle for dominance in appointments. While the judiciary  has the last word on recommending appointments, the executive has declined to process persons that it deems unsuitable.

Caught in the crossfire have been recommendations for the appointment of the openly gay Senior Advocate Saurabh Kripal and recommendations for the transfer of Chief Justice S Muralidhar from Orissa to the Madras High Court.

His public comments on the judiciary were mostly critical and controversial. 

He accused the judiciary of being "overactive" and "politicised." He also said that the judiciary was "not above the law" and that it should be subject to the same scrutiny as other branches of the government.

He slammed the Supreme Court Collegium system of appointing judges as "opaque and not accountable". He also said that the "Supreme Court should not be hearing bail pleas and frivolous PILs amid soaring pendency of cases."

He defended the Centre's stand on same-sex marriage in the Supreme Court, saying that the government was not interfering into personal lives of anybody.

He also attacked some retired judges and activists dubbing them part of an "anti-India gang" and accused them of trying to make the Indian judiciary play the role of the Opposition party. He further made a remark about some lawyers who charge exorbitant amounts of money only because they speak in English.

One wonders whether this apparent desire to dominate the discourse was an individual trait of Rijiju or was he acting on instructions?

The Context of Rijiju's Exile

It is unlikely that Rijiju was by himself in this endeavour. Vice-President Jagdeep Dhankar who is himself a senior advocate, joined in the attacks on the judiciary.

Dhankar criticised the basic structure doctrine expounded by the Supreme Court, over 50 years ago in the Keshavananda Bharati case. He often seemed to be echoing  Rijiju in statements that undermined judicial authority. 

The judiciary too pushed back in public forums. Speeches by judges at public functions and interviews at media conclaves were carefully orchestrated to disarm criticism. Even judges perceived as being government friendly, came out in support of  collegium appointments, as the only safe alternative among competing models. 

It is in this context that one must view Rijiju’s exile to the ministry of earth sciences as an opportunity for dialling down tensions on both sides. 

It may, however, be wrong to read Rijjiju’s transfer as being solely due to his confrontations with the  judiciary.

Informed columnists  have cited some other files and conversations as being responsible for the transfer. One can only speculate and quote Yes Minister’s Sir Humphrey Appleby: “The Prime Minister Giveth, and the Prime Minister Taketh Away. Blessed be the Name of the Prime Minister”.

It is said that some people spread happiness wherever they go and some whenever they go. Rijiju as law minister, seems to have fallen into the second category.

His  failures as law minister have had a negative impact on the Indian legal system and helped erode public trust in the judiciary.

His legacy will be one of failure and he will be remembered as a minister who did more to damage the rule of law than to strengthen it.

(Sanjay Hegde is a senior advocate at the Supreme Court of India. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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