I cannot remember the last time when the Top Court, particularly the Top Justice of the Top Court, received so much press attention.
Ever since Chief Justice of India NV Ramana has taken over the reins from Justice SA Bobde, who spent most of his tenure under the shadows of the pandemic, the comments of his Lordship on and off court have fired up the public imagination.
The media has given front page coverage to his revolutionary public utterances, one of them being that half of India’s Lordships should be women!
Even the staunchest defender of the track record of India’s apex court would grudgingly admit that in the recent years of a strong majority government, the public perception of the court has taken a battering like never before.
We did not have a robust social media and the tools of modern technology which have led to the proliferation of 24X7 News Channels, when India suffered her last ‘declared’ Emergency under another strong leader heading another majority government.
The press too was censored to the extent that it often would carry empty editorials, either in protest or on account of lack of time, to find a substitute piece that would meet with the censor’s approval.
Impact of Media on Court Decisions
So, we will never know how the Indian public accepted the apex court’s decision in ADM Jabalpur vs Shivkant Shukla – the infamous habeas corpus case where it threw in the towel and allowed Indira Gandhi to detain dissidents and Opposition leaders at will.
Perhaps few, other than the newspaper readers and radio listeners, were even aware of the transfer of judges who refused to capitulate.
Few outside the legal circles may have raised even an eyebrow at the non-confirmation as high court justices of promoted sessions judges like Rajendra Nath Aggarwal (Delhi) and UR Lalit (Bombay) who fearlessly defended liberty unperturbed by the personal toll it would take on their careers.
Today, our judges serve under the constant gaze of the flashbulb lit newsroom studios and the mercy of the fastest finger first live tweeting court reporters.
Social media has reached every drawing room and, in this goldfish bowl atmosphere, legal discourse has moved beyond the written word of the judge. Today her every move, body language, utterances in and outside of court go on to shape public opinion.
A case in point being the recent war of words between a senior counsel and the bench which was live tweeted to the minutest detail by legal news portals.
While the court has said many a time that “sunlight is the best disinfectant,” it is only human for judges to feel the pressure of their predicament.
Sentenced to a propriety of the ‘Ivory Tower’ – the fabled ‘speak only through your judgments’ dharma – the judges are easy prey to the brutality of the social media and sensational journalism.
None perhaps understands this better, having paid a heavy price personally, than the previous Chief Justice himself. Justice Bobde’s alleged comments on marrying a rapist and his pictures on a fancy two-wheeler raised a media/social media storm that lasted weeks.
Fair Criticism of Court Verdicts
Reverting to our discussion on challenges India’s Supreme Court has encountered on the ‘public perception’ front in recent years, while the inaction on legal challenges to demonitisation, electoral bonds, Kashmir’s restructuring, police inaction on JNU protestors and Delhi rioters, deprivation of Kashmiris from basic internet may have chipped away at the credible edifice of the court, they were nothing compared to what Indians, sentenced to house imprisonment by the pandemic, witnessed.
The apex court’s shocking kid-gloving of the government’s handling of the migrant workers’ crisis and the lightning speed of listing, hearing and freeing journalists perceived to be regime friendly while turning its back to the continued incarceration of independent journalists, students, activists, dissenters and prisoners of conscience shattered, in the hearts of many an ordinary Indians, the image of the court as the guardian of our Constitution, the protector of the weakest.
As cases of illegal detention of citizens speaking truth to power piled up, the people watched in horror as the top court expended hours hearing a contempt action case for a tweet disparaging the chief justice.
It was not missed that, while cases of industrial workers, adivasis and the aam aadmi (the common man) just kept getting postponed, the court had all time and attention to hear mega heated corporate battles fought out through video conferencing by fancy senior lawyers from distant cooler climes.
It can be safely said that none could have predicted that, in a matter of months, the same court would be led by a judge who would actually object to corporate cases always trumping those of the ordinary people!
It is no exaggeration to say that Justice Ramana took over the driver’s seat at a time when the car was almost threatening to topple over.
In the run up to Justice Ramana’s confirmation as Chief Justice, the sordid saga of implicating his daughters in a local land scam had all the portents of compromising yet another head of India’s judicial family.
India was still reeling from the implication of previous Chief Justices in scandals relating to abetting suicide of a politician, financial impropriety and sexual harassment none of which were proved, but greatly embarrassed and compromised the holders of such high office.
The issue relating to Ramana was deftly managed as the court itself inquired into it and issued a clean chit well before he could be confirmed as the Chief Justice.
Ramana's Serious Allegations
When Justice Ramana took over command, things had come to such a pass and expectations were so lowered that people jumped with joy even at the slightest public demonstration of neutrality.
So far, Justice Ramana has made the right ‘noises’. He has, both on and off court, subtly and politely let the Executive know that the old rules of engagement would have to be tweaked. The days of adjourn and forget had to end.
Even in matters of judicial appointments, he has exhibited an element of pragmatism and pushed the larger cause of filling up mounting vacancies. Instead of breaking into tears in the presence of the law minister, he has shrewdly made public his commitment made in private to expedite judicial appointments, not forgetting to publicly thank him in advance.
That having been said, it must not be forgotten that man is a bundle of insatiable wants. While our lowered expectations may have numbed us into rejoicing the simplest of gestures and bold, yet bald, statements but, with apologies to Pepsi – yeh dil maange more!
The fact that not an inch has moved on contentious cases such as challenges to demonitisation, electoral bonds, Kashmir, etc, is not lost on many keen court watchers.
The fact that weeks have passed since the Pegasus Case was heard and a judgment is yet to be delivered is also a matter of concern.
While Justice Ramana had demonstrated a firmness not witnessed in a while in dealing with Executive recalcitrance when it came to filling up the vacant posts of Tribunals, it would be interesting to see how the Collegium under his leadership would react to the Executive’s stonewalling of even judicial recommendations which have been reiterated by it, overruling the government’s objection.
On the ground, things remain the same. The prisoners of conscience still languish in incarceration. The farmers and tribals are still short changed by the system. The justice delivery system remains, leaking and creaking.
Every travesty presents an opportunity. Destiny has presented Chief Justice Ramana with a historic opportunity to undertake course correction and to restore India’s pride, her Supreme Court, to its pristine glory.
He must now act beyond statements in court and seminars. A place among the pantheon of great judicial defenders of India’s liberty is his for the taking!
(The author is a senior advocate practising in the High Court of Delhi and in the Supreme Court of India. He tweets @advsanjoy. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)