Imagine for a moment that you’re part of the Ministry of Law & Justice.
You get a set of questions which you have to reply to in Parliament. Now, you’re not a big fan of these questions – they’re all about how many recommendations from the Supreme Court Collegium are pending, what the names of these proposed judges are, how many have been reiterated by the Collegium after being sent back, etc etc.
This is most inconvenient. I mean, everyone knows your Ministry, headed by Ravi Shankar Prasad, has not exactly had the best of relations with the Supreme Court over appointments in recent times. Heck, you even managed to make an ex-Chief Justice of India cry, after all. If only you didn’t have to answer all these pesky queries.
But wait a moment. What do we have here? Is that... is that a question about considering changes to the Collegium system? Yes it is! Now that’s more like it!
You’ve got tonnes of stuff to say on that! How you tried reforming the appointment process, introduced the NJAC. How the Supreme Court went and struck it down. How the process of finalising a new Memorandum of Procedure (MoP) is taking time, but out of the goodness of the government’s heart, you’re continuing the appointments under the old MoP (let’s just ignore the fact that the new MoP is taking time because of you, shall we?).
And look at that, answering that question means you’ve given a nice padded-out answer. It’s a shame that you couldn’t answer the other questions, writing this nice long answer. I mean, look, you’re telling everyone that the government is sitting on 27 recommendations from the Collegium, but it’s not like you’ve given any details.
What a relief that question was there, right? Weird that after all those specific questions asking for specific details, there should just happen to be one that suits your narrative and lets you conveniently ignore the other questions, but you don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, do you?
Law Ministry’s Response to Shashi Tharoor
You can stop imagining all of that now.
On Wednesday, 8 August, the Ministry of Law & Justice published its answers to a set of questions from MP Shashi Tharoor about recommendations for judicial appointments from the Supreme Court Collegium. You can read more about the details this revealed (27 pending recommendations), and how the government has refused RTIs about this information here.
The reply from the Ministry failed to answer most of the questions asked by Dr Tharoor. However, it did include a detailed response to the final question on the list – which was, you guessed it,
“...whether the Government is considering any change in the Collegium System on appointment of judges in higher courts of the country?”
This answer took up more than half of the pages used for the response to Tharoor’s question. The catch?
Tharoor never asked this question.
What Tharoor Asked vs What the Ministry Answered
Dr Tharoor’s office informed The Quint that the question about changing the Collegium system was not, in fact, asked by them. This is the set of questions they submitted on 6 July 2018 for the Ministry of Law & Justice:
As you can see, nothing about changes to the Collegium. And here are the questions he asked, according to the Ministry of Law & Justice’s response:
It combines the questions actually asked by Tharoor into three – which is par for the course. And then adds a new, remarkably convenient one after the other questions (highlighted in yellow) – which is most certainly not allowed on the course.
Some might say it is very convenient that the added question allowed the government to pontificate about the NJAC and MoP (which they are happy to do), rather than answer how many names reiterated by the Supreme Court Collegium are pending with the government. Or how long these files have been sitting with the government. Which are uncomfortable questions to answer.
Speaking to The Quint, Dr Tharoor said:
I am very surprised and disappointed at this. We will convey our displeasure to the speaker about what has happened.
How Did This Happen? And What Happens Now?
The Quint checked with the Lok Sabha Secretariat, whose Question Branch handles the collection of questions, sending them to the relevant government authorities, as well as receipt and publication of answers.
We were informed that yes, Dr Tharoor had not submitted the question on changes to the Collegium system, but that it had got added to his set of questions by accident. You see, another MP, Ramachandran Mullapally, had also submitted a whole bunch of questions about the Collegium (including this one about government plans for change). Since there was some amount of overlap, the Question Branch had decided to club the questions together, noting down the names of both MPs.
However, they later realised that Dr Tharoor’s questions were very specific, and so these needed to be kept separate. But when separating the questions, they forgot to delete that question on changes from Tharoor’s list.
A simple, inadvertent mistake. No evidence to the contrary.
It is interesting, of course, that despite separating out the questions, Mr Mullapally’s were never answered. His office confirmed that they had submitted questions about the Collegium (including on government plans to change it), but that these were not admitted. Even more interestingly, Mr Mullapally had sought to ask this specific question multiple times previously, but it had never been admitted.
Remarkably convenient, then, that it should be answered by slipping into a list of totally different questions by Shashi Tharoor.
As for what happens now, there is little time left in the session, so Dr Tharoor’s office is doubtful they’ll be able to get the record amended. As mentioned above, he will be writing to the Speaker, Ms Sumitra Mahajan, to protest what has happened, but beyond that, it doesn’t look like anything can be done.
Convenient, isn’t it?