Judiciary must be seen to work for citizens

C P Surendran

Vice-President of India and Rajya Sabha Chairman M. Venkaiah Naidu on Monday rejected the motion to impeach the Chief Justice of India, Dipak Misra. The Congress Party-led Opposition had levelled charges of corruption and favouritism in the allocation of cases to judges, and a suspect acquisition of land many years ago when Justice Misra was an advocate.
Mr Naidu rejected the motion on the ground that the charges were conjectural.
The Congress Party is likely to challenge Mr Naidu’s decision in the Supreme Court, where naturally Justice Misra would decide who would hear the case. He could recuse himself. Or he might not. But this is the typical Indian bottleneck in which things tend to turn on themselves and become a source for stand-up comedians — naturally a flourishing breed.
Deep down just everyone I know believes that politicians, bureaucrats and judges are corrupt. If our individual quotidian experience is any indication, this is likely to be true. We are a corrupt people. Perhaps because we don’t believe in the efficacy and fairness of the system. Perhaps because we are, again, a people poor and insecure. Perhaps because we know all of us are on our own — we don’t live in the welfare-driven Nordic European countries. Seriously, then, we don’t expect too much of integrity in institutions and individuals, so long as on the whole we are able to get by with little or large bribes given or taken.
Justice Misra heads an institution that arbitrates even the most unethical Indian’s urge for justice when his skin is on fire. That is his right. Besides the commonsensical yardstick that Justice Misra’s reputation — now tarnished for good — should be above suspicion, we would, despite the cynicism born of our own despair at ourselves, be in the right to believe that someone out there is fairer than ourselves. The question is whether Justice Misra is that saint.
Equally, the question is also about the process that produces that just man. Normally, the outgoing Chief Justice of India recommends and the President of India appoints the Chief Justice.
What goes into this besides seniority is a bit of a mystery. Naturally, all ruling establishments would like a pliant CJI, as he has the powers to interpret the law and the Constitution. He will be vetted, of course. Even a police constable is. That’s not saying much for the process, though.
Nearly a decade ago, under the Right to Information Act (RTI), the Central Information Commission had directed the Supreme Court to furnish details of whether judges had filed their declarations of assets; and the Supreme Court had challenged this in the Delhi high court. On September 2, 2009, the high court had ruled that the declarations were within the ambit of RTI.
Yet, in October 2017, the Economic Times was reporting: “Almost a decade after the Supreme Court passed a resolution deciding to make judges’ assets public, nearly half of the 25-odd judges of the top court are yet to make their assets public, a sign which bodes ill for its latest administrative resolution to place collegium decisions on appointments and the reasons for them in the public domain. The reason for not making assets public: the disclosure is voluntary and not mandatory. Only 13 of the 25 judges have so far made their assets public. Among those who have disclosed their assets are Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, Justices Jasti Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, Madan B. Lokur, A.K. Sikri, S.A. Bobde, R.K. Agrawal, N.V. Ramana, Arun Misra, A.K. Goel, R. Banumathi and A.M. Khanwilkar. Most of the judges who have been recently elevated have not declared their assets.”
So this writer took a look at the man of the moment — Justice Misra’s (and his wife’s) assets declaration form, filed in 2012. His financial worth is modest. Outstanding possessions included two houses — one in Delhi, one in Cuttack; a small fixed deposit of `7,40,000, and two gold rings. Not a rich man. Certainly, not corrupt. That’s on the positive side. But these details were accessed from a form filed in May 2012. We will leave it at that. If the assets of a Chief Justice are a crucial determinant of his integrity, it would be good to know what Justice Misra’s current assets are.
Normally, these are questions that should be debated without fireworks in Parliament. But the Indian Parliament has long forfeited its role as an articulator of issues. When is the last time you were enlightened listening to a parliamentarian’s words? All the more reason why then that the judiciary should be seen as acting on the side of that curious monster, the Indian citizen, helplessly corrupt, but desperately aspirational.
These are the golden days of Dr Bhimrao Ambedkar. Currently he is the most sought after — indeed, the most fought after — icon in Indian politics. Politicians kills and steal for the mantle of his legacy, if only because he is the future father of the nation. Here are his famous words spoken in the Constituent Assembly: “There can be no difference of opinion in the House that our judiciary must be both independent of the executive and must also be competent in itself. And the question is how these two objects can be secured.”
Ah, that man, Justice Misra. Ah, that man, Ambedkar. And that question — have we secured the two objects?