Four Indian apex court judges criticised their CJ in 2018

Sabir Shah
Sunday, Apr 09, 2023

LAHORE: In January 2018, the Indian Supreme Court was facing a turmoil quite similar to the one being currently witnessed in the Pakistani apex court, as grave differences and lack of harmony among the fellow judges donning black robes are quite evident.

Archival research shows that in January 2018, at least four Indian Supreme Court judges had publicly spoken out against their Chief Justice, Dipak Misra, who was the nephew of Justice Ranganath Misra, the 21st Chief Justice of India from 1990 to 1991.

According to the January 12, 2018 edition of the Hindustan Times, four Supreme Court judges Jasti Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, M.B. Lokur and Kurian Joseph had held a press conference, whereby raising serious questions over the justice delivery system across the border and unfair allocation of cases under Chief Justice Misra, hence raising many an eyebrow in the Indian legal fraternity and general public both, because it was a rarity.

In Pakistan’s case, the fellow judges, unhappy with their incumbent Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial, have not gone to that extent yet despite their strong-worded dissenting notes in the recent apex court verdict pertaining to the election date in Punjab, which was announced a few days ago by a three-member bench headed by the country’s top judge himself.

The Hindustan Times had reported: “Simmering differences in the Supreme Court of India have bloomed, with four senior judges publicly criticising the Chief Justice of India for his style of administration and unjust allocation of cases. The unexpected press conference, and the not entirely surprising revelations in the statement issued by the judges, resulted in lawyers, politicians, and analysts taking sides, with some insisting that the judges should not have gone public and others countering that they had no other option. Justice Jasti Chelameswar, who along with Justices Ranjan Gogoi — tipped to be the chief justice after Chief Justice of India (CJI), Dipak Misra, retires in October (2018) — MB Lokur and Kurian Joseph had called the conference, saying they had been compelled to call the media.”

The Indian media house had quoted one of the distressed Judges, Jasti, as saying: “This is an extraordinary event in the history of the nation, more particularly this nation. The administration of the Supreme Court is not in order and many things, which are less than desirable, have happened in the last few months.”

The Hindustan Times had added: “The judges said they were forced to speak in public, breaking the settled principle of judicial restraint, because the CJI did not take steps to redress their grievances, which were first raised two months ago.”

The judges had publicly viewed: “We wrote a letter to him and tried to persuade the CJI to take steps but failed. A request was made to do a particular thing in a particular manner but it was done in such a way that it left doubts on the integrity of the institution. Unless the institution of Supreme Court is preserved, democracy won’t survive in this country.” The Indian newspaper had maintained: “People close to the CJI have refuted the allegations.” The tipping point for the four judges seemed to be the case of Judge Brijgopal Loya, as two petitions demanding a fair probe into his mysterious death had not yielded results in line with the wishes of his colleagues since the main accused, Amit Shah, was declared innocent due to lack of evidence in a rather belated trial.

The Hindustan Times asserted: “Judge Loya, who died under mysterious circumstances in November 2014, was hearing the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case dating back to 2004, in which various police officers and Bharatiya Janata Party President, Amit Shah, were named. Shah was discharged in December 2014. That may have been the tipping point, but trouble in the court has been brewing for some time. Justice Chelameswar has had run-ins with three CJIs — Justice Misra, Justice T.S. Thakur and Justice J.S. Khehar. He stayed away from meetings of the collegium for some time in 2016 and 2017 because he felt this was not the best way to appoint judges.” The wary judges were of the view that all arbiters in the top court are equal, but their critics opined that work in court was allocated fairly as a particular judge could not say he should be given a specific case for hearing.

The fault-finders had held that judicial work in Indian apex court was assigned as per the settled procedure, but the events could have a huge impact on the functioning of the higher judiciary and erode the credibility of the top court, besides affecting the constitution of benches and appointments to the high courts — most of which were understaffed. It is noteworthy that all the four judges, the senior-most in the apex court after the Chief Justice of India, were part of the collegium that had selected arbiters to country’s Supreme Court and high courts.

Research further shows that in April 2018, seven Indian opposition parties had submitted a petition seeking impeachment of Chief Justice Misra to country’s Vice President, with signatures from 71 parliamentarians. Weeks later, the petition was rejected by Vice President, Venkaiah Naidu, primarily on the basis that the complaints were about the internal administration and not misbehaviour, and that impeachment would seriously interfere with the constitutionally-protected independence of the judiciary.

According to the Hindustan Times, the crisis under review may well have started with two petitions related to the corruption in the Medical Council of India, which indirectly levelled allegations against the Chief Justice of India, dubbed by many compatriot legal eagles as the “Master of the Roster.”

Meanwhile, the Indian Attorney General, KK Venugopal, said the judges could have avoided going public. He was quoted as saying: “As a result of this, the media is speaking only about this matter and the issue is being blown up out of proportion. The result is that the public may lose confidence in the institution itself. It is necessary that the judges show statesmanship, wisdom and experience. They should swiftly move to resolve the difference within the next two days so there is harmony and peace.”