Some observations by senior judges of the highest court of the country have again raised some unwholesome furore about the judiciary. The most talked about of these is the words of praise about prime minister Narendra Modi by Supreme Court judge Arun Mishra. His comments came in the middle of a vote of thanks at the two-day International Judicial Conference 2020 held at the Supreme Court's auditorium.
Far beyond the overstatement customary in vote of thanks, Justice Mishra overwhelmed Modi with a heap of praise without regard for his office or observing the appropriateness in judiciary-executive relations. When he lauded Modi as an 'internationally acclaimed visionary', it is anybody's guess what the judges of the 24 countries who participated in the conference would have thought about the status of our judiciary. Mishra also said that Modi isa "a versatile genius who thinks globally and acts locally". Not stopping there, he said that India was committed to constitutional obligations under this visionary!
The factual errors in the laudatory remarks, in comparison with their inapprpriateness, can be said to be insignificant. What stands out is the immaturity in a sitting judge of the Supreme Court complimenting the head of the executive. The government is a litigant in ever so many cases in the courts. As such, it is not only awkward when a top judge of the Supreme Court (Arun Mishra ranks third in seniority) extols the executive head beyond courtesy, but as former judge AP Shah commented, it can also raise concerns about the impartiality of the judiciary.
With the validity of the Citizenship Amendment Act is under question in the Supreme Court, and a judge of the same court vouches for the commitment to the constitution shown by the government under Modi, the confidence in justice gets lost. Even otherwise, would it not have been more in the fitness of things for an international judicial conference to be inaugurated by the President or the Chief Justice? Even in the form of vote of thanks, as former Justice RS Sodhi remarked, such compliments on the prime minister "sends the wrong message that the learned judge is not objective in his outlook when dealing with cases”, which again goes to emphasize the neutrality of the judiciary.
Back in 1980, following the landslide electoral victory of Indira Gandhi, Justice Bhawati had invited wide criticism from legal and judicial circles when he wrote a congratulatory letter to her. When the judiciary tries to please the executive beyond limits, the former damages its own credibility and stature. Already, when judges after their retirement are offered posts of governor or the like by the executive, that forms a bait for sitting judges. The cases in Arun Mishra's bench about Justice Loya's death, and his judgments in the Ravidas Mandir case ordering its demolition and the immediately following one to rebuild it on the request of the government, came to focus again in the light of the 'vote of thanks'. This does not in any manner serve to elevate the prestige of the judiciary or of the country.
The observations made at the same international conference by chief justice SA Bobde also merit attention. He pointed out that a strong and independent judiciary that stands separated from the executive and legislative arms is a creation of Indian constitution. But the Chief Justice should also realise that in the people's perception, this independent nature has of late been weakening. And there have been several actions and statements that reinforce such a perception.
The Supreme Court fell short of the constitutionally warranted urgent moves in reviewing the government's steps in Kashmir, or in considering the serious coplaiants regarding citizenship amendment law or on the petitions demanding release of those illegally detained in Kashmir (and the court's comment ran 'if a sister has waited so long til now, she can wait for another 15 days'!). Even when the Chief Justice states that the rights of citizens are derived from their responsibilities, the people cannot miss in it an echo of a message from the Emergency era. Ultimately, the independence of the judiciary is to be proved in the direct experience of the people. That is the people's fundamental right, and forms the fumdamental responsibillity of the judiciary.