New Delhi: Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde took oath as the 47th Chief Justice of India (CJI) Monday, a day after predecessor Ranjan Gogoi retired.
Nagpur-born Bobde will serve an 18-month tenure as CJI and retire on 23 April 2021.
Justice Bobde is perhaps the first CJI who revels in close interactions with the media. Earlier this month, he allowed ThePrint to capture some candid moments of his life outside court, playing with his dogs and spending time with his grandson.
Since his elevation to the Supreme Court in 2013, Bobde has been part of benches that have heard some of the most landmark cases in Indian jurisprudence, such as Aadhaar being mandatory and the Ayodhya case. He was the one who suggested mediation in the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute, in an attempt to “heal hearts and minds”.
Bobde has also played a key role within the Supreme Court — as the head of the committee that heard sexual harassment allegations against Gogoi, and as the peacebroker between former CJI Dipak Misra and the four senior judges who held a press conference in January 2018 against the way the court was functioning under him.
Family of lawyers
Born in 1956, Bobde belongs to a family of lawyers — his father Arvind Bobde served as the advocate-general of Maharashtra, and his older brother, late Vinod Arvind Bobde, was a senior advocate of the Supreme Court.
His college mates from Nagpur remember him as a “notorious student”. Javed Khan Rana, the secretary of the alumni association at SFS College, Nagpur, told ThePrint that he was known to be a “notorious student… and an excellent sportsman”.
College friend Pradeep Malewar, a naturopathy doctor in Nagpur, was Bobde’s batchmate from 1971 to 1975, said he was an average student.
“He was not a brilliant student but very helpful and forthcoming. Because of his jovial nature, he always had a huge group of friends following him everywhere,” Malewar added. “Getting in touch with him has been difficult since he was elevated to the SC.”
Lawyer friends mostly remember him as a jovial fellow who was always thorough with his briefs.
“He was always thorough with his briefs with little or no reliance on his juniors,” said advocate R. Deshmukh of Justice Bobde’s practice in the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High Court. “I never saw him angry.”
S.A. Bobde was appointed a judge of the Bombay High Court in 2000, and went on to become Chief Justice of the Madhya Pradesh High Court.
He was elevated to the Supreme Court in April 2013.
Landmark judgments Justice Bobde was part of
Ayodhya: Bobde was on the five-judge Constitution bench that, on 9 November, paved the way for a temple at the disputed Ayodhya site where Hindus believe deity Ram was born. The demolition of the Babri Masjid, which stood at the site until 1992, was declared unlawful, but the court directed the central and Uttar Pradesh governments to set aside an alternative five-acre plot to accommodate another mosque for Muslims.
Basic human rights: Bobde was part of a three-judge bench that ratified an earlier order of the Supreme Court and clarified that no Indian citizen without an Aadhaar card can be deprived of basic services and government subsidies.
In 2017, Bobde, as part of a two-judge bench, rejected a woman’s plea seeking termination of her 26-week-old foetus, to be born with Down Syndrome, after a medical board said the pregnancy posed no risk to the mother.
Religion and tradition: Justices Bobde and L. Nageswara Rao, in 2017, had upheld the Karnataka government’s ban on a book by guru Maate Mahadevi, on the grounds that it outraged the religious feelings of Lord Basavanna’s followers.
In a 2018 lecture, Bobde spoke about the importance of the rule of law through the value of ‘dharma’.
“The rule of law has its origin in India. The rule of law, known as ‘dharma’ in ancient India, is the foundation of various laws of today,” he said, adding that it would be a mistake to equate ‘dharma’ with religion.
“While religion divides people, dharma unites them. The Upanishads also say there is nothing higher than dharma.”
Air pollution: A three-judge bench comprising Justices T.S. Thakur, A.K. Sikri and Bobde, in 2016, suspended the sale of firecrackers in the National Capital Region, to prevent the extreme pollution around Diwali. This, in effect, set the ball rolling for later orders, whereby not only were crackers banned, but ‘green crackers’ introduced.
Relief for Amit Shah: Bobde was also a part of the bench that, in 2016, rejected a plea against the discharge of BJP president Amit Shah in the 2005 Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case, after it questioned the locus standi of petitioner Harsh Mander, a social activist.
“When the person is genuinely aggrieved then the issue takes a different colour but when the person is not remotely connected and wants to revive the case then it is a different matter,” the bench had said, giving relief to Shah.
Other major roles
CJI sexual harassment case: In April, a committee led by Bobde was constituted to check the veracity of the sexual harassemnt allegations levelled by a former Supreme Court staff member against Gogoi. In May, the committee stated it found “no substance in those allegations”.
Aspersions were cast on the Bobde committee from the moment it was constituted. A wide range of women across disciplines wrote to the judges of the Supreme Court, saying the constitution of the in-house committee was in “complete violation” of the law against sexual harassment of women at the workplace.
They said the formation of the committee tilted the balance against the woman who had made the allegations.
Bridging communication gap after 4 judges’ press conference: Bobde is known to have amicable relations with all his brother judges in the Supreme Court. He played a pivotal role in bridging the communication gap between then-CJI Dipak Misra and the four judges who held a press conference in January 2018 to air grievances about the court’s functioning.
After the press conference by Justices Jasti Chelameswar, Gogoi, Madan B. Lokur and Kurian Joseph, Bobde and Justice L. Nageswara Rao visited Chelameswar’s residence to understand the reason behind the unprecedented step.
Sources in the top court say the ensuing reconciliation was largely because of Bobde’s efforts.
‘The plurality of India’
In February 2018, he delivered a verdict where he asked the judiciary to be “fully conscious of the plural composition of the country”.
While quashing a Bombay High Court order granting bail to a man who allegedly killed a Muslim youth in 2014, Bobde said: “The judiciary must be fully conscious of the plural composition of the country while adjudicating issues pertaining to rights of various communities.”
In 2016, Bobde was part of a bench, led by then-CJI T.S. Thakur, which observed that seeking votes in the name of religion might be a greater evil than exploiting caste or language sentiments.
In March 2016, Bobde represented India at the high-level Counter Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, which was established by the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1373, meant to “criminalise terrorism financing” and take measures to prevent and suppress it”. This resolution was adopted unanimously on 28 September 2001, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in the US.