New Delhi: The Delhi High Court quashed a memorandum issued by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) which asked judges of the Supreme Court and high courts to obtain “political clearance” before going abroad for private visits.
The memorandum, issued in July last year, directed Supreme Court and high court judges to get this clearance from the MEA portal before requesting for issuance of visa support notes verbale.
A division bench comprising Justices Rajiv Shakdher and Jasmeet Singh, in its 1 April order which was released Wednesday, asserted that the guidelines were “uncalled for, given the high offices they are holding”.
The court also rejected the Centre’s contention that information on judges traveling abroad privately is required so that they can be given requisite assistance in case of an emergency. It said that this submission “overlooks the fact that information about judges’ travel plans is known the moment a request is made to the Consular, Passport and Visa Division of the Ministry of External Affairs [CPV, Division of MEA] for issuance of a ‘Visa Support Notes Verbale’.”
“That said, in any case, if an Indian citizen [which includes a judge] is caught in a crisis, Indian embassies/missions are duty-bound to extend assistance to the extent possible, as and when they receive information of such an occurrence,” the court added.
What the memo said
The memo, issued by the external affairs ministry’s Consular, Passport and Visa (CPV) division, said, “In such cases, where Visa Support Notes Verbale are sought from the CPV Division, MEA by the Hon’ble Judges of Supreme Court and the Hon’ble Judges of High Court of India, prior Political Clearance of the MEA is to be submitted for the intended private or official visits abroad.”
The judges were supposed to apply for political clearance on the MEA’s e-political clearance system portal.
The memo mentioned that political nods are to be obtained for both “private and official visits”.
The application challenging this memo now said that requiring judges of constitutional courts – the Supreme Court and the high courts – to get political clearance for private foreign visits violates their right to privacy as well as “degrades and/or diminishes the high office that they hold”.
Govt, judiciary sparred over foreign trips before
In February 2011, similar guidelines was issued by the central government on private foreign travels by the judges of the Supreme Court and high courts.
The Delhi High Court had then, in May 2012, found some of these guidelines “to be lowering the dignity of the constitutional posts held by judges of the high courts and the Supreme Court”, and quashed them.
However, the 2011 guidelines had also “dispensed with the requirement of the judges of the Supreme Court and the high courts to obtain political clearance for private foreign visits”, and therefore, the high court now noted that “the same regime ought to have been followed”.
“Accordingly, the OM dated 13.07.2021, to the extent it requires the judges of the Supreme Court and the high courts to seek political clearance qua private visits abroad, is struck down,” the court order said.
Praising Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who was appearing for the Centre, for his conduct, the high court said, “He did appreciate the difficulties that the judges of the Supreme Court and the high courts face on account of the impugned provision.”
(Edited by Yimkumla Longkumer)