There were three developments—seemingly unconnected—in the run-up to and immediately after Justice D.Y. Chandrachud’s elevation as Chief Justice of India on 9 November. First, it was law minister Kiren Rijiju who cautioned the judiciary against crossing the ‘Lakshman Rekha’.
Addressing a media conclave five days before the new CJI took over, Rijiju said that the “opaque” and “unaccountable” collegium system— a way by which a five-member body headed by the CJI and comprising four senior most judges of the Supreme Court do appointments to the higher judiciary—involved “a lot of politics”. The government won’t be silent forever, said the tough-talking minister—quite unusual from an otherwise mild-mannered and affable fitness guru who loves climbing ropes, riding snow scooters and cycling in the mountains.
Second, a Mumbai-based person named R.K. Pathan wrote to President Droupadi Murmu, complaining that the CJI, when he was a Supreme Court judge, had passed an order in an appeal in a case where his son, advocate Abhinav Chandrachud, had appeared before the Mumbai High Court. Pathan accused Justice Chandrachud of passing the order to help his son’s client.
Many lawyers’ bodies came to the judge’s defence. The Bar Council of India (BCI) issued a statement in support of Justice Chandrachud and called the letter “a scurrilous and malicious attempt to interfere with the functioning of the judiciary”. It said that the note was being “made viral by a few people”—including 2-3 advocates of Mumbai— “deliberately” on the eve of his elevation as CJI. Based on that controversial letter, the Supreme Court later rejected a petition to restrain Justice Chandrachud from swearing in as CJI.
Third, the Delhi high court dismissed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) that sought a stay on Justice Chandrachud’s appointment as CJI and demanded an inquiry to find out if he has any “relations with anti-nationals and Naxalite Christian terrorists,” The Indian Express reported.
The high court rejected the petition, calling it ‘publicity oriented.’
Why CJIs court controversy
Prima facie, all these three cases look unconnected. Here was a minister with a law degree but no experience in legal matters when he took the ministry 15 months back announcing his arrival.
He was joining the big league of ministerial colleagues who talk very tough in public, be it on finance, national security, external affairs or even urban development. The second case pertained to a person who had been sentenced to three months imprisonment by the Supreme Court for filing a false complaint against a judge (now retired), as the Bar Council said.
And the third was a pure nutcase, of course. So, what are we talking about here? Well, it’s the kind of pressures Chief Justices of India have been dealing with—from both political and non-political actors.
Look at what happened in the weeks leading to Justice N.V. Ramana’s elevation as the CJI in April 2021. Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy wrote to then CJI S.A. Bobde on 6 October 2020, making serious allegations against Justice Ramana, who was next in line to become the CJI. Reddy alleged that judge Ramana was influencing the course of administration of justice in favour of Telugu Desam Party (TDP) leader Chandrababu Naidu. Reddy referred to an investigation by the state’s anti-corruption bureau into land deals involving the judge’s daughters. Incidentally, Reddy had also met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi on 6 October, the day he wrote that letter to the CJI, to ostensibly discuss central funds for an irrigation project in the state. For the record, the Andhra high court later quashed the bureau’s case, calling it a “blind shot in the dark”.
Bobde’s predecessor as CJI, Justice Ranjan Gogoi, when facing sexual harassment charges by a court staffer, had said, as quoted by PTI: “There has to be a bigger, bigger force behind this. There are two offices — one of the Prime Minister and one of the CJI. They (people behind this controversy) want to deactivate the office of the CJI.”
Gogoi’s predecessor, Justice Dipak Misra, courted controversy long before he was sworn in as the CJI. In March 2017, the late Arunachal Pradesh Chief Minister Kalikho Pul’s widow, Dangwimsai, was first reported to have met then-Vice-President Hamid Ansari and handed over a letter and her late husband’s purported suicide note that allegedly contained explosive allegations of corruption against then CJI J.S. Khehar and his would-be successor, Justice Misra.
The Vice-President’s office denied any meeting between Ansari and Dangwimsai, but by then, the purported note had already been widely circulated. Kalikho Pul had died by suicide about a month after a Justice Khehar-led bench of the Supreme Court had re-instated the Congress government in Arunachal Pradesh, foiling the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s bid to prop up a rebel Congress government led by Pul.
Decoding the pattern
The examples mentioned above point to a pattern of attempts to besmirch CJIs or those in line to become CJIs with never-proven allegations. But they served to mire the country’s top judges into controversies. It was in 2016 that a Justice Khehar-led SC bench struck down the constitutional amendment that would establish the national judicial appointment commission, which would replace the collegium system and give a greater role to the political executive in judicial appointments. The Modi-led government has never been reconciled to that.
Every CJI who presides over the collegium has had to fight with the executive over its appointment recommendations. What must bother them is the fact that most CJIs since Justice Khehar’s time— and their putative successors— have also had to look over their shoulders and be guarded against attempts to tarnish their image by political and non-political actors. Public perception doesn’t influence their judgments, but it does embolden the political executive to demand the supremacy of elected governments.
Newly appointed CJI Chandrachud has just had a baptism by fire with individuals targeting him with wild allegations. But a bigger battle awaits him as India’s law minister hints at the government’s intent to have a greater say in judicial appointments.
(Aside: a few weeks after the famous press conference by four Supreme Court judges, I happened to meet a top BJP functionary. While talking about these judges, he said, “Dekhoji, aap media waale toh kabhi likhoge nahin. [See, you media folks won’t ever write about it] Do you know how many people control India’s judiciary? Just 60 people and their families. You can count them.” It seemed dynasties in the judiciary upset him as much as those in politics.)
DK Singh is Political Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @dksingh73. Views are personal.
(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)