Photo Courtesy: EBC

Sanjoy Ghose’s book launch: You cannot legislate on Public Interest Litigation, says Justice S. Ravindra Bhat

Indira Jaising, during the panel discussion on Insights into the world of litigation – Perspectives and (mis)conceptions‘, said that the law of sedition was being used the way the law enforcement agencies wanted.


ON May 15, Justice S. Ravindra Bhat, Judge, Supreme Court of India, during a panel discussion, said, “Public Interest Litigation [PIL] was meant as the channel for the oppressed people who could not approach the court. PILs allowed public-minded people to approach on their behalf.”

Justice Bhat was speaking at a panel discussion on ‘Insights into the world of litigation – Perspectives and (mis)conceptions‘, which was a part of the release of advocate Sanjoy Ghose’s book, ‘How Gourango lost his O‘. Other panellists were senior advocates Indira Jaising and Dayan Krishnan, apart from Ghose. The discussion was moderated by satirist and political commentator Akash Banerjee. The discussion ranged on diverse issues such as sedition, live streaming of courts and the implications of frivolous PILs.

While launching the book, Justice Bhat appreciated Ghose as his ‘Junior’ but jokingly said that the author might have a different take on this. In furtherance of the same, he made a reference to the following interesting excerpt from the book: ““Junior” incidentally is a word now frowned upon in legal circles, much like spinster, actress, disabled and the like. The junior may not have been successful in fighting the measly stipends they were paid by senior lawyers under the guise of following an ancient colonial tradition called devilling, but they have managed to pariah the term “junior” for the politically kosher “associate” or “colleague”. I am guessing “comrade” would have a Soviet feel to it and hence avoidable.”

About the book 

The book, a non-story, is narrated through the experience of the unwitting star, Gourango, and regales the tales of struggling lawyers, their colourful clients, and the landscape of the Indian judiciary. The book is relatable to every first-generation lawyer who has come to the big city to make a name for themselves with no godfather to help along the way.

The panel discussion

The panel discussion began with Banerjee asking Justice Bhat whether there are active conversations in the judiciary on how the world ‘perceives’ the working of the Supreme Court. Justice Bhat, not speaking on behalf of the judiciary, stated that it is not right to say that the judiciary is not aware of its image. But unlike any other public institution that can come out and clarify whenever there is a controversy, judges are not in a position to do that.

The court, he pointed out, as an institution is hamstrung, and said, “Judges can only speak through their judgments.” 

Live streaming has a positive impact, but it has darker sides too: Justice Bhat 

Banerjee then proceeded with a follow-up question on the live streaming of courts. The perception and misconception of the people can definitely be cleared if there is live streaming of courts, he suggested to Justice Bhat. On that question, Justice Bhat said that during the COVID-19 pandemic, even though there was no uniform live streaming, the courts were as open as any other institution. 

Further, Justice Bhat agreed with the need for live streaming and stated that it has a positive impact on the lives of those living in far-flung areas. The bulk of the litigation, he pointed out, comes from districts and smaller towns. But he also said that live streaming has to be a conscious policy decision because living in the world of social media, the discussions of the courts will be magnified and it may not be entirely positive.

However, Jaising had a different understanding of live streaming. She pointed out that she had filed a petition before the Supreme Court more than four years ago, requesting the court to form guidelines on live streaming. The court, she remarked, agreed with her and stated that live streaming is recognised within the fundamental right to know.

Live streaming will also benefit law students and would help in preventing disinformation, she further added. But, disappointingly, the court has not implemented that judgment, Jaising said in a matter of fact manner.

Answering the question of whether the Supreme Court has lost respect due to perceived misconceptions, she stated, “The judgment on live streaming was supposed to come into effect immediately. But it’s been four years and yet the Supreme Court has not implemented guidelines on it. If the Supreme Court cannot implement its own order, how will it gather respect?” 

You cannot legislate a class of litigation that is meant for the public: Justice Bhat 

Banerjee then asked Justice Bhat to address the issue of frivolous PILs by referring to the recent, now dismissed, PIL filed at the Allahabad High Court to open 22 sealed doors of the Taj Mahal. He wanted Justice Bhat to address whether such petitions can be tackled through some penalisation for wasting the precious time in the courts.

Justice Bhat made an interesting point here and said that there are things you need to live with because the absence of the same would harm the system. He pointed out that attempts have been made by the Supreme Court through judgments to streamline the system of PIL. But there has to be extreme caution in this.

The jurisdiction of the Supreme Court and high courts in this context is of the widest magnitude. You cannot bind it down by rules, he observed. He further said, “There can be certain kinds of principles which evolve through judgments. But if you try to legislate it through rules, you will be constraining it. Therefore, the call must be taken by the judges. You cannot legislate away a class of litigation that is generally meant for the public.

Sedition is elevated to the level of policy that results in the abuse of process: Jaising 

The moderator then asked Justice Bhat for his personal opinion on the misuse of the sedition law in India. However, Justice Bhat refrained from making any political statement. But he did say that liberty is never free and we as a society need to address this issue.

On the other hand, Jaising explained the issue of sedition with a legal colour. She remarked that she does not like the word ‘misuse’ in the context of sedition law. She further clarified her position and said, “We have to understand this concept that the misuse of the law in itself does not make it unconstitutional. What I am saying is that the law is being used in the manner that law enforcement wants to use it. The use of the law has been elevated to the level of policy. It has become a policy of the abuse of process that we are witnessing in the country today.

Jaising also spoke on the current collapse of institutions and the expectations that people will carry toward the legal fraternity in future. She positively remarked, “Battles of the future will be fought in the courts. Lawyers will have to rise to the occasion and take these matters to the court of law. Courts are going to be very important institutions in future. It will depend on the courts whether we want to break or un-break an undemocratic system.”

Interestingly, the last question of the discussion was on how there has been a shift in lawyers taking up judgeships. Justice Bhat shared his experience on this and said that even when he began his career, he was met with penniless clients. But it was the love of the profession that kept him going and things did change eventually.

What really motivated him to take judgeship was the ability to make a difference, he said. “As lawyers, you make a difference in two to three cases. But as judges, you will certainly make a difference in six to seven cases”, he added. That was what really made him say yes to the judgeship, he concluded.