In 2006, I joined the legal profession as a freshly minted lawyer, driven by a desire to change the legal system and the world. After 11 years of engagement with the daily rough and tumble of litigation, while I am now more aware of my own limitations in a staggeringly enormous system, the passion to make the difference lives on strongly.
So when I saw a message on January 12, 2018 on a lawyers’ WhatsApp group that four senior most judges of the Supreme Court were going to be holding a press conference, I was quite excited. As a member of the Supreme Court Bar, I was quite aware of the many questionable things that had been happening in the Supreme Court, but was not sure, which of these aspects, if at all any, the judges would be addressing.
Led by Justice Jasti Chelameswar, the four senior most judges of the Supreme Court spelled out how the manner in which matters were being allocated in the Supreme Court was severely compromising independence of judiciary and our democracy. They spoke to all the citizens of the country.
While it is too early to determine the exact impact of the press conference, as many of its consequences are still playing out, the citizenry stood cautioned to how the Supreme Court could be compromised. Concepts like allocation and composition of bench, collegium, judicial function and administrative function of the Supreme Court shot from the lexicon of the court corridors to the dictionary of a common Indian, who has little to do with the everyday court, but whose existence ultimately depends on a free and fair Judiciary doing its job by the book.
This press conference and the debate and discussion that followed have really educated the Indian citizenry about the functioning of the judiciary and also informed them that credibility of no institution can be taken for granted. Any institution is as strong as the citizens are willing to make it and even those within those institutions need the support of the public at large.
Few months after this press conference, when I went to meet Justice Chelameswar to extend an invite to him to participate in an event being organised by the Harvard Club of India on the “Role of Judiciary”, he readily agreed. Sitting in his untucked shirt across a large wooden desk, reading his briefs for the next day, his mannerisms struck me as one of a very simple man, unaffected by the formality or stature of his office.
On April 7, 2018, at a public event organised by the Harvard Club of India, he took on some very tough questions from the veteran journalist Karan Thapar. His responses only confirmed that his concern was for the institution and personalities were not relevant. In the process, he set a new trend of speaking publicly on issues of concern for the administration of justice, while carefully avoiding any comments on judgments he had delivered or cases that were pending before the court.
Absence of any public discussion by judges on role of the judiciary has meant that the judiciary has been insulated from genuine engagement with public at large and it has been left to few senior counsels to speak on behalf of the court in public or in media. Such an opaque manner of interaction has neither benefitted the Court’s image or the public understanding of the Court.
On his last working day, May 18, 2018 Justice Chelameswar attended an informal evening get together where he spoke of how it’s the younger members of the Bar who supported him in his quest for more openness of the judiciary and most (though not all) senior members of the Bar were really interested in allowing the status quo to continue.
Justice Chelameswar’s efforts on opening up the judiciary to more scrutiny — be it through his strong dissent in the NJAC judgment, his engagements with the Collegium process, or leading the press conference in January 2018 — make him a real People’s Judge.
However, the judgment in Rajbala v. State of Haryana, where he allowed an enactment of the Rajasthan Legislature to pass constitutional muster that limited the right of people with limited or no education to contest panchayat elections went against his attempts to empower the people. I guess in a long career with hundreds of judgments, some mistakes are unavoidable.
When he formally demits office on June 22, 2018 I do hope that Justice Chelameswar goes on to engage with the law students across the country. There is such a dearth of principled heroes for law students and if he can play that role and inspire young minds then that will be an even bigger service than what he has already undertaken as a judge of the top court.