The present law of contempt of court in India is a hangover of the original law on this subject in England. This originated from an undelivered judgment of J Wilmot in 1765, where the judge said the power of contempt of court was necessary to maintain the dignity and majesty of judges and vindicate their authority.
But whence comes this dignity and authority of judges? In England, in feudal times, it came from the king, who was the fountain of justice, and would often decide cases himself. Later, when he had many other duties, he delegated judicial functions to his delegates, who were called judges. Thus, in a monarchy, the judge really exercises the delegated function of the king, and for this he requires the dignity, authority and majesty which a king must have, to secure obedience.
In feudal times, the king was supreme, and the people were his subjects. They could not criticize him, and such criticism was punishable.
In a democracy, however, this relationship is reversed. Now it is the people who are supreme (see Rousseau’s ‘Social Contract’), and all state authorities, including judges, are nothing but their servants.
Hence in a democracy there is no need for judges to vindicate their authority or display pomp and majesty. Their authority comes not from fear of contempt but from the public confidence, and this in turn depends on their own conduct, integrity, impartiality, and learning.
This view is accepted now even in England. As observed by Lord Salmon in AG vs Bbb (1981) A.C. 303, “The description contempt of court no doubt has a historical basis, but it is nevertheless misleading. Its object is not to protect the dignity of the court, but to protect the administration of justice”.
“Justice is not a cloistered virtue,” said Lord Atkin. “It must suffer the scrutiny and outspoken comments of ordinary men”.
In R. Vs. Commr. of Police (1968) 2 QB 150 Lord Denning observed, “Let me say at once that we will never use this jurisdiction to uphold our own dignity. That must rest on surer foundations. Nor will we use it to suppress those who speak against us. We do not fear criticism, nor do we resent it. For there is something far more important at stake. It is no less than freedom of speech itself…All that we ask is that those who criticize us should remember that, from the nature of our duties, we cannot reply to their criticism. We cannot enter into public controversy. We must rely on our conduct itself to be its own vindication”.
Sometimes an upright judge is unjustifiably criticized. The best course of action for such a judge is to ignore baseless criticism (but pay heed to honest and correct criticism). He should have broad enough shoulders to shrug off baseless comments without getting perturbed or influenced.
Once a British newspaper ran a banner headline calling the majority judges of the House of Lords who decided the Spycatcher case ( Attorney General vs. Guardian Newspaper, 1987 3 AllE.R.316) “YOU FOOLS”. Fali Nariman, who was present in England at that time, asked Lord Templeman, who was one of the majority, why the Judges did not take contempt action. Lord Templeman smiled, and said that judges in England took no notice of personal insults. Although he did not regard himself as a fool, others were entitled to their opinion.
In Balogh vs Crown Court at Albon (1975) AC 373, the defendant told the Judge “You are a humourless automaton. Why don’t you self destruct?”. The judge smiled, but took no action.
Now coming to the law of contempt in India, we find it is uncertain. Nariman described it in a speech as ‘Dog’s Law’.
He quoted Bentham, who said that when a dog does something nasty we beat him for it. Similarly, the laws in England become known only when someone is punished by the courts. The same is true about the law of contempt in India, and thus it is a standing threat to freedom of speech.
To illustrate, in Duda’s case AIR 1988 SC 1208, a Union Cabinet minister said that the Supreme Court sympathized with zamindars and bank magnates.
He further said, “FERA violators, bride burners, and a whole horde of reactionaries have found their haven in the Supreme Court” and that Supreme Court judges have “unconcealed sympathy for the haves”. No action was taken against him. Nariman asked whether if such a comment had been made by an ordinary man the court would have taken no action.
Moreover, in an earlier decision, in the case of Namboodiripad (former CM of Kerala), who accused Supreme Court judges of being biased in favour of the rich, (an allegation similar to that of the Union minister in Duda’s case) the court convicted Namboodiripad for contempt (AIR 1770 2015). Where is the certainty or consistency in the law ?
We have two provisions in our Constitution, Article 19(1)(a) which gives citizens freedom of speech, and Articles 129 and 215 which give the Supreme Court and High Court the power of contempt. How are these provisions to be reconciled. In my opinion, since Article 19(1)(a) is the right of the people who are supreme in a democracy, while Articles 129 and 215 are powers of judges, who are servants of the people, the reconciliation can only be done by holding that freedom of speech is primary, while the contempt power is only secondary.
It follows that the contempt power cannot be exercised because people are criticizing a judge. It can only be exercised if someone makes the functioning of the judge impossible eg if while a judge is hearing a case someone jumps on to the dias and tries to run away with the court file, or if he attacks or threatens a witness.
If someone calls a judge a fool inside the courtroom and goes away, in my opinion it is not contempt, for he has not stopped the functioning of the court.
But if he keeps shouting in court the whole day, and despite warning does not stop, he is obviously not letting the court function, and this would be contempt. After all disputes in society have to be adjudicated, and judges must decide cases to justify payment of salaries to them.
I submit that the time has come now for Parliament, the judiciary and others concerned to take a fresh look at the law of contempt of court in the light of what I have said above, and bring about necessary amendments.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.
How ‘We the People’ came to be the source of authority of the Constitution
This is the story of how and why the framers of the Constitution of India deliberately designed a procedural error in the adoption of the new Constitution with a view to severing the seamless transition of legal authority from the British Crown-in-Parliament to the new Republic of India. The deliberate procedural error consisted in a deviation from the Constitution making procedure prescribed by the Indian Independence Act, 1947 — the law enacted by the British Parliament granting India independence and formally authorising the Constituent Assembly to draft a Constitution for the newly liberated state. To be sure, the framers of the Constitution of India were not the first, and indeed they were not the last to deliberately incorporate such procedural errors in the process of Constitution making. The founders of the Constitutions of several other states including Ireland, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Ghana, which were being liberated from the British Empire, took such a step. In doing so, they were all motivated by the same goal: that of ensuring constitutional ‘autochthony.’
The etymological roots of ‘autochthony,’ which is not to be confused with ‘autonomy,’ are to be found in the Greek autos (self) and chthon (earth). The goal of constitutional autochthony is to deliver an indigenous Constitution, the source of whose ‘authority’ can be located in the new state’s own soil. The dominant academic view in the middle of the 20th Century was that autochthony could not be achieved simply by drafting an original Constitution or verbally invoking We the People as the source of its authority, for autochthony does not so much concern the content of the Constitution as its pedigree: the chain of legal validity authorising it.
This proposition found doctrinal support in the influential theory propounded by the legal philosopher, Hans Kelsen, which had it that it was inconceivable for a legal system to split into two independent legal systems through a purely legal process. One of the implications of Kelsen’s theory was that the basic norm (grundnorm) of the imperial predecessor’s Constitution would continue to be at the helm of the legal system of the newly liberated former colony despite the legal transfer of power, precisely because the transfer of power was recognised as ‘legal’ by the Constitution of the imperial predecessor.
On Kelsen’s account, only an ‘unlawful’ or ‘revolutionary’ act could ensure an autochthonous Constitution by rending asunder all continuity with the imperial predecessor.
Such break in legal continuity is automatically achieved where a former colony’s independence is won as the result of an armed revolution, as was the case with the United States of America. Independence in such instances is not granted ‘legally’ by the Crown-in-Parliament and the Constitution of the newly liberated former colony is in no way authorised by the imperial predecessor. The situation is very different where independence of a former colony is not brought about by armed revolution, but is ‘legally’ granted by the imperial predecessor. This was the case with India, Pakistan, Ireland, Sri Lanka and Ghana whose independence was the result of the British Crown-in-Parliament’s enactment of separate statutes of independence (Independence Act) for each of them. The statutes of independence also set up Constituent Assemblies authorising them to draft new Constitutions for each of these States. Following the constitution-making procedure stipulated in the statute of independence would have meant that the validity of the new Constitution could ultimately be traced to an imperial grant. The mere verbal invocation of We the People as the ‘source’ of authority in such cases would have rung hollow, apart from being jurisprudentially implausible since the source of authority of the new Constitution would continue to be the imperial predecessor’s Constitution. In such cases, it was thought that since there was no ‘revolution,’ one had to be deliberately made up in order to secure an autochthonous Constitution. Accordingly, as John Finnis argues, the framers of new Commonwealth Constitutions took great care to do something illegal “so as to make up a revolution, however contrived.”
The Irish were the pioneers in conceiving the idea of a benign legal revolution geared towards constitutional autochthony. Ireland was granted independence under the Irish Free State Constitution Act, 1922 enacted by the British Crown-in-Parliament which also authorised the Irish Constituent Assembly to draft a Constitution for the newly liberated state. Thus, the Irish Constitution of 1922 was not autochthonous.
Though it was drafted by an indigenous Constituent Assembly, its chain of legal validity could be traced to an imperial statutory grant. With a view to changing this state of affairs, in 1937 the Irish Parliament amended the Constitution by deliberately violating the procedure for amendment stipulated in the 1922 Constitution and put the amended Constitution for acceptance in a referendum. Going one step further, the Irish Parliament also repealed the Irish Free State Constitution Act, 1922 enacted by the British Parliament, though it was not empowered to do so. It is widely accepted that this successfully severed the chain of validity with the Crown-in-Parliament and ensured a truly autochthonous Constitution. The framers of the Indian Constitution appear to have rehearsed the Irish route to autochthony to the extent possible in Indian conditions.
Independence was formally granted to India by the Crown-in-Parliament’s enactment of the Indian Independence Act, 1947 though the executive decision to grant India independence was arrived at earlier in the Cabinet Mission Plan (1946). It was under the Cabinet Mission Plan that the Constituent Assembly was envisaged and charged with the mandate of drafting the new Constitution for India. This was legally recognised in Section 8 of the Independence Act. The Cabinet Mission Plan had envisaged that the new Constitution would be put to the Crown-in-Parliament for approval. Though the Indian Independence Act did not reiterate this requirement, it did specify that the new Constitution drafted by the Constituent Assembly would have to receive the assent of the Governor General of India, who would assent to such law in the name of the British Crown.
The framers introduced two deliberate procedural errors in the enactment of the Constitution of India in violation of the Independence Act: a) They did not put the Constitution to the approval of the either the British Parliament as envisaged by the Cabinet Mission Plan or the Governor-General as envisaged in the Indian Independence Act 1947; b) Following the Irish precedent, Article 395 of the Constitution of India repealed the Indian Independence Act — something the Constituent Assembly did not have the authorisation to do. In doing so, the framers not only repudiated the source which authorised them to enact the Constitution but it was also a denial, albeit symbolic, of Indian independence being a grant of the imperial Crown-in-Parliament. This ensured that the chain of constitutional validity did not extend all the way to the Crown-in-Parliament, thus delivering a completely autochthonous Constitution. In this fashion, We the People, through the members of the Constituent Assembly, came to be the ‘source’ of authority of the Constitution, rather than the authority being traceable to the Indian Independence Act enacted by the British Crown-in-Parliament.
Why did it matter?
This quest for autochthony is likely to come across to some as an abstruse quibble that shouldn’t concern anyone other than the most pedantic legal theorists. There were, however, two reasons why the framers of new Commonwealth Constitutions felt constrained to pay such close attention to it. Firstly, it was feared that the British Crown-in-Parliament could, however improbably, reassert its authority over the newly liberated state by repealing the statute of independence and abrogating the new Constitution. There was, of course, no immediate apprehension of the British taking such a step. All the same, the framers of new Commonwealth Constitutions would have found, as Geoffrey Marshall notes, merely prudential reassurances to be precarious pegs to hang their nation’s independence on. Secondly, for sentimental considerations, the framers would have been loath to let the new Constitution be grounded in an imperial grant or be assented to by the British Crown. They would have wanted the new Constitution to be truly autochthonous, stemming from the authority of We the People so that an independent future could, albeit symbolically, be insulated from a troubled imperial past.
(Shivprasad Swaminathan is Assistant Professor, Jindal Global Law School)
Of all the promises made in the Constitution, the most important are the promises of the ‘right to life’, the ‘right to dignity’, the ‘right to personal liberty’ and the ‘right to bodily integrity and health’. However these promises are yet to be redeemed for women. Rape and other forms of sexual assault,domestic violence,dowry death and honour killings — the most brazen violation of these rights — are a real and daily danger for most women.
The cry that has been reverberating in the streets of the capital — and across the country — from a new and younger generation of citizens is: “We want justice”. It is addressed to us judges and lawyers whose primary responsibility is to protect the rights of the people. The women of this country are no longer willing to tolerate the unconscionable delays in the delivery of justice. It is the sacred duty of judges to prevent violence against women in the home; at the work place and on the streets and hold the perpetrators accountable. What is it that stops courts from securing justice for women? Why has the law not been able to convict the accused when it comes to crime against women? The situation is best summed up by a famous Orwellian quote—’ to see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle’.
To see the lack of judicial will to get justice for victims of gender-based violence, as stemming from a deeply entrenched prejudice and misogyny in the justice delivery system, including the courts and their judges, is an exercise demanding a constant struggle. It is so much in front of our noses that we, women and men included, legitimise the presence of sexism in our lives and carry it to the corridors of the court and into the courtrooms and into judgements.
This is a part of the Indian reality; from the private sphere of the ‘home’ to the public space like places of work; from the open streets to the corridors of courts playing out in the theatres of justice. Today, the belief in equality is not sincerely held at all. On the contrary, the social system, including the judicial system, is built on a hierarchy along caste and gender lines.
It is no secret that violence against women stems from the deeply unequal relationship between the two sexes in private and public life. It is also no secret that this misogyny is deeply rooted in our society, including within the system of administration of justicefrom investigation to trial, to judgment. A high court judge in Orissa in his judgement once famously held, that it was not possible for a man, acting alone, to rape a woman in good health. There you have it, the distinction between “legitimate” rape and ” illegitimate” rape (to borrow from the infamous comment by Todd Akin) coming from a high court judge.
This is the same thing you hear so often from judges that “women are misusing the law.” They decide what is the legitimate use of the law for women, based on a deeply sexist view of how a woman should behave; what she should desire and how much violence she should tolerate. A casual glance at the kinds of questions a woman is asked in any prosecution of gender- based violence or a reading of judgments of the court will reaffirm this view. On one occasion when a woman lawyer asked for an adjournment, a district judge said, ” I know how you women lawyers make it”. He was rewarded by being appointed to the high court.
Sexual violence against women is unique as it begins in the home and moves out to public places. The problem begins with the assumed consent that women give to sexual intercourse within a marriage. Rape by a man of his wife without her consent is not an offence. Since this is a settled norm, it matters little whether forcible sexual intercourse is with the wife or a stranger on the street. With this accepted culture of rape within marriage standing tall, we have little hope of changing the culture of violence against women anywhere. The assumed consent of a woman to sexual intercourse becomes ingrained in the psyche of a man — as a husband, a son, a brother and this psyche continues into public spaces. Thus it is imperative to recognise that non-consensual sexual intercourse is unacceptable regardless of whether it is with a wife or a stranger, if we want sexual violence against women to stop. A legal culture that creates ‘legitimate and ‘illegitimate’ violence needs to change.
It is heartening to see for the first time, a large number of men on the streets protesting against sexual abuse of women. It is a new generation which brings hope that the tendency for violence against women is about to end as men of future generations will not tolerate such violence.
Lack of adequate number of judges or excessive workload is no longer an acceptable excuse to the women of this country for delaying judicial decisions. They know that it is the abuse of the process of law by vested interests and the utter indifference to women who have been sexually abused, that cause delays, not lack of infrastructure. An approximately 40% increase in the number of judges between 2005 and 2012, has not produced a corresponding decline in the pendency of cases. Justice does not reside in the brick and mortar courtrooms but in the heart and soul of judges and lawyers who represent victims of injustice. Any judge worth the name knows how to prevent delays and an abuse of the process of law by the rich and the famous.
The first duty of judges is to give cases of sexual assault priority and deal with them expeditiously with zero tolerance for delay. The demand for fast track courts is a metaphor for the intolerance of a dysfunctional legal system. While dedicated courts may go some way in dealing with the issue of delays, they will have to be accompanied by support structures, which enable a fair investigation and prosecution.
Women are conspicuous by their absence from the courts as lawyers and as judges. On the other hand, our law schools have at least 50% women students. Yet due to the patriarchy embedded in the judiciary and the legal system, the number of women lawyers and judges is negligible. Even those who manage to penetrate the highly patriarchal framework are discriminated against in terms of appointments, designation as seniors and promotions. Women are constantly under the microscope being pushed to prove themselves while male lawyers need pass no test of competence. The old boys network effectively keeps women out of the span of all zones of influence.
All talk of increasing the penalty for rapists to death is hollow. As the law stands today, a m a n fo u n d guilty of rape can be given a life sentence, And yet in my entire career as a lawyer spanning over 40 years, I have yet to see a single case in which a life sentence has been meted out to a rapist, what then to talk of the death penalty! This calls for urgent action plan by the Chief Justice of India and the chief justices of all high courts to raise as fast as possible the number of women judges in our courts. A few years ago, a woman who I represented in a classic case of sexual harassment, once asked me why her appeal was not being listed before a woman judge in the Supreme Court. My answer was simple, “because there is no woman judge in the Supreme Court.” At this she expressed her amazement and asked, if the Supreme Court could mandate that the chairperson of a sexual harassment committee which was to be set up by employers must be a woman, how come that law does not apply to the court itself ? I had no answer.
A critical mass of women in the judicial system and in the prosecution will inspire confidence in the system for women. The world over, this is known to happen. Women today have no stake in the judicial system and this is reflected in the cry “We want justice”.
A demand for accountability of institutions of justice delivery, the police and the courts must accompany the demand for appropriate laws. Accountability of the police must start with a complaints procedure within the police service itself where a complaint can be lodged for non-performance of duties. A clear command responsibility must be articulated within this mechanism so that in case of non-performance of duties by a junior, the senior officer is held liable. When a pattern of non-performance emerges, leading to a permanent sense of insecurity in which women live, the accountability must be that of the head of the police, and of the political establishment. Confidence in the administration can only be restored by measurable action against people in positions of power.
The judiciary has long been a selfregulating, self- appointing institution. We need a transparent method of appointment of judges where the antecedents of the proposed appointee can be publicly scrutinised. Accountability of the legal system must carry with it, accountability of judges. We need an official mechanism for monitoring the performance of the judiciary to check how content of their judgements meet the constitutional goals of equality. We need independent special rapporteurs drawn from civil society to report directly to Parliament on the performance of the legal system, the judicial system and the police system and violence against women.
It is time for standards to be put in place as to how judges must behave with women lawyers and litigants. The language of the law must be sanitized of all its male chauvinist content. No judge, let alone a Supreme Court judge must ever be allowed to use sexist language in judgements or during the course of arguments in court. Accountability starts at the top with the Supreme Court, what a judge of the Supreme Court thinks and says today, will be said and done by the 17,000 subordinate court judges who deliver justice under the supervision of the high courts.
We need a protocol on how judges ought to behave with women in courts and how they should address women’s issues in their judgements. Gender sensitive language must reflect in judgements dealing with women. This is not a matter of form but of substance. Changing culture and mindsets often requires language to change and rules and regulations, which reflect the change and do not permit a fall from standards. This is the time when the Chief Justice of India must rise to the occasion and speak to the nation and inform us what will be done to restore the confidence of the people in the justice system. Besides his role as a judge, he has a role as the head of the judiciary responsible for the administration of the justice.
The single most important statement we would like to hear from him, is that discrimination against women by judges will not be tolerated; the judiciary will have to exhibit and demonstrate zero tolerance of violence against women in the home, and on the streets.
The goal of law is to sustain life not support its destruction. This is what the 23-year-old was trying to tell us, before she died. “I want to live,” she said, not die of shame. She changed the way society looks at rape — from blaming the victim to focusing on the rapist. All law reform must move in that direction, asking how we can build a new life-sustaining legal culture, a more equal culture, with justice for all. That is the question we must address — with or — without a special session of Parliament.
The writer is Additional Solicitor General of India
In this Idea Exchange, the new Minister of Law and Justice, Ashwani Kumar, speaks about judicial activism, and the right to privacy vis-a-vis the right to information. This session was moderated by Senior Assistant Editor Maneesh Chhibber
Maneesh Chhibber: There is a feeling that the Indian higher judiciary is going into areas that don’t concern judges. How do you intend to check that?
It is absolutely true that over the last couple of years, there is a widely-held perception that there is a treading into other domains by organs of the state whose remit is not that particular sector. It is equally true that what the judges do or say, they believe they say or do so by the command of the Constitution. Now who will determine the outer parameters and the constitutional laxman rekhas? The Constitution confers that right on the judiciary, yet I believe that recent judgments of the Supreme Court, including the one in the 2G spectrum case, have clearly spelt out the Supreme Court’s perspective with regard to interference in policy decisions. The highest court of the land has categorically reaffirmed the proposition that judiciary cannot concern itself with policy making nor can it go into the questions relating to the political domain. But the judiciary has said that it can intervene in the implementation or the manner of implementation of the policy. I don’t think the government has any quarrel with that proposition.
Maneesh Chhibber: It is said that judges get swayed and play to the gallery.
Judges are prone to be concerned with the prevailing environment of the day, yet the constitutional and judicial discipline demands that judges decide as objectively as the brief in front of them permits. In a large majority of the cases, judges do decide fairly. There have been cases where the general feeling has been that the judges have said a little more than what justice demanded but that was a more a function of the style of writing a judgment and style varies from judge to judge.
Amitabh Sinha: The Shah Commission has given its report on the proposed privacy law. What are your views on its recommendations and on the proposed privacy law?
I did take the initiative of establishing a high-powered committee of known experts to discuss the various aspects of the privacy law and the privacy rights that the Constitution confers on its citizens. Our privacy rights are derived from Article 21 of the Constitution. They needed to be translated and enforced through specific privacy legislation. The focus of the commission’s deliberations would have been on how to harmonise the imperatives of privacy protection and the right of the people to know. The right of people to know is as much a part of the constitutional imperative so we need a law which would harmoniously blend these two constitutional imperatives.
Amitabh Sinha: Would you say that the right of privacy, when enacted, essentially needs to be applied in inverse proportion to the public office you occupy? The higher you go up, the less the right to privacy becomes?
The right to privacy in India, culled out from Article 21, is a right that the Constitution recognises as an integral part of our human rights which is non-negotiable. A citizen who is also a public figure may be expected of greater transparency in the conduct of his official duties. But that argument, in my personal view, cannot be used to deny the very basic right to privacy of a public servant. The two rights must move in tandem.
D K Singh: How do you explain the fact that not a single judge has been impeached by Parliament so far? Is it because the judiciary is unblemished or is there some lacunae in the impeachment process which needs to be rectified?
I am really happy that the we have not had to use the impeachment proceedings against judges. Having said that, some people may argue that the difficulty in the impeachment procedure makes it impossible for the procedure to be followed. It’s an argument I accept. But it is in the fitness of things that we have inbuilt defences to ensure that the impeachment mechanism is not abused. If you were to make it easier, we would be vulnerable to the argument that Parliament is using the procedure to make inroads into the independence of the judiciary. It is certainly not my case that the judiciary at every level has an unblemished record. We have noticed cases of judicial aberrations. Up to now, we have left it to the inbuilt mechanisms within the judiciary to deal with such cases. But now that we have a Judicial Accountability Bill, we will, hopefully, establish a more effective legislative mechanism for addressing judicial aberrations.
Seema Chishti: Your government took a radical step on the Lokpal two years ago when you had a 10-member committee to draft the Bill. Would you think about such pre-legislative committees for future legislation?
Certainly, we are enriched by pre-legislative discussions with all stakeholders. I think it is a good thing. Laws are meant for the people and therefore, the more participatory the process of law-making is, the better it is for all. But it is an entirely different thing to say that you could leave the drafting of laws to people outside of the legislatures and Parliament. My view is that the drafting of legislation through Parliament and translating people’s views into the letter of the law must remain the preserve of the legislatures and parliamentarians. And I think my views have been validated by the experience of the past.
Harcharan Singh: Twenty- eight years have passed since 3,000 people were killed in Delhi after Mrs Indira Gandhi’s assassination. Not even five people have been convicted. As the law minister today, what plan do you have to see that justice is delivered faster?
Long unjustifiable delays in dispensation of justice erodes the faith of people in the justice delivery system. Over the last several years, there have been repeated attempts to ensure that affordable and expeditious justice is available to all. There are seven initiatives in the works now to achieve the promise of the Constitution of affordable and expeditious justice. One of my foremost priorities as law minister is to hasten the process of judicial reforms and that would cut the pendency of cases. We have around 3.15 lakh court cases pending in courts. But we are now introducing and reinvigorating the gram nyayalaya justice delivery system and the Lok Adalat system. The criminal justice system is another story all together and I agree with you that it can become very dissatisfying or frustrating or very oppressive. But I want to say something I believe in with all my heart—please do not, in the quest of momentary popularity or appeasing a sentiment, evade the time-tested system of criminal justice which states that presume a man to be innocent until proved guilty. That brings me to another point: trial by media offends the principles of fair trial which is integral to the rule of law. Media trials are unconstitutional. And yet, every day there is a trial by media on every issue. The argument that would be made by the great activists on television every day is that it takes too long to prove a man to be guilty. But is that fair grounds to reject the principle of the rule of law in favour of kangaroo trials?
Harcharan Singh: We had committees and commissions, whether it is the Gujarat riots or the Delhi riots. These commissions take years to gather evidence. What is the use of their findings after so long?
I agree that we need to do a lot more and must bring in amendments and changes in the law. We must adequately staff the legal structures by getting in more judges, more lawyers and courts. It will be my endeavour to try and push through the necessary judicial reforms.
Pranab Dhal Samanta: Where is the government on the proposal for a judicial appointments commission? Your predecessor also wanted to start a conversation with the Supreme Court on moving the two-judge benches to three-judge benches and looking at a permanent five-bench constitutional bench headed by the Chief Justice. Where are you on these issues?
On the second question, I would need to discuss this with the higher judiciary, with the Chief Justice of India. I do recognise that in the last several years, the demand on the judges of the Supreme Court to decide complex issues of constitutional law has increased exponentially and therefore, some kind of structured instrumentality has to be in place to ensure that the best possible judicial decisions are handed down on far-reaching issues without compromising on the judges’ responsibility towards other important litigations pending before them. On the judicial appointments commissions, the consultations with different political parties have taken place. A few details need to be fine-tuned.
Prerna (St Mark’s School, Janakpuri, Delhi): India stands 98 among 175 countries on the corruption index. Judiciary can play a positive role in checking corruption. What are your plans?
I am not sure if any country in the world has been able to completely eliminate corruption but that should not stop us from endeavouring to do so. It would be my endeavour to be a facilitator in the enforcement of anti-corruption laws and ensuring that the enforcement of criminal laws is not oppressive.
Dilip Bobb: What’s your view on Supreme Court judges taking up government-sponsored jobs immediately after retirement?
My personal view, not my view as the minister of law and justice, is that it would be a healthy tradition for judges of the Supreme Court not to accept post-retirement jobs. Having said that, it is equally true that given the complexities of the regulatory regime that we now have to advance our economic and social legislation, there is no substitute for experience. Given also that at the retirement age of 62 years, Supreme Court judges are still active and alert in mind, we need to have some of these wise men on tribunals for a while.
Karishma Kuenzang (EXIMS*): Cartoonist Aseem Trivedi was arrested on charges of sedition. What steps will you take to ensure that freedom of speech and expression and the law of sedition do not clash?
The charge of sedition can only be brought forward in an almost foolproof case. If every spoken word, sometimes in anger or without full reflection on the spur of the moment, is going to lead to a charge of sedition, then I do not know who will be saved from that charge.
Yogesh Rajput (EXIMS): As a former minister of science and technology, why do you think the government gives less importance when it comes to allocation of funds in R&D and science and technology?
The PM accords the highest importance to science and technology. In the 12th Five Year Plan, we have significantly increased public spending on R&D. It used to be less than 1 per cent of our GDP in the 11th Plan. In the 12th Plan, the R&D expenditure, both in the private and public sector, will be increased to about 2 per cent of the GDP, the single highest growth of expenditure in any department.
N P Singh: Should we see the transfer of Mr Jaipal Reddy to this ministry in the context of the PM giving priority to science and technology?
It may well be. I have the deepest respect for Mr Reddy, both for his scholarship and for his ability to read and grasp complex issues of science and technology.
D K Singh: What are your views on Arvind Kejriwal’s allegations that Mr Ranjan Bhattacharya influenced the government during Mr Vajpayee’s prime ministership?
I don’t want to dignify the comments of Mr Kejriwal by my rebuttal or by my comment. I am also not defending Mr Bhattacharya, but if Mr Kejriwal has said anything about an individual based on his information, who am I to comment?
Shishir Tripathi (EXIMS): When Justice Katju was in office, he raised the issue of nepotism in the judiciary.
It’s true that there has been a perception that this is not a healthy practice. I do not know what to say. Does it mean that if somebody needs to be elevated to the judgeship of the High Court, his nephew, son or daughter have to move out of the court? Or does it mean that he should decline to become a judge just because he does not want to deprive his children of the opportunity to practice in court? You need to have a balance on such issues.
Prashant Dixit (EXIMS): Several decisions of khap panchayats have created a furore. Don’t you think that the judiciary should interfere?
The law of the land is supreme and their decision is to be respected by all, be it a khap panchayat or any other panchayat.
The concept of judicial infallibility is valid, but a legal pronouncement need not always be the last word on a given subject.
The article in The Hinduby Ramaswamy R. Iyer, “With all due respect, My Lords,” on March 2, a critical study of the ruling of the Supreme Court giving certain directions under the authority of Article 141, relating to inter-linking of rivers was noteworthy. And his request to reconsider the decision deserves serious consideration.
What the Supreme Court decides is final not because it is infallible; it is infallible because it is constitutionally final and structurally supreme. If ignorance is made final, governance becomes chaos. That is why the Montesquieuan theory of the trinity of instrumentalities is accepted by many Constitutions across the world, including the Indian Constitution. What is in the realm of the Executive is decided by the Executive. What is legislative, in the shape of law, is decided by the Legislature. When there is a dispute over a fact or law, the decision of the court is final, and all the other branches of the structure are bound by the judicial decision.
From this perspective, river disputes fall within the jurisdiction of the judiciary. But, for instance, how high an aircraft should fly without the possibility of danger, or how a safe dam should be constructed to store water, are matters highly technical, and hence these do not belong to jurisprudence or judges. I was once a Minister for Irrigation and Electricity (in Kerala) and started projects on the advice of engineers. The court never interfered, nor could they. There may be some areas where submergence by a river may cause risks — and on the basis of clear technical advice a court may pronounce an order. The jurisdictional borders of the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary are fairly clear, and one of them cannot interfere with the other. Viewed from this angle, I agree with Mr. Ramaswamy Iyer’s critical observations.
Judges, merely because they wear robes, cannot decide on the course of rivers, whether they should be linked or not, and if at all, how they should be linked — just as they cannot decide on matters to do with the safety of flights or other such technical issues. Judges are not infallible; and they cannot issue executive directions or promulgate legal mandates or punitive impositions in such contexts.
The central flaw of the Supreme Court’s verdict on the inter-linking issue is the failure to realise that a pan-Indian river project may have dangerous limitations. The Ganga and the Cauvery are two great rivers, but they cannot be linked up without first making a careful and exhaustive study of the various features of the terrain through which they flow over a vast territory of India. Otherwise, it may well end up as a horrendous blunder, irreparable after the decision is operationalised. A national debate involving also the great engineers, especially river engineers, that we have is essential before undertaking the implementation of a national project such as this.
The Supreme Court is indeed infallible, but while in its jural specialties it may well be top of the league, it is largely innocent in matters to do with mighty river-engineering. Therefore, great caution with all the wisdom at our command, must first be used to study the implications and the perils of this Himalayan-scale project before implementing a juristic wonder beyond what the Supreme Court has so lightly directed. Where the implications are too great to grasp and the consequences may be beyond repair, “hasten slowly” will be a good piece advice. Never assume that the robed wisdom that is good for jurisprudence will not land us in dangerous waters.
Therefore, never be in a hurry. Study every dimension of this huge project. When the project was announced a decade ago in 2002, one section of public opinion supported it, and another opposed its implementation. It is without taking any note of the conflicting public opinion that the present binding directions have been issued by the court.
TEHMTAN R. ANDHYARUJINA, a Senior Advocate in the Supreme Court of India, faced a lot of criticism from his colleagues, especially Soli J. Sorabjee, who was a junior to Nani Palkhivala during the hearing of the Kesavananda case, that his latest book, The Kesavananda Bharati Case: The Untold Story of Struggle for Supremacy by Supreme Court and Parliament, was a wasted effort. The former Solicitor-General took the flak in his stride, saying, “The purpose of my book is only to give a historical account of how the basic structure doctrine came to be established in our constitutional law.” Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:
Your book suggests that the inviolability of the basic structure doctrine was a dubious view of the majority of the Kesavananda Bench. What should have been the ratio of that judgment?
Extracting the ratio from the 11 judgments should have been the task of either the 13-judge Bench or a subsequent Bench. It is difficult to say what would have been the ratio on a proper judicial exercise. Had that exercise been done, there may not have been a majority holding that there is a limitation of the basic structure of the Constitution in amending the Constitution. There was no majority for any implied limitation on the amending power as Justice [H.R.] Khanna had rejected the implied limitations on the Constitution. What would have been extracted as the ratio of the Kesavananda case by a later Bench is a matter of speculation. This difficult exercise was purposely avoided by Chief Justice [S.M.] Sikri when he created the so-called View by the Majority note and passed it around for signatures of the judges on April 24, 1973.
In the concluding chapter, you concede that the basic structure doctrine is so deeply enshrined in our constitutional law that it would not be shaken even by the knowledge of the process by which it came to be formulated. What then is the purpose of the book, if it is not to make readers question that long-held belief?
It is correct that the basic structure theory has become an axiom of our constitutional law and one cannot imagine any Bench of the Supreme Court annulling that theory. It is also true that for whatever reason and method the majority view was arrived at, the axiom of unamendability of the basic structure of the Constitution has had a salutary check and control on the amending power. The purpose of my book is only to give a historical account of how the basic structure doctrine came to be established in our constitutional law. After this case, Parliament and the government gained by different approaches on its social and economic policies, which the court did not interfere with merely because some fundamental right was perceived to be violated. In that sense, the judgment served a useful purpose to society.
Can you explain how the then government sought to appoint judges before the hearing of the case?
After the Golaknath case, the government took a predominant role in the appointment process. By and large the new government nominees, though men of eminence and distinction, decided in favour of the unlimited power of Parliament except Justice A.K. Mukherjea. After Golaknath, the initiative came from the government. Justice Sikri was initially reluctant to appoint Justices [M.H.] Beg and [S.N.] Dwivedi. The government prevailed upon him. He selected Justice Khanna. The government accepted it. The relations between Justice Sikri and Indira Gandhi were also strained.
Justice Sikri had to choose 13 out of the then total strength of 15 judges to hear the Kesavananda case [the earlier relevant case, Golaknath, was decided by 11 judges and the Kesavananda Bench had to be bigger than that]. There were just two remaining judges who did not have a long tenure: Justice [V.] Alagirisamy and Justice Inder Dev Dua. But their tenure could have been extended in the form of ad hoc judges [and could have been chosen to be part of the Kesavananda Bench to replace Justices Sikri and J.M. Shelat]. The general practice is when your view is being reviewed, propriety requires that you recuse yourself from the Bench. But nobody raised objections [against Justices Sikri and Shelat being on the Kesavananda Bench because they were earlier part of the majority judges on the Golaknath Bench].
You mention that there was a move to exclude Justice Beg, a pro-government judge, from the Bench after 66 days of hearing on his hospitalisation. Who was behind this move?
It is unfortunate that a strong attempt was made by the petitioners and the CJI [Chief Justice of India] to exclude him on his third and last illness. His exclusion would not have changed the number of the majority, as the majority would have still prevailed with 7:5 instead of 7:6. In a case with such political overtones, the [likely] exclusion of Justice Beg at the last moment created tensions. It was felt that if the case was adjourned for the return of Justice Beg, the case would have prolonged beyond the retirement of CJI Sikri and the whole effort of the 13-judge Bench would have come to naught. Therefore, the petitioners and the CJI wanted to drop Justice Beg from the Bench and proceed as if there were 12 judges. The illness of Justice Beg at the crucial moment was interpreted as some sort of a game plan of the government to put an end to the case. The petitioners believed that it was a move to favour the government. As a result, Justice Beg was retained on the Bench, with Palkhivala being asked to give written submissions. It was a serious illness, but the question was whether his illness would go beyond the tenure of Justice Sikri.
The Attorney-General had threatened to walk out if Justice Beg was dropped. [Justice H.M.] Seervai supported him. Without one judge on the Bench, the legitimacy of the judgment would have come into question. Palkhivala, therefore, submitted to the government’s wish, and agreed to close his oral arguments on the 66th day.
By signing the View by the Majority note, did the neutral judges not apply their minds? You suggest that some of them reluctantly signed it because of constraints of time as Justice Sikri was due to retire.
The only judge who said that he signed the View by the Majority note to accommodate Sikri was Justice Y.V. Chandrachud. The rest of the judges, except Mukherjea, were by and large committed to the view of Parliament not having the amending power to change the basic structure. It would not have made any difference to the ultimate result, as at least five of the judges were clearly in favour of limiting Parliament’s amending power, and, one judge, Justice Khanna, was in favour of limiting its powers only on the grounds of basic structure. The absence of judicial conference does not invalidate the judgment. The view by the majority cannot be considered invalid because of the absence of a judges’ conference [preceding it], but it had become dubious because it was a hurriedly prepared paper passed on for signatures just before the judgment was delivered.
You have also claimed that the then government was in possession of some of the draft judgments before they were delivered. What was the basis of this claim?
The government decided on the supersession of judges even before the judgment was delivered in open court. Kuldip Nayar, in his book, says that Chief Justice Sikri queried Justice Beg. Justice Dwivedi said [after his appointment] that he was going to the Supreme Court to reverse Golaknath. Justice Beg was the nominee of Indira Gandhi. The government had advance notice of the views of the judges. Justice Mukherjea, Justice P. Jagannatha Reddy, Justice Chandrachud and Justice Khanna did not give the impression of being one way or the other. They appeared to be uncommitted. So, they would tilt the balance. Justice Reddy, on his own, came to more or less the same conclusion as the Sikri-led judges.
Justice Mukherjea wrote a joint judgment with Justice Hegde. Justice Khanna took a midway position. Justice Chandrachud was perceived by the petitioners to be in favour of limiting the amending power by some of his statements in the court, and the fact that he had been invited by Justice Sikri to the only judicial conference of like-minded judges. Therefore, his writing a judgment in favour of Parliament was a great surprise. This gave rise to the rumour that he had been influenced by the then Law Minister H.R. Gokhale and retired Chief Justice Gajendragadkar [a family friend of Chandrachud]. Justice Chandrachud later said that he was entitled to change his views. He denied that he was influenced by Gokhale and Justice Gajendragadkar.
Why did Chief Justice A.N. Ray dissolve the 13-judge Bench to review the Kesavananda judgment within two days of its constitution in 1976? You have speculated on the reasons, like his isolation on the Bench, Palkhivala’s letter to the Prime Minister on the eve of the hearing protesting against the move, and so on. Can you elaborate?
I think the 13-judge Bench was constituted by Justice A.N. Ray to review the Kesavananda case without any judicial order and there was no indication why the case was required to be reviewed. This was the strongest reason advanced by Palkhivala. On this point, neither Chief Justice Ray nor Attorney-General Niran De was able to give a convincing answer. And from the observations of other judges, this question was a worrying one. Therefore, in my view, Ray could not carry the majority with him to review the Kesavananda case, and on the third day, he felt compelled to dissolve the Bench without any reason.
How would you interpret Justice Ray’s legacy?
Chief Justice Ray’s acceptance of the CJI post is often misunderstood. It was not he who manoeuvred it but the government. After knowing the views of the judges who were going to decide against Parliament, the government decided that the next CJI should not be a judge from among those judges. It is now known that the government even asked Justice K.K. Mathew whether he would accept the position of the CJI. But he declined. Chief Justice Ray himself was reluctant to be the CJI in such a controversial way, but he was told that if he did not accept the position, the government was determined to go down the line and appoint any other judge who would consent to be the CJI. Therefore, Justice Ray accepted the position with reluctance.
Your mentor H.M. Seervai changed his view after the Emergency that the doctrine of basic structure was required for Indian democracy as without it many of the abuses of power during the Emergency could not have been reversed legally. Do you similarly support the doctrine now, even while legally questioning its birth?
In the Kesavananda case, it was argued that the amending power could be abused. It was not an unknown fact. But that could never be the reason for cutting down any power. Seervai changed his view for personal reasons. Today, after 38 years, one can say that as a matter of political argument a check on the amending power is always to be welcomed. In other countries, the amending power is not subjected to such judicial constraints, except in Bangladesh. Any power is capable of being abused and the fact of the abuse is never a ground for limiting the governing power.
The difficulty in ascertaining the basic structure is that it is a highly nebulous and subjective standard. It gives a vital power to the judiciary, which was never contemplated by the Constitution makers. It is true that Parliamentary and executive misuse is something that requires judicial correction and which is done in the normal course. But the amending power is a unique power, which cannot be compared with the ordinary legislative or executive power. The amending power is a quasi-political power and its validity may not be within the domain of the executive, which is a view taken in most jurisdictions of the world, including, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and South Africa. It is a unique power to create the Constitution. Judges are bound by the Constitution.
All constitutional cases, in a sense, are political. In the Kesavananda case the external political forces operated for over 66 days, and in that sense it was not a normal, constitutional case deciding political issues.
The provision of legal aid to the poor and the disadvantaged exists in all civilised countries, often guided by charitable and philanthropic concerns. In a democratic set-up, the philosophy of legal aid has acquired a new meaning, with an emphasis on the concept of equality of all human beings, increasingly drawn from the universal principles of human rights. Free legal aid to the poor and marginalised members of society is now viewed as a tool to empower them to use the power of the law to advance their rights and interests as citizens, and as economic actors. Such a paradigm shift in the concept of legal aid gains greater importance when India is viewed as a growing economic power.
Parliament enacted the Legal Services Authorities Act, 1987 in order to give effect to Article 39-A of the Constitution to extend free legal aid, to ensure that the legal system promotes justice on the basis of equal opportunity. (November 9 is observed as National Legal Services Day, to commemorate the enactment of the legislation.) Those entitled to free legal services are members of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, women, children, persons with disability, victims of ethnic violence, industrial workmen, persons in custody, and those whose income does not exceed a level set by the government (currently it is Rs.1 lakh a year in most States). The Act empowers legal services authorities at the district, State and national levels, and the different committees (legal services institutions) to organise Lok Adalats to resolve pending and pre-litigation disputes. It provides for permanent Lok Adalats to settle disputes involving public utility services. Under the Act, “legal services” have a meaning that includes rendering of service in the conduct of any court-annexed proceedings or proceedings before any authority, tribunal and so on, and giving advice on legal matters. Promoting legal literacy and conducting legal awareness programmes are functions of legal services institutions.
Access to justice
The Constitution treats all citizens as being equal and provides them equal protection under the law. Yet, the common person faces barriers to ‘access to justice.’
Illiteracy, lack of financial resources and social backwardness are major factors that hinder the common person from accessing justice. There are other invisible barriers: lack of courage to exercise legal rights, the proclivity to suffer silently the denial of rights, and geographical and spatial barriers are examples. Such barriers keep people disempowered and subjected to exploitation by powerful people. This results in their being shoved away from the mainstream, and they become constrained in becoming potential economic actors contributing to the nation’s development.
The Act provides for a machinery to ensure access to justice to all through the institutions of legal services authorities and committees. These institutions are manned by judges and judicial officers. Parliament entrusted the judiciary with the task of implementing the provisions of the Act, as the other pillars of the government were neither inclined nor had the expertise to take up the responsibility to provide access to justice to the weaker sections.
One of the problems faced by legal services institutions is their inability to reach out to the common people. This hiatus between them and the common people was perceived as indirectly defeating the objectives of the Act. It is in this context that the National Legal Services Authority (NALSA) has come up with the idea of para-legal volunteers to bridge the gap between the common person and legal services institutions.
The scheme seeks to utilise community-based volunteers selected from villages and other localities to provide basic legal services to the common people. Educated persons with commitment to social service and with a record of good character are selected. The volunteers are trained by district legal services authorities. The training equips them to identify the law-related needs of the marginalised in their locality. Such needs include assistance to secure legal rights, benefits and actionable entitlements under different government schemes that are denied to them. Coming as they do from the same locality, they are in a better position to identify those who need assistance and bring them to the nearest legal services institutions to solve their problems within the framework of law. They can assist disempowered people to get their entitlements from government offices where ordinary people often face hassles on account of bureaucratic lethargy and apathy.
Legal aid clinics in villages
In order to reach out to the common people, NALSA has come up with a project to set up legal aid clinics in all villages, subject to financial viability. Ignorance of what to do when faced with law-related situations is a common problem for disempowered people. Legal aid clinics work on the lines of primary health centres, where assistance is given for simple ailments and other minor medical requirements of village residents. Legal aid clinics assist in drafting simple notices, filling up forms to avail benefits under governmental schemes and by giving initial advice on simple problems. A legal aid clinic is a facility to assist and empower people who face barriers to ‘access to justice.’
Trained para-legal volunteers are available to run legal aid clinics in villages. The common people in villages will feel more confident to discuss their problems with a friendly volunteer from their own community rather than with a city-based legal professional. The volunteers will refer any complicated legal matters that require professional assistance to the nearest legal services institutions. When complex legal problems are involved, the services of professional lawyers will be made available in the legal aid clinics.
Free and competent legal services
There has been a widespread grievance that lawyers engaged by legal services institutions do not perform their duties effectively and that the lawyers are not paid commensurately for their work. In order to solve these problems, NALSA has framed the National Legal Services Authority (Free and Competent Legal services) Regulations, 2010 to provide free and competent legal services. Scrutiny of legal aid applications, monitoring of cases where legal aid is provided, and engaging senior lawyers on payment of regular fees in special cases, are the salient features of the Regulations. In serious matters where the life and liberty of a person are in jeopardy, the Regulations empower legal services authorities to specially engage senior lawyers.
Children’s rights, a neglected field
Juveniles including children constitute more than a third of India’s population. Yet, children and their rights are neglected. The problems of children are often seen through the spectacles of an adult. Consequently, the rights of children who are orphaned, abandoned and in conflict with the law are not properly handled by government officials and juvenile justice institutions. Denied care and protection, they may end up as children in conflict with law. At the same time, children in conflict with the law need care and protection. In October 2011, the Supreme Court, in Sampurna Behrua v. Union of India , a public interest litigation, directed the Directors General of Police of the States to designate one police officer in each police station as juvenile/child welfare officer. The court directed legal services authorities to train such police officials and give free legal services to all children in conflict with law on an incremental basis, starting with the State capital cities.
Legal services to the mentally-ill and the mentally-retarded, to workers in the unorganised sector, and to solve disputes arising out of the implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, are other schemes drawn up by NALSA for implementation by legal services institutions. A web-based monitoring system is in place to monitor their activities. NALSA works with civil society organisations, specialised statutory bodies and government departments.
Legal services institutions have until now functioned in uncharted waters, often making their presence felt only at certain ports of call like court-based legal services, organising legal literacy camps and Lok Adalats. Now, with a paradigm shift in the concept of legal services, legal services authorities are reaching out to the people to facilitate ‘access to justice’ to all in the most practicable and economical manner.
(The author is Member-Secretary, National Legal Services Authority, New Delhi.)
Para-legal volunteers can help bridge the gap between the ordinary citizen and legal services institutions.