Justice Ranjan Gogoi delivers the third Ramnath Goenka Memorial Lecture — The Vision of Justice


Full text of Justice Ranjan Gogoi’s speech at RNG Memorial Lecture:

I express my most heartfelt gratitude to The Express Group for extending this opportunity to me to deliver the lecture which has been organised in the memory of a man who was an institution in his own right: Ramnath Goenka ji.

While unlike some of you present here, I had not had the occasion to ever meet him, but, fortunately I have not been untouched by his proud legacy. Which gleams through that what he had founded as an answer to Gandhi ji’s call to start a swadeshi newspaper. Living in the realm of the Raj, it needed an iron-will and iron man and we found it in a young Ramnath ji. His legacy also gleams through the rich jurisprudence on the Freedom of the Press that he was instrumental in moulding, and which, by virtue of my Office, I work every day. It needed a committed and a cause-driven litigant – a rarity which it is nowadays – and we found it, yet again, in Ramnath ji. During the dark days of the Emergency, he stood as an unwavering gatekeeper of those fundamental liberties that we hold so dear today and that is his legacy too.


Today, after all these years, some remember him as the ‘Warrior of the Fourth Estate’ 1 , some remember him as a “dogged, unyielding adversary” 2 , some remember him as an “iconoclast”, some as a “magnificent rebel”. He was, at times unapologetic, at times uninhibited, at times even contradictory, but forever fierce, forever feisty, and forever fearless. His entire life trajectory from Darbhanga to Madras to Bombay; from the Constituent Assembly to the Newsroom to the Courtrooms, is a test case of its own kind that we, perhaps, need to use more often in our lives, in our institutions. Not too long back, I had read an interesting news article talking about the surprising surge – which is not so surprising, all things considered – in the sale of George Orwell’s 1984 in the United States. That piqued my interest in revisiting the classic. And, for some reason, I want to recollect a thought from it today. “Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows.”

Abhishek Manu Singhvi of the Congress party along with former finance minister P Chidambaram at the third Ramnath Goenka Memorial Lecture in New Delhi. (Express Photo by Abhinav Saha)

If I had to put it very simply, for me, this is what Ramnath ji stood for. The freedom to say that two plus two make four. And, that is how I remember him as. Someone who could call Spade a Spade. Someone who could speak truth to power. Even if it came at a cost. To be ready to break, but not bend could be called obstinacy by some, and determination by others. Is it a matter of perspective? I do not know. And, I cannot say for others but as far as I am concerned, I only feel that we need to ask ourselves some questions: Where is the Goenka in us; his ideals; his values? Is that extraordinary phenomena losing his relevance today, after all these years? Why I have chosen the topic for this discourse merits a context too. And, this is the context. These are some sore questions, but too significant to get lost in the everydayness. And, when it is so, what other better tribute can there be to a visionary who embodied in so many ways the spirit of our Constitution, than to spend a thought. To spend a thought over how far we have come to achieve the vision that he had seen as someone who helped free the country in one era, and helped it become a meaningful Democracy in another.


I will use a few minutes to put across my proposition as to what I intend to say when I talk about the “Vision of Justice”. I will borrow from the Chief Editor Shri. Raj Kamal Jha himself, because it offers a very fine perspective. Very powerfully and thoughtfully and rightly, he said of Ramnath ji in one his letters to me, that, “fierce independence” and “enduring sense of inquiry without fear or favour” were the two values that Ramnath ji believed formed the “bedrock of Justice”. It is absolutely incontestable that they do and, for convenience, let me call them the Bedrock Principles. But, if I were to look at it anatomically, while these do indeed form the bedrock of Justice, what is the Form/Body of the ideal called Justice which rests on this bedrock? The Bedrock Principles have been the talk of the town lately considering how the entire thinktank is so keenly focused on it. And I am not suggesting that it ought not to be. It ought to be done and it is being done. I cannot recall the last time, the Judicial wing of the State made so much news. On a lighter note, let us recall, Hamilton (the American Founding Father) who had suggested that the Judiciary was the least dangerous branch of the State’s three branches – and I will refer to him again during the course of my address – but, were he to be here today, I wonder if he would have felt the same way. More so, in the light of the IE Top 100 Most Powerful Indians which included several names from the judiciary. But, the fact of the matter is that if we have to take stock of how we have fared – and about seven decades later since we ventured into becoming a Constitutional Order, this appears to be an opportune time to do so – we might as well do it comprehensively. And, by comprehensively what I mean is that we must evaluate both the Bedrock Principles and the Form Principles because the Vision of Justice, the way I understand it, is a compound of both. Clearly, they are not unconnected. And over the course of next about half an hour, I will attempt to touch upon both. I will begin with the Form Principles, and bear with me, in order to drive home my point, I may have to get somewhat academic.

From (L-R): Hrishikesh Roy, Chief Justice, Kerala High Court, Deepak Gupta, Judge, Supreme Court, N V Ramanna, Judge, Supreme Court, Madan B Lokur, Judge, Supreme Court at the third Ramnath Goenka Memorial Lecture. (Express Photo by Abhinav Saha) 

You will agree, that in the backdrop of a bleeding mega partition, deeply entrenched inequities, perpetuating injustices, our Constitution ushered us into believing in a grand promise of transformation on a scale that was beyond reformatory. It was, in all its full glory, a revolution in all aspects of life – social, economic, political. In a way, it said, let bygones be and the new society that we would be, would be egalitarian. While preserving our pluralistic character, we would be democratic and united too. The State would be religion-neutral, the citizens equal and together. Coming to think of it, it was just as pretentious as it was unpretentious an idea. But be that as it may, public institutions (one of them being the Judiciary) were inherited, they were tweaked where need was felt, to give life to this prodigious architecture of Justice. And, here, I would like to clarify that by justice, I am not implying only the juridical connotation of the word which is the administration of justice by the courts of law – although it is just as imperative – but justice is something that is an overarching principle, an underlying fundamental, the spirit, an order so to say. Which is why I say “prodigious”.


Because, it was a confluence of very many philosophies – [1] the Aristotelian, for instance, which suggests that the very essence of the State is justice which according to the philosopher was a social virtue; good of others; equality and fairness. When we peruse the Preamble to the Constitution- our vision document – is it not that this ideology is enshrined in the words “Equality of status and opportunity”? [2] Or, the Utilitarian philosophy of John Stuart Mill whose view was that justice was the greatest good to the greatest numbers. In the Preamble, is this not enshrined in the principles of “Socialism”, and “Equality” yet again? [3] Or, the relatively more modern one: the Rawlsian perspective which is that justice as fairness is the most egalitarian and also the most plausible concept of liberalism. In the Preamble, is this not reflected in the words “Liberty of thought, expression, belief”. So, the Preamble, if you deconstruct it precept-wise, is the very embodiment of these ideas. Justice is not something that is a standalone precept but an amalgam of other ideals like “socialism”; “democracy”; “liberty”; “equality”; “fraternity”, to name a few. They are not isolated silos because their undying endeavour is to establish one discipline – of overall justice, of an inclusive society. And, this is exactly what I meant by the Form Principles of Justice as an ideal. As a composite unit called Justice, these had been intended to be achieved by the Legislature, the Executive and the Judiciary.

Justice is not something that is a standalone precept but an amalgam of other ideals like “socialism”; “democracy”; “liberty”; “equality”; “fraternity”, to name a few — Justice Gogoi in his address. (Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

Now, it will make for an incredibly interesting and if I may add overwhelmingly contentious tale to tell as to how the Executive and the Legislature have performed on this front. But the scope of my discourse will be limited to the judiciary’s endeavour in this regard. A few months back, I had the occasion to deliver the Justice P.D. Desai Memorial Lecture, at Ahmedabad. And, there I had proposed that attaining Constitutional Idealism was not like chasing a rainbow and the Supreme Court, through its pronouncements, had been reflecting it. It would not be a display of the pessimism of the intellect today, if I were to say that while, indeed, attaining Constitutional Idealism (= Vision of Justice) is not like chasing a rainbow, but, it is so only in the courtrooms. Perhaps, because fields are where the rainbows are (“fields” being the operative word). The point being that the way nation is built and the way this grand Vision of Justice is attained in the confines of the courts through judicial pronouncements and the way they are built on the ground are two very disparate realities. Agreed, the aspirational aspect of the Constitution and the operational aspect of the Constitution will always be two different notions. The aspirational aspect is high idealism of a kind that is almost moralistic and preachy. The operational aspect has to do with the very strange realities of the ground, almost defeating. But then even if we may be slow to move to bridge the gap between the two, which itself is not an acceptable compromise either, but we must, at the least, not become retrograde.

Justice Ranjan Gogoi: The judgments beyond their bare letter, say that, societal morality is fickle and not that, but constitutional morality that ought to dictate terms. (Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

Take for example the 2015’s ruling in Shreya Singhal v. Union of India 3 (2015). It is a celebrated judgment, where the Supreme Court held that the public’s right to know was directly affected by Section 66A. Interestingly, while doing so, the Court was certainly inspired by, amongst other rulings, Romesh Thappar v. State of Madras 4 (1950); Brij Bhushan v. State of Delhi 5 (1950); Bennett Coleman & Co. v. Union of India 6 (1973). If you would recall, these were perhaps some of the earliest pronouncements protecting an Independent Indian’s Speech and Expression and were delivered in the light of the rights of the Press, which verdicts themselves had endorsed that a democracy was a marketplace of ideas where the people had a right to know; that prior restraints were anathematic to a democracy and that the freedom of speech and of the press is the Ark of the Covenant of Democracy. Shreya Singhal took this legacy ahead as it improved upon the jurisprudence on the independence of the Press to attain and promote the Constitutional precept of plurality of thought, diversity of opinion and the ethos of democracy in the tech-age and in the context of online speech. The Vision of Justice was indeed attained in the courtroom. Not once, but multiple times. But has it translated into reality? Has the success of these sterling verdicts reached the ground? I will let the facts speak for themselves. On the ground, it is a descent into chaos. And it is worrisome on all counts when you sue the messenger or when you shoot the messenger, or when the messenger itself declines to deliver the message because of the fear psychosis. On the 19 th June, The Indian Express had published a very insightful article (selected from The Economist) titled as ‘How Democracy Dies”.

From (L-R): Acting Chief Justice of Delhi High Court Justice Gita Mittal, Former Law Minister Ashwani Kumar, CPI leader D Raja and jurist Soli Sorabjee at the third Ramnath Goenka Memorial Lecture. (Express Photo by Abhinav Saha)

It said, at one place, that, “…independent judges and noisy journalists are democracy’s first line of defence…Reports of the death of democracy are greatly exaggerated. But, the least bad system of government ever devised is in trouble. It needs defenders.” I agree but will only suggest a slight modification in today’s context – not only independent judges and noisy journalists, but even independent journalists and sometimes noisy judges. While Shreya Singhal was significant in its own right, NALSA v. Union of India 7 breathed new life into the Equality principle. The Court understood that our Founding Fathers’ vision about fundamental right against sex discrimination was to prevent differential treatment as a result of one’s not conforming to generalizations. The judgment made a momentous foray into the fountain-head of dynamism. And, I will get back to it but before I do that, I must touch upon a very fascinating judgment of 1986 vintage called Bijoe Emmanuel v. State of Kerala 8 . This was a case where three Jehovah’s Witnesses had refused to sing the National Anthem (as their tenets dictated so) when it was being sung in their school. They did stand up though. Nevertheless, they were expelled from the school. When the case found its way to the Supreme Court, while holding that the expulsion would be in violation of their Fundamental Right to ‘freedom of conscience’, the Court observed that “the real test of a true democracy is the ability of even an insignificant minority to find its identity under the country’s Constitution.”

Former Chief Justice of India Rajendra Mal Lodha (Express Photo by Abhinav Saha)

The court also felt the need to add a thought. And, I feel compelled to quote it. It is the penultimate line of the verdict and it says – “our tradition teaches tolerance; our philosophy preaches tolerance; our Constitution practices tolerance; let us not dilute it.” Recently. in Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal Nala Sangam v. Government of Tamil Nadu 9 , the Court held that even in the matters of religious beliefs, constitutional legitimacy cannot be foregone and following Justice B.K. Mukherjea in Shirur Mutt case (of 1954), went on to hold that it is not the State or the religious Indian but the Constitutional Court which decides on what constitutes essential practices of any particular religion.

Some of you could be wondering about how these judgments are even related. They are not. But, they are, at the same time. Dissimilarity is that the first one originates in a very intimate, private sphere of life and the other two originate in what everybody seems to want to have a say in – the matters of faith. But, it is the similarity that should be the take away. The judgments beyond their bare letter, say that, societal morality is fickle and not that, but constitutional morality that ought to dictate terms. As an Israeli judge Aharon Barak points out, it is not the transient spirits of time but the fundamental values that should be the guiding voice 10.

In a way, it said, let bygones be and the new society that we would be, would be egalitarian. While preserving our pluralistic character, we would be democratic and united too. (Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

In his last address to the Constituent Assembly, Dr. Ambedkar had said that we must not only be a political democracy but a social democracy as the former cannot last unless lies at the base of it the former. And, social democracy, he defined, as a way of life which recognises liberty, equality, fraternity as one principle. I wouldn’t want to wade into knowing if we are a successful political democracy, but, I do, earnestly believe, that we are a social democracy, in all aspects. But again, largely jurisprudentially. And the disparity is there because the two Indias – both just as perceptible – are at conflict. There is an India that believes that it is the New Order and there is an India that lives below a ridiculously drawn Poverty Line on daily wages in night shelters with no access to education or healthcare, let alone access to the Courts of Law. The ambivalence is intriguing. And, this is exactly what I call as getting lost in translation. One India in the aforementioned perspective is the Vision and to know how far we have succeeded in attaining this Vision of Justice is really a matter of perception. But nevertheless, there is a graphic disparity right there and removing this disparity will be the mission for the Indian Judiciary in the times to come. And if I may add, for that to happen, it is going to require a “constitutional moment” of its own kind in the life of this institution, which I believe has been long overdue.

“I will only say that if it wishes to preserve its moral and institutional leverage, it must remain uncontaminated,” says Justice Gogoi. (Express Photo by Abhinav Saha)

The Constitutional history with reference to this institution as a whole (and, especially the Supreme Court) would show that its own role has constantly evolved in the light of the socio-political context. If 1970-1980 was the decade where it expounded the Basic Structure Doctrine, in 1980s, it constantly expanded the scope of Article 21 and by 1990s, it became somewhat of a “Good Governance Court” by innovatively interpreting Constitutional provisions to address the inadequacies consequent upon executive and legislative inactivity. In the first fifty years since our independence, the court has created a very sound jurisprudence which we continue to reap from. It is the inertia really that has kept us going till now. But the way things stand today, court processes are a trial even before the trial has begun. While I cannot say if it is a collective failure on our part but for a nation governed by the rule of law, is it not a matter of concern that to this extent at least, we are defying the idea of inclusiveness? Not a reform but a revolution is what it needs, to be able to meet the challenges on the ground and to keep this institution serviceable for a common man and relevant for the nation. For the effectiveness of the judgments to show, the justice dispensation system has to be made more result oriented i.e. to say, more focused on enforcement. I understand what Mr. Arun Shourie 11 suggests when he wonders if the judiciary is not being an “accessory to the resulting deterioration”, when it in its hopefulness and optimism, doesn’t go after its mandate till its implementation. I find it difficult to agree wholeheartedly. But I will certainly say that the judiciary must certainly be more pro-active, more on the front foot. This is what I would call as redefining its role as an institution in the matters of enforcement and efficacy of the spirit of its diktats, of course, subject to constitutional morality (= separation of powers) again. I will even go ahead to say that the institution, at all levels, needs to become more dynamic in the matters of interpretation of laws. And, this is what I mean to say by a constitutional moment of its own kind. However, it is going to be a tall order both at the micro level and the macro level because both come with their unique sets of challenges.

Executive Director of The Express Group Anant Goenka (left) presents a sketch to Justice Ranjan Gogoi at the third RNG Lecture in New Delhi on Thursday. (Express Photo by Neeraj Priyadarshi)

By micro level, what I mean is administration of justice on day-to-day basis. Here, the so-called “inefficiency” and “slow processes” have been historical challenges. I will put it very simply. The judiciary today is not a poor workman who blames his tools, but it is a workman with no tools. I am not going to saddle you with the figures that we keep consuming every day on pendency, arrears and judges’ strength but in the light of what a French author had once said, “Everything has been said already, but as no one listens, we must begin again.” 12 , I will only ask and request those at the helm to finally listen so that we must not have to begin again. In addition to that, I also feel that there is a pressing need to explore the endless limits of legal services mechanism. Legal awareness and legal empowerment of the marginalised in this vastly unequal society of ours, have to be a made an observable reality. Let me give you one instance which is glaring insofar as personal liberty is concerned. 67% of the prison population are undertrials, mostly belonging to the underprivileged classes and 47% of them are between the age of 18-30 years. Compare this with the U.K. where it is about 7% and the U.S. which is acknowledged to have a high rate of incarceration where the percentage is 22.7%. The period of about one year that a majority of the undertrials have been in custody would hardly redeem the situation. Will it be wrong to suggest that a fair share of our demographic dividend is being unjustifiably lodged in the jails and mostly for petty or less serious offences?

The judiciary, with whatever little it has had at its hand, has been a proud guardian of the great Constitutional vision. (Express Photo by Neeraj Priyadarshi)

At the macro level, the judiciary as an institution is being seen as a course corrector, a leveller, a democratiser of sorts. And, since it is too well known that this country is on the cusp of an evolution, naturally it will have implications for this institution just as much. I would like you to recall that I had mentioned about Hamilton in the beginning of the discourse. While contemplating the U.S. Constitution 13 , he had said that the judiciary is the weakest of three branches because it neither has force of the Executive nor the will of the Legislature, but only judgment. This, and which I agree with absolutely, he said, was the “simple view of the matter”. The complex view is this. And which he was wise enough to warn about over two centuries ago. He had said that while the civil liberties will have nothing to fear from the judiciary alone, they will have everything to fear from the union of the judiciary with either of the other two branches.

Punjab and Haryana High Court Judge Justice Surya Kant (Express Photo by Abhinav Saha)

I would like to believe, this is why, Ramnath ji had also said that “fierce independence” is indeed the bedrock of justice. But I would like to add that “independence” must always be responsible with due regard to established Constitutional values. This institution is the last bastion of hope and the one that the citizenry believes firmly, will give justice to them, come what may. And it has. The judiciary, with whatever little it has had at its hand, has been a proud guardian of the great Constitutional vision. It fills me with immense pride to see that as an institution, the judiciary has been endowed with great societal trust. This very fact gives it its credibility and this very credibility gives it its legitimacy. It is a very enviable spot for an institution. I will only say that if it wishes to preserve its moral and institutional leverage, it must remain uncontaminated. And, independent. And, fierce. And, at all times. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link. So is an institution. And if introspection is where we have to begin, we might as well begin there. Perhaps, we can hope and endeavour that in the future, it is not our finality, but really our infallibility that should define us. It is my imagination of an ideal world and I am aware of what Carl Jung had said of it. He had had said that, “Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol, morphine or idealism.” I don’t know how true his view holds on other counts, but as far as idealism is concerned, I would say, it should be pursued like an axiom. Thank you very much.

Jai Hind!


Law-making Amid Moral Outrage

Editorial Article Published in the Hindu

Legislators acting in response to moral outrage seen on television and during street protests and being apparently influenced by the importunate gaze of victims of crime from the gallery, does not augur well for sound law-making. It may not be right to characterise the quick passage of the Juvenile Justice (Care and Protection of Children) Bill in the Rajya Sabha as a hasty move because it has already been passed in the Lok Sabha in May 2015. The draft too had been slightly modified before that, based on a February 2015 report of a standing committee of Parliament. Yet, it is difficult to overcome the impression that some members may have been gripped by a bout of moral panic after the release of the youngest convict in the Delhi gang rape of December 2012. The seeming sense of urgency was undoubtedly influenced by a section of the media demanding ‘justice’ after the convict was released from a Special Home on completing his three-year term there. An impression is sought to be created that the country’s collective conscience demanded that a tough law be enacted to ensure that juvenile convicts committing heinous crimes do not get away with light sentences. An edifying aspect of this legislative episode is that there are enough voices around that understand that restorative justice is best ensured for this underclass by addressing the fundamental problems that create juvenile offenders in society in the first place, by ensuring universal access to education and social care for all children.

law makingThe Bill, which contains progressive aspects such as streamlining adoption procedures and extending the law’s protection to orphans and abandoned children, still suffers from the problems highlighted by the parliamentary panel. The government, unfortunately, did not accept the view that children in a particular age group being subjected to the adult criminal justice system will violate their right to equality under Article 14 and the objective of protecting children in Article 15(3) of the Constitution. It, however, dropped a clause that provided for treating those who had committed crimes before reaching the age of 18 but were apprehended after they turned 21, agreeing that it was unconstitutional. It extended the period of preliminary assessment (the original draft called it ‘inquiry’) by the Juvenile Justice Board to determine whether a juvenile offender should be sent for rehabilitation or tried as an adult, from one month to three months. The board’s assessment will still be subject to judicial review and may set off litigation over whether one 16-year-old was let off lightly or another was wrongly sent to an adult court. Such decisions may also be influenced by the prevailing public mood. It would have been wiser to have let the law stand in conformity with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which advocates equal treatment of all children under the age of 18. The difference between sober assessment and mercurial action cannot be more starkly emphasised.

Change must respect basic structure


The relationship between “democracy” and “secrecy” has always been debated, and it has been highlighted by the system of judicial appointments. The proposed judicial appointments commission (JAC) seeks to partly answer that question. Under review is the judicial collegium method of appointments, in use since the 1990s (which consists today in the supremacy of five senior-most justices of the Supreme Court, including the chief justice of India), as against the constitutional method in place between the 1950s and the 1990s (where the executive nominated candidates in consultation with the CJI and such other justices as it deemed fit).

Neither method can be said to have failed or succeeded, because the citizen has no way of knowing who the candidates are, how they are selected and why. No empirical study of judicial appointments is possible because the records are not available, and like the electoral nomination of candidates, the right to information does not exist so far as judicial elevations or transfers of high court justices are concerned. Stories in which judges, lawyers, law ministers and journalists tell us about the “system” are abundant, but such anecdotal evidence is hearsay and not ordinarily admissible in a court of law.

In the three judges cases, including a reference for advisory opinion, the court arrogated the power to elevate (and transfer high court) justices through a tortured interpretation of Articles 124 and 217 of the Constitution, by saying that the word “consultation” shall mean the “consent” of the CJI. But a constitutional convention giving primacy to the CJI was already in place — according to the law secretary’s affidavit, only seven out of some 348 recommendations were negatived by the Central government. If the system of executive nomination has worked so well, why the change?

Are the CJIs, in some cases, constrained to approve executive-dominated elevations? Justice Markandey Katju’s recent expose suggests that the CJI is vulnerable to alleged manoeuvring by the prime minister’s office. The justices in the judges cases seemed to think so, given that they accorded primacy first to the CJI, then to two judges and the CJI, and finally to a collegium of five justices.

To its credit, the UPA government introduced nearly half a dozen bills for judicial appointments and transfers, and contemplated a slew of measures on judicial standards, accountability, non-impeachment offences and transparency of the judicial process. The new government is espousing the cause; it clearly disfavours the political bravado that inspired a Union law minister to say that he had justices in his pockets; this is no longer the signature tune of modern governance. Rather, the state now wants a JAC that would avoid the vices of politicians appointing judges, and of the justices appointing their own.

This is welcome, as is the agreement that the senior-most judge may only be the CJI (at least till 2021, when even reforms contemplating a minimum tenure for the CJI may occur). The many UPA bills made the CJI the chair of the JAC, converged in making two senior-most justices of the Supreme Court members, provided a

process to identify two eminent citizens, and finally culminated in the 120th constitutional amendment bill, which too lapsed in the Lok Sabha. The NDA is likely to revive the amendment and bill in the new Lok Sabha. The text of the bills, the debates in Parliament as they occurred, the Law Commission’s report and other reports make compulsory, if dull, reading on this vexed subject.

In a consultation with eminent jurists convened by the Union law minister on July 28, while most went to the extent of saying that the judicial collegium had failed and agreed that the system of appointments needed to be changed, all the “jurists” endorsed the “dominance” of the CJI and his senior companions. If the advice of the CJI and his companion justices is to have an “edge” or “dominance”, how is it to be achieved? Should the JAC then adopt a weighted voting procedure, not unlike the United Nations Security Council? If the JAC is to decide by consensus, what will happen if the justices do not yield? What if some other eminent members, including the Union law minister, remain recalcitrant? And how much weight, if any, should be given to the Intelligence Bureau reports on prospective candidates?

A greater fundamental difficulty is posed by the basic structure doctrine. I have previously argued in these pages (‘Just governance’, IE, June 10) and at a New Delhi consultation that the best course is to obtain an advisory opinion from the Supreme Court on a draft amendment bill, considering whether abolition of the judicial collegium offends the basic structure and if it does, how the alternate JAC could be made constitutionally compatible. Already, the CJI has made it clear that the matter can only be settled in a judicial opinion; since the judges cases were decided judicially, no question arises of a mere administrative order by the court.

The court may advise the president that the basic structure is not violated or that certain changes to the JAC could save it from the indictment of offending it. This will result in a healthy dialogue on system change and collaboration, rather than an avoidable conflict between Parliament and the Supreme Court.

The basic structure here is the independence of the judiciary and judicial review. It is this power that ultimately decides the essential features of the Constitution. Appointments and transfers of justices definitely affect the basic structure, and the court should have a say in it. The executive may present evidence before the justices on why the judicial architecture needs to be reformed, and how the judicial collegium has “failed” the nation. Since almost all the leaders of the Bar believe that the judicial collegium has “failed” in drawing the best and brightest to become justices, they should have little difficulty in persuading the court.

The argument against an advisory opinion is that it would take undue time. But the 2G reference was relatively expeditiously disposed; the non-collegium justices would be justified in accelerating the opinion. In any event, the time taken for the reference will be democratically well-invested. The alternative of an adversarial proceeding, where the court may continue via a stay order to make appointments and transfers, scarcely advances the cause. Even under Kesavananda Bharati vs State of Kerala (which enshrined the basic structure doctrine), Parliament has plenary powers to amend the Constitution. However, enacting the JAC without consulting the court may invite judicial wrath, and even lead to a constitutional crisis.

The writer is professor of law, University of Warwick, and former vice chancellor of the Universities of South Gujarat and Delhi

Why India needs democracy

Sansad Bhavan, parliament building of India.

Image via Wikipedia


What is our national aim? To my mind, our national aim must be to make India a highly prosperous country for its citizens, and for that it is necessary to have a high degree of industrialization.

Even setting up and running a single primary school requires a lot of money, e.g. for buying land, erecting the school building and providing for the recurrent expenditure for salaries of teachers, staff, etc. We have to set up in our country not just one primary school, but hundreds of thousands of primary schools, tens of thousands of high schools and colleges and engineering colleges, technical institutes, medical colleges, scientific research centres, hospitals, libraries etc.

Where is the money for all these to come from? Money does not fall from the sky. It can only come from a highly developed industry, and it is industrialization alone which can generate the wealth we need for the welfare of our people. Today India is a poor country. Nobody respects the poor. It is for this reason that we do not have much respect in the world community (whatever we may think of ourselves). One proof of this is that we are not given a permanent seat in the U.N. Security Council, although we have a population of 1200 million, whereas Britain and France with populations of 60 million each have permanent seats.

It is industrialization alone which can abolish poverty and unemployment, which are the main causes of crime and terrorism, and get us respect in the world community. Also, when there is rapid industrialization, which should be our national target, millions of jobs will be created which will solve the problem of unemployment. For industrialization, development of science is absolutely necessary, and for that freedom is also absolutely necessary, freedom to think, freedom to write, freedom to discuss with others, freedom to explain, freedom to criticize and freedom to dissent.

The growth of science requires certain supportive values, particularly liberty. This is because the thought process cannot develop without freedom. The values of a scientific community viz., pluralism, tolerance, individual freedom and free flow of information are very similar to the values of a democratic society (see ‘Science and the Making of the Modern World’ by John Marks).

A democratic society permits freedom of speech and expression, freedom to practice one’s own religion, which is based on tolerance, and freedom to dissent and criticize. These are precisely the values of a scientific community. In other words, in scientific matters authoritarianism and dogmatism are wholly out of place. Scientists must be largely left free to govern themselves, and have large amount of freedom which is necessary for innovation and creativity. Hence, democracy and liberty go hand in hand with the growth of science because both are based on tolerance, individual freedom and free flow of ideas. In democracy, as in a scientific community, there is freedom to speak, freedom to discuss, freedom to criticize and freedom to dissent.

Justice Louis D. Brandeis, of the U.S. Supreme Court in Whitney vs. California 274 U.S. 357, writing in 1927 observed:

“Those who won our independence believed that the final end of the State was to make men free to develop their faculties; and that in its government the deliberative forces should prevail over the arbitrary. They valued liberty both as an end and as a means. They believed liberty to be the secret of happiness and courage to be the secret of liberty. They believed that freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth; that without free speech and assembly discussion would be futile; that with them, discussion affords ordinarily adequate protection against the dissemination of noxious doctrine; that the greatest menace to freedom is an inert people; that public discussion is a political duty; and that this should be a fundamental principle of the American government. They recognized the risks to which all human institutions are subject. But they knew that order cannot be secured merely through fear of punishment for its infraction; that it is hazardous to discourage thought, hope and imagination; that fear breeds repression; that repression breeds hate; that hate menaces stable government; that the path of safety lies in the opportunity to discuss freely supposed grievances and proposed remedies; and that the fitting remedy for evil counsels is good ones. Believing in the power of reason as applied through public discussion, they eschewed silence coerced by law – the argument of force in its worst form. Recognizing the occasional tyrannies of governing majorities, they amended the Constitution so that free speech and assembly should be guaranteed”

Similarly, Justice William O. Douglas in Terminiello vs. Chicago 337 US 1 (1949) observed: “….[A] function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger. Speech is often provocative and challenging. It may strike at prejudices and preconceptions and have profound unsettling effects as it presses for acceptance of an idea. That is why freedom of speech, though not absolute, is nevertheless protected against censorship or punishment, unless shown likely to produce a clear and present danger of a serious substantive evil that rises far above public inconvenience, annoyance or unrest… There is no room under our Constitution for a more restrictive view. For the alternative would lead to standardization of ideas either by legislatures, courts, or dominant political or community groups”.

In our own country, in ancient times the method of Shastrarthas had been developed. These were debates in which the thinkers of those times had full freedom to speak and to criticize their opponents in the opponent’s presence, and also in the presence of a large assembly of people. There are hundreds of references to such Shastrarthas in our epics and other literature. It was this freedom to freely discuss and criticize in ancient India which resulted in tremendous growth of knowledge even in such ancient times, including not only in philosophy, grammar law, etc. but also scientific knowledge, e.g. mathematics, astronomy, medicines, etc. The names of Aryabhatt, Brahmagupta, Bhaskar, Sushrut and Charak are known to all. With the aid of science we had built mighty civilizations e.g. the Indus Valley Civilization when people in Europe were living in forests.

In this connection, we may also mention about modern European history. England was the first country in the world to industrialize and modernize. This economic process was accompanied with the political struggle for liberty and democracy in the 17th and 18th centuries, which was particularly a struggle between the King and Parliament. As we all know, Parliament won, and this laid the foundation of freedom and civil liberties in England, which was necessary to create the atmosphere which science requires to prosper.

Similarly, in France, before the French Revolution of 1789, the thinkers of the Enlightenment — Rousseau, Voltaire, Diderot, Holbach, etc. who attacked feudalism and religious dogmatism paved the way for the Revolution of 1789 which destroyed feudalism, and led to scientific progress. On the other hand, in Italy, Spain and some other countries the Inquisition stifled free thinking and thereby scientific growth. All scientific ideas which were not consistent with the Bible were regarded as crimes e.g. the theory of Copernicus which stated that the earth moved around the sun and not the sun around the earth. As a result, these countries were left far behind England and France, and remained in the feudal dark ages for centuries.

The struggle to establish the scientific outlook was not an easy one. Scientific ideas initially were condemned because they were regarded as opposed to religious dogma. Voltaire and Rousseau had to fly for their lives to other countries. The Church persecuted the greatest scientists with blind cruelty, burning them at the stake (e.g. Bruno), torturing them (e.g. Galileo), and forbidding or destroying their works. As recently as in 1925 the teaching of Darwin’s theory of evolution was forbidden in the state of Tennessee in U.S.A., and a teacher John Scopes was tried in the famous ‘Monkey Trial’ for teaching that theory. For centuries the Church in Europe played an extremely reactionary role and fought pitilessly against the scientific conception of the world, and against the democratic movements. In India, if we are to progress and rise as a world power, we have to spread the scientific outlook to every nook and corner in our country, and destroy superstitions, e.g. the belief in astrology and palmistry, and the feudal ideas of casteism and communalism.

Science is that knowledge by which we can understand nature (and human society) and use this knowledge for our benefit. For doing so, the scientists rely on reason, observation and experiment. This obviously cannot be done on the dictates of anyone (though the government can certainly create the atmosphere where these can flourish). Science and democratic values go hand in hand.

In science, there is no final word, unlike in religion. Science questions everything and does not take anything for granted. Obviously, this approach is not permitted in an undemocratic society, e.g. feudal society (which is governed by religion) or fascist society (in which there is a dictator). Thus, Hitler, with his Nazi racial philosophy, caused an enormous setback to science in Germany by persecuting Jewish scientists and banning their works (e.g. Einstein).

Indeed, in India, after the Constitution was adopted in 1950, there was an atmosphere of liberal freedom in view of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution e.g. the right to free speech (Article 19), liberty (Article 21), equality (Articles 14 to 17), religious freedom (Article 25), etc. This helped growth of science and technology in our country, because it created an atmosphere of freedom where people including the scientists, could freely discuss and dissent. If we compare our country with the neighbouring countries, there were no such freedoms in those countries and hence those countries lagged far behind in economic growth.

Apart from the above, the advanced sections of society who want to take the country forward, and have the knowledge to do so, must have a lot of freedom to discuss, debate and criticize each other. They are the pioneers and are often entering into a new field, much of which is unknown. Hence, they must have freedom to think, discuss and criticize.

As pointed out by John Stuart Mill in his celebrated essay ‘On Liberty’, all progress, advancement of knowledge and progressive change and improvement of old ways of thinking, and the consequent old behaviour-patterns, habits, customs and traditions can come about only from free individual dissents and dissentions, innovations, etc. which are at first usually resisted by inert or conservative people (who are usually the vast majority), and by a free competition between the old and new ideas. As pointed out by Mill, in any society ordinarily the majority shares old thoughts and traditions, and there is a strong tendency to insist on conformity and collective unity or solidarity, to repress dissents and innovations, and to tolerate only what the majority agree with. This inevitably works to prevent any progress and to thwart the creative impulses of the more creative and original minds. Extensive freedom to dissent and innovate, in all spheres of life, activity, culture and thought in all directions, including expressing ideas initially thought strange and often disliked by the conservative tradition-bound majority are indispensable for progress. The intellectually advanced and creative individuals are often in the minority, and are regarded as non-conforming eccentrics and deviants, and there is often a tendency to suppress them. This is why liberal democracy, i.e. majority rule but qualified and limited by firm protection of minorities, and individual rights and liberties, even as against the governing majority, is essential for progress. The majority often consists of mediocre persons who wish to continue in the old ways of thinking and practices. Hence the liberties and rights have to be guaranteed to the often powerless tiny minorities and lone individuals so that scientific progress can take place.

As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes of the U.S. Supreme Court in his dissenting judgment in Abrams vs. United States, (1919) observed : “…The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market…”

The importance of the judiciary in India in this connection must also be highlighted in this country. In this connection reference may be made to two decisions of the Supreme Court delivered by me viz., Govt of A.P. and others vs. P. Laxmi Devi [2008 (4) SCC 720, JT 2008 (2) 639 and Deepak Bajaj vs. State of Maharashtra and others [JT 2008 (11) SC 609]. In these cases, I emphasized the importance of liberty for progress, and have observed that the judiciary must act as guardians of the liberties of the people, protecting them against executive, or even legislative arbitrariness or despotism. I have also in my judgments spoken out against honour killing, fake encounters, dowry deaths, etc. India needs democracy and scientific knowledge, and that means patiently spreading scientific ideas amongst the vast masses, raising their cultural level and involving them actively in the task of nation building.

To my mind, harsh and draconian laws will curb liberty, and that will not only violate the right to liberty granted by Article 21 of the Constitution, but will also lead to great evils e.g. increase in corruption in the police and other law enforcing agencies, which will have much more opportunities to extort money from the citizens, apart from impeding scientific and economic growth, which is vital for our country.

I have gone into some detail on this subject because I wished to clarify that I am a strong votary for liberty and have been misunderstood. However, liberty cannot be equated with licence to do anything one wishes. Should one be given the liberty to spread superstitions, to fan caste/or communal hatred, or put over emphasis on film stars, pop music, fashion parades and cricket in a poor country like ours? I think not. All freedoms are coupled with responsibilities, and no freedom is absolute. It is for this reason that I believe that while ordinarily issues relating to the media should be resolved by the democratic method of discussion and dialogue, in rare and exceptional cases (which may not be more than 5 per cent) harsh measures may be required, but that too not by the government but by any independent statutory authority e.g. the Lokpal.

(Justice Markandey Katju is the Chairman of Press Council of India)


Checking on the House

Indian Parliament Building Delhi India

Image via Wikipedia


Middle-class cynicism is frequently directed against the functioning of Indian democracy, political parties and Parliament. An impression that all politicians are dishonest and that Parliament is only disrupted, however erroneous, has caught the public imagination. The truth is to the contrary.

The Indian Parliament has evolved over the last six decades. There would be no better system to suit Indian conditions than parliamentary democracy. A country with diverse opinions, regions, religions, communities and tribes can find no system better than the present one where all sections of society and shades of opinions become a part of the parliamentary decision-making process. The feeling of involvement and inclusion is the strength of the Indian Parliament.

One of the greatest challenges before Indian democracy is to curb the use of money power in elections. Sixty-four years after Independence we have still not been able to evolve a transparent mechanism for funding politics. This certainly lowers the credibility of our parliamentary democracy.

Parliament is a forum where governments are held accountable through questions, motions and debates. It is an empowered forum for legislation. It is the appropriate forum where issues of public concern and importance are raised. Conventions have a very important role in parliamentary functioning. Thus, knee-jerk reforms have to be avoided. What we must lean in favour of is the strengthening of established institutions and conventions. Changes must be well-thought-out, debated and then implemented on the strength of consensus. The establishment of department-related standing committees is one of the key reforms that Parliament has evolved in recent years. Standing committees deal with raw legislation drafted by the government. They hear various stakeholders, they examine each clause almost word by word. Contentious legislations are scrutinised by standing committees for months together. The strength of a standing committee is its predominant non-partisan functioning. There are no whips and no public gaze. Members belonging to the same party can express contrary viewpoints. The maturity of the Indian Parliament is evident from the fact that most reports of the department-related standing committees on legislation are unanimous. Occasionally, there are dissenting notes. It has been suggested that the committees should now be subjected to the public gaze and even telecasting be permitted. However populist the measure is, I would hate to jump to any hasty conclusion at this stage. The committee system has evolved over the last two decades. The standing committee system should be allowed to mature before we move to the next step.

The biggest weakness of the Indian Parliament is the lack of long duration. India’s population is growing; so are the problems. To meet for less than 70 days in a year is inadequate. Short durations lead to paucity of time available for debates, issues of public importance and legislation. When members, particularly from the opposition, want to raise several issues, the privilege is denied for paucity of time. The gagging of debate leads to obstructionism. Parliamentary obstructionism then becomes an acceptable mode to highlight an issue of public importance. More time is lost. Legislations are then cleared in haste in order to cover up the backlog. There have been suggestions in recent years to legislatively provide for a minimum 100 days’ session every year.

However, the duration may have to be enhanced a lot more. Similar reform is required in the states where the number of days of each assembly is being curtailed. Many governments find parliamentary accountability inconvenient and hence resort to shorter sessions. State assemblies are now meeting for 20 to 50 days a year. This flaw needs to be corrected.

A parliament is judged by the quality of its debates. Live telecast of Parliament, even as a substitute for adequate print media reportage, has incentivised members to prepare better and conduct themselves properly. In times to come, the quality of performance of an MP on the floor of the House will impact the prospects of returning in the next elections. His performance in the House has to be a relevant consideration in how his constituents judge him. In the last few decades the participation of prime ministers in parliamentary debates has declined. Their effective intervention is confined to reading written texts prepared by their offices. This is unacceptable. Even on the Prime Minister’s Question day it is the minister of state in the PMO who responds to most questions. The prime minister is the chief executive in a parliamentary democracy. He must be the most accountable executive. He cannot be accountable through a proxy system. It is, therefore, important that prime ministerial accountability in a democracy through parliamentary procedures is strengthened. In Britain, the system of Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQ) has successfully evolved over the years. Every Wednesday morning the PM faces impromptu questions in the House of Commons. Short questions with crisp and direct answers render the Wednesday morning thriller before television audiences. People judge the PM by the content and the quality of his responses. Opposition leaders and other members are judged by the quality of their intervention. The PM has to be the most accountable in a democracy. His depleting presence in Parliament compels one to suggest that the PMQ be successfully replicated in India. It will add to the quality of debate, a popular interest in Parliament, restoration of faith in India’s parliamentary democracy and certainly be the most effective mode of exercising one’s right to know.

The government and the opposition both have a key role to play in Parliament. Conflicting opinions and at times even tensions between the two bring out the best in Indian democracy. However, there must be healthy communication between the political leadership in government and the opposition. Of late, there is a decline in this consultation. The initiative for this consultation must come from the government. This consultation has to be real rather than formal. It is for the government of the day to consider whether the decline in this consultation is deliberate or attributable to the introvertish character of the UPA’s political leadership.

The anti-defection law emphasises the rigidity of the whip. A whip regulates the house. It enforces political discipline on members of a political party. The whip should be confined merely to voting. It should not regulate the content of the debate. The debates must be thought-provoking, buoyant and based on ingenuity. That will add to the strength of Indian democracy.

The writer, a BJP MP, is leader of the opposition in Rajya Sabha, express@expressindia.com


Establishing circuit benches can help reduce the burden

Somnath Chatterjee, Former Speaker, Lok Sabha  IN THE ECONOMIC TIMES


It is not just a question of the Supreme Court (SC) needing to shed some of its works. It is a question about how the functioning the entire legal system can be improved to make it serve the real purpose of a judiciary in the country, particularly to deliver speedy justice to the ordinary people at an affordable cost.

So far as the SC is concerned, we need to introspect whether ordinary citizens are really able to approach the apex court, given the geographical distance from different corners of the country, the problem of finding accommodation and the arduous process of engaging a good lawyer in Delhi. Ordinary citizens cannot dream of approaching the SC.

So, the inevitable question: is this the situation that was contemplated by the founding fathers of our Constitution? Every person concerned with judiciary should give a serious thought to this problem.

Recently, the prime minister said speedy justice should be provided to ordinary citizens at an affordable cost. But the situation today is such that only the rich, corporate or ‘some people with sponsors’ can approach the apex court. I have the highest respect for the SC. But, to my mind, to provide real justice to ordinary people at the apex court, it is essential to set up circuit benches in different parts of the country. The usual argument against it was that it will bifurcate/trifurcate the SC itself and diminish its authority and status. Such an argument must be rejected. Question can never be of all learned judges sitting at the same place but, dispersing justice to the litigants, including ordinary citizens, in an appropriate manner.

I was asked whether it was necessary to curtail the SC’s jurisdiction to only very important issues and not burden it with ordinary litigation, including appeals. I feel 2-3 SC judges could constitute the circuit benches and dispose of the appeals at different centres in their capacity as SC judges, making their judgements final. The Chief Justice of India will remain in Delhi with other learned judges who would decide on issues of constitutional importance or of great national importance — those cases that may be so designated by the bench in Delhi or other circuit benches.

I am not suggesting this is the only method that can be applied. But at least serious thought be given and action taken to ensure speedy and efficient justice for common man at reasonable cost. Also, identifying maladies and then expecting changes will happen on their own will not do. I had the privilege of seeing the first bench of SC functioning at Parliament building. They had the most difficult judicial work to do in the formative years after Independence and the constitution of the SC. Yet, they have delivered judgements that have endured forever.

The problems that have cropped up today are not due to the increase in the number of litigation with population growth. But one needs to examine what types of litigation before the SC that have multiplied and what innovation has been introduced. Also, we need to consider whether enlargement of the scope of litigation in different high courts and Supreme Court have caused proliferation of litigation.


Legislation to Avoid Custodial deaths

Legislation to avoid Custodial deaths

17:33 IST
The number of custodial deaths reported to the National Human Rights Commission during the last three years are as follows:

Year                            Custodial deaths

2007-2008                               2267

2008-2009                               1943

2009-2010                               1794

The State-wise details are as under :-

2007-08 2008-09 2009-10
2. ANDHRA PRADESH 143 149 116
4. ASSAM 31 38 21
5. BIHAR 231 142 142
7. CHHATISGARH 48 42 44
9. DELHI 63 44 43
10. GOA 0 2 1
11. GUJARAT 71 97 68
12. HARYANA 69 60 45
14. JAMMU & KASHMIR 8 1 4
15. JHARKHAND 81 63 80
16. KARNATAKA 82 77 35
17. KERALA 62 45 50
18. MADHYA PRADESH 108 93 96
19. MAHARASHTRA 384 270 223
20. MEGHALAYA 3 4 3
21. NAGALAND 2 3 2
22. ORISSA 57 58 48
24. PUNJAB 112 78 112
25. RAJASTHAN 59 64 84
26. SIKKIM 2 0 2
27. TAMIL NADU 111 80 77
28. TRIPURA 5 8 2
29. UTTAR PRADESH 356 330 364
30. UTTARAKHAND 20 14 16
31. WEST BENGAL 149 162 104


2267 1943 1794

A Bill titled “The Prevention of Torture Bill, 2010” has been introduced in Lok Sabha on 26/4/2010. The Bill, inter alia, provides for  punishment to those involved in the incident of torture and specifies the time limit for taking cognizance of the offence of torture. The bill would act as a deterrent for Public Servants from indulging in custodial deaths and abuse of power by police authorities.   This was stated  by the Minister of State in the Ministry of Home Affairs, Shri Ajay Maken in written reply to a question  in the Rajya Sabha  today.