By Sujit Bhar
At the simple, yet solemn oath taking ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhavan on morning of November 9, Justice Dhananjaya Yashwant Chandrachud was sworn in as the 50th Chief Justice of India by President Droupadi Murmu.
The event was short, yet remarkable for the entire justice system of India. As Justice Chandrachud read out the oath in front of outgoing Chief Justice UU Lalit, Home Minister Amit Shah, Union Law Minister Kiren Rijiju and others, he was quiet, barely wearing a wisp of a smile, and then, following formalities with the President, he went and touched the feet of his mother, Prabha Chandrachud. A long journey into the depths of a system that needs care and reform had just started, this time as its helmsman.
The quiet demeanour of the top judge of the country belied the immense sense of responsibility that was just thrust upon him, the hopes and aspirations of millions and the even bigger responsibility of having to live up to his own reputation. Following the swearing in, Justice Chandrachud told the media: “Serving ordinary citizens is my priority… My work, not words, will speak.” Bold words, as bold as his many pronunciations over the years in many critical judgments. He has also promised reforms in the registry and in the judicial process.
The list of expectations from the country’s new Chief Justice extends beyond the normal fare of fair and fast justice. Justice Chandrachud has a reputation that precedes him: a reputation of erudition, for fairness, openness to dissent, respect for sexual and religious minorities; the hallmarks of a visionary.
The Indian justice system, for a while now, has been on the edge of perception and belief. It was, as if in Thomas Reid’s world, perception implied “both the conception of its form, and a belief of its present existence.” The system was ambivalent, and the lack of clarity wasn’t justiciable. Justice Chandrachud takes over on the precipice, where the system and the state need kid-glove handling, through astute leadership.
His track record has been enviable, his perception of justice possibly rooted to Naturalists’ ideas, even while adhering to Constitutional principles. If one looks back at his principal judgements, a bold, solitary path is seen. In the privacy issue, he has not hesitated to even go against the judgment of his father, Justice YV Chandrachud, in the declaration of privacy as a fundamental right. He noted that the “right to privacy enables individuals to retain and exercise autonomy over the body and mind.”
In dissecting his part in the Ayodhya judgment, experts have pointed out how it varies as a question of right to worship and not of property. That is a fine distinction, and as a possible supporter of morality being part of jurisprudence he would have realized exactly what the difference was. Publicly, the author of the Ayodhya verdict was not named, but it bore every sign of a Justice Chandrachud imprint.
In the bigger theatre of the world, however, perceptions, especially public perceptions, do matter. Form and existence do not always emanate from the word of law; they filter into the belief system through faith, somewhat immaterial. If the perception of the justice system in the minds of the people is weak, the Executive wins hands down. That, in the end, might not be a victory for morality.
The helmsman of the justice system of the country will have the unenviable task of having to cut to the system’s core with a hacksaw, yet pick the finest neurological application scalpel to shape public perception through delicate incisions. These are the reforms he has promised following his oath ceremony, because, in the Supreme Court today, justice must also be seen to be done. Justice Chandrachud is possibly the best candidate to ensure that the image of the legal system as a saviour does not fail in public perception.
Recent chief Justices of the country—Justices NV Ramana and UU Lalit—have created a suitable stage for change. Constitutional benches are fully functional, and critical, politically flavoured issues are before them. As the Master of the Roster, Justice Chandrachud will have the task of assigning the best bench for the cases.
Over and above, the mammoth task of creating a vision for the entire juridical fraternity, as well as for its just reflection in the public eye, now rests on the shoulders of Justice Chandrachud.
The acceptance of dissent as a legal and moral guideline will have a road-fork ahead. Can dissent amid polity and within public office, especially within the Collegium live in social accord? His dissenting voice in the Bhima Koregaon case corralled arrested activists’ rights in safe custody; he refused to have dissent sacrificed before mere conjecture. He called dissent “a symbol of a vibrant democracy.” And he said “liberty cannot be sacrificed the altar of conjectures.” That defence, that dissent, lives bright in public memory. Now will be the time to set it in stone.
Within the current political environment, Justice Chandrachud’s judgment in the Hadiya case—in the bench headed by Justice Dipak Misra—was prominent. As the Supreme Court set aside the trial court’s December 2016 decision of holding the marriage of 25-year-old Akhila Ashokan (who changed her name to Hadiya after marriage) and Shafin Jahan as invalid, Justice Chandrachud held that a person has the right to choose religion. The person also has the right to marry as he thought fit, and that it was an intrinsic part of his meaningful existence. He said: “The high court failed to consider that Hadiya is a major, capable of taking her own decisions and is entitled to the Constitutional right to lead her life as she pleases.”
When he fights for the victims of rape, his ire is no holds barred. He has been quoted as observing: “We still live in a society where the mindset for a victim of rape is not that her dignity has been violated, but that the family honour has been compromised.” Rape victims will find succour in this.
He has come down heavily against mob lynching. He has observed: “When a mob lynches a person for the food that she or he eats, it is the Constitution which is lynched.” This is a comment that the current political scenario has to digest, has to come to terms with. Justice Chandrachud will not be a judge who will be moved from his path of righteousness. He has not, even when his father judged otherwise.
Justice Chandrachud has, so far, been the breath of fresh air that the Justice system of the country was gasping for. He has been that face of courage and honour. These have been the judgments that have moved public sentiment, the saner part of it. And these are the many aspects of life that entwine with law: less of the word, more of the emotion. It is a delicate balance and a subtle mix; the nation awaits such a vision, and this visionary.