The Prime Minister used the high-profile judicial meet to slam activists and asked the judiciary not to fear them while dispensing justice
By Ramesh Menon
Lecturing the judiciary is something prime ministers avoid. But Prime Minister Narendra Modi used the Conference of Chief Justices and Chief Ministers in New Delhi last fortnight to tell the judiciary to introspect and self-regulate. He wanted them to evolve an internal mechanism of self-criticism and assessment, saying that while politicians were under public scrutiny all the time, judges were not.
Clearly, Modi used the occasion to tell the judges what he thought of “five-star activists”, as in recent months, activists have app-roached the judiciary to halt government projects and question its policies like land acquisition. Modi said: “We have to introspect if five-star activists are not driving our judiciary today.” He said that judges should not fear the reaction of five-star activists while dispensing justice. “Judges fear what the reaction of five-star activists would be when they render justice as per law,” he said.
Reacting to this, Chief Justice of India HL Dattu told mediapersons that judges were as fearless as they ever were. Later, Dattu told reporters that both the Supreme Court and high courts had strong internal mechanisms to check misconduct of judges. He and the chief justices of all states were monitoring
it, he said.
Recently, Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai was offloaded at New Delhi from a plane headed to London, where she was to address British lawmakers on the rights of forest-dwellers. The Delhi High Court quashed a lookout circular issued against her and asked the autho-rities to expunge the endorsements made on her passport when she was offloaded.
Since Modi took reign, many decisions of the government have been judicially challenged. The passage of a controversial law ending the collegium system that appointed judges raked up a storm. It gave a feeling that the executive and the judiciary were in confrontation with each other. The judiciary has also been active in policy formation that has not gone well with either the UPA or the NDA. Ditto with judicial activism.
Eminent lawyer Indira Jaising reacted strongly to Modi’s statements at the conference in a signed article in a national daily: “The prime minister is clearly rattled by the reach of people’s movements even though his party is armed with the entire state machinery to muzzle or suppress criticism—and is actively doing so. The fact that civil society has frequently approached the judiciary to claim relief or get arbitrary executive decisions struck down has not gone down well with him.”
She ended her article saying: “The judiciary and the executive may well be siblings when it comes to funding and administrative matters. But when it comes to judicial matters, they should stay at arm’s length from one another. If the prime minister had consulted any of the several eminent lawyers in his cabinet, he may have delivered a better speech, keeping within the limits of the separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary.”
Modi also asked chief justices to ensure that Rs. 9,749 crore earmarked for the judiciary was not used elsewhere. It was directly released to the states by the 14th Finance Commission. Justice Dattu had remarked that financial autonomy of the judiciary was important to ensure that the necessary infrastructure be built.
One significant suggestion Modi made was that sharply drafted laws with minimum grey areas would bring down the pressure on courts as litigation would come down. Modi said he would like one redundant law to be scrapped every day and said he had got cabinet approval to scrap 700 such laws, but had later figured that there were 1,700 others that also needed to go.
President Pranab Mukherjee meeting the chief justices
THE PROBLEM OF PENDENCY
Another topic that was discussed was cases pending in India courts, of which there were three crore. “The issue of pendency receives a lot of attention. It requires efforts on multiple fronts from multiple agencies to effectively address the issue,” Dattu said. Investments in court infrastructure, judicial reforms, pri-son reforms, drastic changes in police administration, prisons and legal aid are required. An effort is being made to dispose of all pending criminal and civil cases in trial courts in five years, he added.
Modi also pointed out that the judge-to-population ratio of one judge for 61,865 citizens, affected effective justice administration.
Two months ago, a parliamentary stan-ding committee had underlined the high number of cases that were pending. Figures for 2014 indicate that there were 1.55 lakh cases pending before the Central Admin-istrative Tribunal, 99,349 at the Income Tax Appellate Tribunal, 96,039 at the Customs, Excise and Service Tax Appellate Tribunal and 44,756 cases at the Railway Claim Tribunal, according to the committee. Modi said it was necessary to look at whether we need so many tribunals and if they could be merged to ensure speed and cut down costs.
Law minister DV Sadananda Gowda said his government wanted to create a favorable working environment for judges, lawyers and litigants to make justice easily accessible. The E-courts Project for Information and Communication Technology was underway and more than 13,000 district and subordinate courts had been computerized, he said. Modi had earlier praised Allahabad High Court Chief Justice Dhananjaya Chandra-chud for the excellent work the court had done in digitizing records.
Justice Dattu said that a real cause of worry was the low salaries of judges. The starting salary of fresh law graduates joining law firms is as much as what the judges earn, he said, and added: “If the youth do not see the judiciary as a financially viable career, they will shy away from becoming judges and that is a real danger.”
The deliberations at the conclave
The conference started amidst the controversy of it being organized on Good Friday. Some judges and chief ministers belonging to the Christian community did not attend, citing personal reasons of abstaining.
- The presentation of the chief justice of Allahabad High Court, Dhananjay Chandrachud, on criminalization of Uttar Pradesh and reforms in certain areas of the state was appreciated by delegates. However, UP Chief Minister Akhiliesh Yadav was not present when Justice Chandrachud broached the subject of reforms and relationship between the government and judiciary. Earlier, Yadav was seen talking to the chief justice at the dinner hosted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi the previous night.
- During the serious deliberations at the conference, many were not present. But during the dinner of the PM, they were all there.
- The chief justice of the Andhra and Telengana High Court, Justice Kailash Jyoti Sengupta, during his informal conversation with certain judges, questioned conferences like this, saying that high courts were independent and exercised their powers without any interference of the Supreme Court. He also raised the question of budgetary allocation, saying there was no fund in the budget for such conferences and funds had to be diverted to arrange these events.
- The chief justice of Meghalaya High Court, Umanath Singh, appreciated the idea of the conference, for it was a good opportunity for sharing of views among chief justices of various high courts, Supreme Court judges and chief ministers of various states. It also provided an insight into the reforms and strategies being adopted for the better administration of justice.
- Some of the chief justices were seen enquiring about three vacancies in the Supreme Court and who were the judges who could be appointed.
- Some of the judges could be heard talking about the coteries that judges had formed in their respective high courts and how it was affecting work.
- One serious discussion revolved around the need to fill the vacancies in the various high courts and the lower judiciary, and to upgrade physical infrastructure.
- While judges discussed corruption, it was Modi’s sound bytes on this issue that received wide publicity, once they were uploaded on his website. This didn’t go too well with many judges. It would have been apt if the SC and HC judges had also put up their deliberations up on the web, they felt.
- One of the chief justices from a southern state could be heard complaining about his present posting, saying that he could not follow the language and he was missing north Indian food.