When Justice Nuthalapati Venkata Ramana takes over the top judicial chair in the country on April 24, it will be the culmination of his decades of struggle against injustice, as experienced from his humble beginnings, followed by student activism and even a stint in journalism. In the 48th Chief Justice of India (CJI), the country will get a leader with immense achievement, yet with the humility to deal with fame and power. President Ram Nath Kovind put his official signature on the appointment of Justice Ramana on April 6. He will be succeeding CJI Sharad Arvind Bobde.
The importance of such a person leading the current stressed judicial system of the country is that his known and admired balanced approach to issues of law and society will be in evidence in pronouncements that the country follows closely.
He has already delivered several path-breaking verdicts, many around constitutional jurisprudence, commercial laws and civil liberties. In Anuradha Bhasin vs Union of India, he ended the year-long internet ban in Jammu and Kashmir and the progressive nature of the thought process behind the judgment re-established that the freedom of access to the internet was a fundamental right.
The apex court ruled that “an undefined restriction of internet services would be illegal and that orders for internet shutdown must satisfy the tests of necessity and proportionality.” The Court clearly stated that freedom of speech and expression included right to the internet and therefore was protected under the constitution.
His early fights for the rights of the oppressed and the ill-informed of society were evident in another critical judgement, in Central Public Information Officer vs Subhash Chandra Agarwal (2019), which dealt with the Right to Information Act, 2005. This was a bold verdict that opened up the judges of the top court to a certain level of public scrutiny.
The appeal was from Subhash Chandra Agarwal, a businessman and right to information activist, who had filed separate applications requesting access to information from the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) relating to assets of sitting judges, as well as correspondence relating to the appointment of judges and alleged influence on a decision. Initially, the applications were rejected by the CPIO, who said that the information requested was either exempted or confidential.
Agarwal appealed to the Court against this and the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court held that the Supreme Court is indeed a “public authority” and hence will fall within the ambit of the Right to Information Act, 2005. Following this historic verdict, the Chief Information Commissioner (CIC) granted access to the information.
In commercial disputes Justice Ramana’s deliberations and verdicts have been no less laudable. In the Vidya Drolia case, he settled the complex issue of courts’ interference at the stage of appointment of an arbitrator. The decision has the potential to reduce pendency, by providing primacy to arbitration. And with international juridical pronouncements in view more and more in India today in cross-border disputes, the Alcon vs Salem verdict, allowing the execution of a foreign decree will have a positive effect towards settling disputes in international commerce.
Such immense legal erudition, accompanied by a steady, calm mind is exactly what is needed for our justice system today. That Justice Ramana is also a lover of the arts and of exquisite literature will also help him in calmly handling pressures of the position.
The blossoming of his character mainly started in his childhood, where his parents were agriculturists. Justice Ramana is the first lawyer and judge from Ponnavaram village of the Krishna District of Andhra Pradesh, where he was born. His father Ganapathi Rao and mother Sarojini Devi were both into farming. It was Justice Ramana’s sheer determination, aided by his parents’ desire to provide their ward a fine education, that saw him cross all hurdles in the way.
He has been known to recollect his young days when he was a student leader, involved in issues concerning farmers, industrial workers as well as other socially relevant issues related to civil liberties. He was known for his activist outlook and welfare concerns and his actions to evade arrest during the Emergency steeled his resolve to take up law. Of course, he spent time as a journalist with a leading Telugu newspaper briefly, but jumped into law as he made the bar.
The simple man that he is, he never shies away from criticising what he cannot accept as morally right. In a recent speech at a function, he lamented the falling standard of law education in the country. He criticised the idea of “quality, over quantity” and said: “…what proportion of graduates who are fresh out of college are actually ready or prepared for the profession? I would think less than 25 per cent.”
This was not just a perfunctory statement. There was great depth of thought behind it.
He added: “This is in no way a comment on the graduates themselves, who certainly possess the required attributes to be successful lawyers. Rather, it is a comment on the large number of sub-standard legal educational institutions in the country which are colleges merely in name… which is a very worrying trend. The Judiciary has taken a note of this, and is attempting to correct the same. One of the consequences of the poor quality of legal education in the country is the exploding pendency in the country.”
The above thought process will be in evidence as the new CJI takes over as the head of the administrative side of the Supreme Court as well. Along with jurisprudence, the system that guides and facilitates it is equally important. Every little thought that has germinated inside Justice Ramana, throughout his career as a lawyer and as a judge he was elevated as a permanent judge of the Andhra Pradesh High Court in 2000 and during his eight-year tenure as a judge of the Supreme Court, will see fruition in his handling of the administration.
As the CJI, Justice Ramana would be responsible not only for the all-important Collegium, but also of the Registry of the court and, most importantly, the bar. As an eminently approachable judge, his relationship with the bar has been friendly, and cooperation from that end is almost certain.
In recent times, a lot of friction has happened between the bar and the bench, and in Justice Ramana, the justice system can see cooperative action that will ultimately benefit the litigants and society in general.
These promise to be active, yet calmer times at the top court.
—By Sujit Bhar with India Legal News Service