JUSTICE SANTOSH HEGDE is a respected former judge of the Supreme Court. He has also served as Solicitor General of India and Lokayukta for Karnataka. He then joined the Anna Hazare movement but left it when the core team decided to take to politics. In an exclusive interview to ABHILASHA PATHAK, he talks about a host of issues, including corruption, AAP, the Uniform Civil Code and the Cauvery water dispute. Excerpts:
What are the highlights of your career?
In 1975, when Emergency was declared, four MPs visited Bangalore and were detained. I got the opportunity of representing them without even knowing who they were. I went to jail to meet them. One was Atal Bihari Vajpayee, another was LK Advani, the third was Madhu Dandavate and the fourth, SN Mishra.
In ’77, when Emergency was lifted and elections declared, all of them became members of the cabinet under Morarji Desai. In 1983, I became the advocate general of the state and served for four-and-a-half years. In 1989, there was change of guard in Delhi and VP Singh became the prime minister. Soli Sorabjee became the attorney general of India and invited me to become the additional solicitor general. Kapil Sibal and Arun Jaitley were my colleagues. In 1998, Vajpayee became the PM and Sorabjee invited me to become the solicitor general of India. Nine months later, the chief justice called me to join the bench and become a judge. My widowed mother telephoned me and told to accept the job as it would have made my father very proud. I couldn’t say no to her. I accepted the job. I retired as a Supreme Court judge in 2005. Then I got a call from the chief minister of Karnataka to become the Lokayukta there. My wife wanted to go to Bangalore and I did. Then everything changed in my life. I was given an opportunity to help people.
So what do you do now?
I don’t work with any organization because I have difficulty in doing so. I worked with Anna Hazare for 18 months. Arvind Kejriwal was in the team as were some others. Finally, the government came around and promised Anna Hazare that it would bring a Lokpal Bill in parliament and asked him to end his fast. The government of the day was saved.
Suddenly, Kejriwal joined politics and formed AAP. I did not join them. When we were in Anna Hazare’s team, we were fighting politicians and political parties. Now suddenly you say you will form a political party. Once you form a political party, people from all sorts of organizations come and join you. You don’t know their backgrounds. See what’s happening in AAP today. Nearly seven ministers and MLAs are under the scanner. I don’t blame Kejriwal because it is not possible for him to screen them when they come in.
How do you view what is happening in the country?
There is growth of corruption in India. We are also losing humanism. Without these two things, it is not possible to bring about any change in society. So I go to educational institutes to talk to the youth so that they can change society. Today, we are in a society that respects money and power, nothing else. Honesty has no place in it. I have seen with my own eyes people go to jail; when they come out, people garland them. Look at Bihar. Lalu Yadav was convicted by court, he went out on bail but his party won votes and the maximum number of seats. So corruption is not an issue at all. I know it is not possible in my lifetime to inculcate values among the youth and build a society which boycotts the corrupt.
You were known for the stand you took on illegal mining in Karnataka…
I gave the mining report. I named three chief ministers of a political party and nine ministers. More than 700 officers were involved in it. Look at the amount of cheating that was going on. One metric ton of good quality iron ore was fetching Karnataka Rs 27. But one metric ton was exported in 2008 to China at the rate of Rs 6,500-7,000. Is this business? (The Lokayukta report says that 12.57 crore tons of iron ore was exported overseas from Karnataka between 2006 and 2010). It was taken without a single permit. For transportation of iron ore, five permits are required. This is where they have a single-window service. You pay bribe at a single window and they distribute it among themselves and the lorry is allowed to go.
The Lokayukta has filed chargesheets, but nothing is happening. (No action was taken on his report other than then Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa resigning. The guilty are yet to be brought to book.)
Do you think the accountability of political parties should increase?
Certainly. Parties just want to win, doesn’t matter how. Even the electorate follows this; either they get bribed or vote along caste and community lines.
How do you see the role of the center?
In the present cabinet, there has been no allegation of corruption for the past three years compared to previous years. I am totally apolitical. I do not believe in the present political system.
I have a major fear about this country. Unlike other countries, we don’t have a common religion, language or culture. We are a multi-religious, multi-cultural, multi-lingual state which is being held together for the last 70 years out of love for the country. But it is a very fragile state. Some time back, there was a demand for a separate Tamil state. Then there is the Kashmir issue. And there are enough people who want to incite such movements for their own personal gain.
So unless the youth of the country stands together, I don’t know what its future will be.
The Law Commission has brought up the issue of Uniform Civil Code. Do you feel it has the proper backup from the central government?
The Law Commission has always been an advisory body and not a law-making body. On the Uniform Civil Code, I read an interesting WhatsApp post. It says: keep triple talaq, but let the Muslims also be governed by all the sharia laws in the criminal side as well, like cutting off a person’s hands if he steals and such like. (laughs)
We see a lot of judicial activism these days.
This is not of recent origin. It started with Justice Bhagwati. When the administration fails, when people’s rights are ignored, how can an adjudicating institution keep quiet? Take pollution. It seems to have improved ever since the Supreme Court took up the matter. There are many good things the Supreme Court has done in the process of judicial activism. Of course, there have been mistakes. It is up to the Chief Justice of India and his brother judges to decide how far you can go and where you should go.
The Cauvery river dispute has been dominating the headlines.
One of the major complaints of people in Karnataka against me is that I did not openly speak against the Cauvery decision. I can’t be personally involved in it. They say Karnataka is not giving enough water to Tamil Nadu. At the same time, the northern part of Karnataka is fighting against the sharing of Mahadayi river with Goa and Maharashtra. Our complaint is that Maharashtra and Goa are not giving us enough water. We can’t ask them to give us water if they don’t have enough themselves. In all these matters, where do you take a stand? If you take a strictly legal stand, nobody will like you. If you don’t take a stand, then they are angry with you.
The share of water has already been decided by water tribunals. Now whether it is possible to give that water or not, let the Commission go and see. If it is possible, it should compel the states to give and if they cannot, where will they give it from?
The Supreme Court said that lawyers should not go on a strike. The lawyers say it is their constitutional right. What is your view?
You prevent the courts from functioning but what happens to the constitutional rights of the litigants whom you are supposed to be helping? Who are you helping? Yourself. I am against strikes by lawyers who have taken a professional oath to maintain professional ethics.
Lead Picture: Justice Santosh Hegde