Musical law chair

By Sujit Bhar

The turnover at the top of the Union law ministry seems pretty intense. Just the other day law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad was unceremoniously removed and shoved practically out of the limelight. On May 18, his successor, ex-sports minister Kiren Rijiju, was also sacked by the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and demoted to the Earth Sciences department. This was informed through a terse message from Rashtrapati Bhavan.

In place of Rijiju, as the new minister of law and justice, comes Arjun Ram Meghwal, also minister of state for parliamentary affairs and culture. Like Rijiju, Meghwal is also an LLB, though neither Rijiju nor Meghwal ever had the professional standing that Senior Advocate Prasad had.

Rijiju had been constantly critical of the judiciary, criticising the collegium system that the Supreme Court has so assiduously put in place and protected. He had also indicated his dislike for retired judges who may have spoken out against some actions of the government. Recently, Rijiju had even criticised the Supreme Court’s initiative in the same sex marriage case.

While one would have believed that Rijiju, quite like his predecessor Prasad, had been toeing the government line on the judiciary, the immediate reaction from experts is that Rijiju had probably greatly overstepped his position and had somehow flown off the handle, so to say. It has to be understood that under the stewardship of Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud, the judiciary today is in no mood to give even an inch without a fight. Against this backdrop, flippant comments against the judiciary from the law minister were virtually inviting serious consequences.

Within the confines of the Indian Constitution, the Chief Justice of India is not only the main functionary of the justice system, but also one of the top constitutional functionaries of the country. Even the country’s law minister needs to realise where to draw the line, where to tone down and use diplomacy instead. Diplomacy, unfortunately, was not Rijiju’s forte.

Looking back to Prasad

To understand the Rijiju sacking, one might want to look back at why and how Prasad was removed. While Prasad’s language, as he jumped head first into fights with the judiciary, was not flippant and derogatory as Rijiju’s, it reeked of sheer arrogance. That would not have been a problem, if it was restricted to some constructive criticism. Instead, Prasad considered every action of the judiciary to be an affront to his authority as minister.

Within the judicial system, there is a rather thick and prominent line separating the bench from the bar. In the same way, judges tend to pull themselves out of contact with the common man, virtually insulating themselves, to protect the integrity and dignity of the bench. When so much care is invested in preserving the dignity of the bench, flippant comments, unsubstantiated allegations and a show of stark arrogance are not welcome.

The judiciary has the right to protect its own, its honour and its traditions. In a democracy, certain tried and tested systems have worked well. Most importantly, they have protected the interest of the common man, which is the ultimate responsibility of the judiciary.

Moreover, a show of arrogance, or flippancy and extreme activism, even by the country’s law minister, sends a very wrong message about the government to the public. Such comments, especially by Rijiju, have greatly embarrassed the Narendra Modi government, which has also to face queries from international legal fraternities. The sacking, thus, seemed justified.

The Meghwal Factor

How well will new incumbent Arjun Ram Meghwal fare and how long his tenure will be is hard to tell, but of all the major ministries of this government, the law ministry seems to be seeing new ministers too often.

On the other hand, there just might be a political angle to this. The polls in the hills are over, and Rijiju’s possible influence, though not evident in any soothing effect, seems to be over too. At the same time, the important Rajasthan polls are near and the government needs a legal handle to add to the political muscle in these critical elections.

To that extent, Meghwal somewhat seems to fit the bill. Meghwal has been the BJP’s chief whip and has been the minister of state for heavy industries and public enterprises. Critically, he was first elected to the Lok Sabha in 2009 representing the Bikaner constituency of Rajasthan. He was nominated as the Best Parliamentarian in 2013.

He can be a big mover during the Rajasthan elections. He was born to Lakhu Ram Meghwal and Hira Devi in a small village of Kishmidesar in Bikaner. He worked hard to earn a masters degree in political science and then got his LLB and an MBA from Dungar College in Bikaner and the University of the Philippines.

Added to that is his experience as a trained administrator. He was an IAS officer of the Rajasthan cadre. Most importantly, though, he is seen as the face of the Scheduled Castes in Rajasthan.

Therefore, there is as much politics in this appointment as there was the opportunity to quickly remove the somewhat unhinged Rijiju. For the rest, we will have to wait.