More than 300 lawyers across the country, including Senior Advocates, Supreme Court lawyers and Advocates from various High Courts have condemned Law Minister Kiren Rijiju for saying that some retired judges have become part of an anti-India gang.
A joint statement signed by 62 Senior Advocates, 236 Advocates and 22 Advocates-on-Record (AoR) said that allegations of anti-nationalism against people who had dedicated their lives to upholding the rule of law and the naked threat of reprisals against them, marked a new low in the public discourse of this great nation.
Stating that the Minister was sending a message that no ‘voice of dissent will be spared,’ the lawyers said such hectoring and bullying were unbecoming of the high office held by the Minister. They further said that criticism of the government was neither against the nation, nor unpatriotic, nor anti-India.
The lawyers were responding to the comments made by the Law Minister at a conclave telecast live by a media house.
They said the unwarranted attack and unacceptable threats meted out against retired judges of the Supreme Court by the Union Minister would have the effect of inciting the public against the judges and judicial system and deserve to be strongly condemned.
Stating that the nation owed a debt of gratitude to retired Judges, they said it did not matter whether one might individually agree or disagree with the views of an individual judge, whether serving or retired.
As a Member of Parliament, the Minister was sworn to uphold and bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India, and as Minister of Law and Justice, it was his duty to protect the judicial system, the judiciary and the judges, both past and present. This was no part of his duty to single out some retired judges with whose opinion he might disagree, and to issue public threats of action by law enforcement agencies against them, noted the statement.
Recalling the March 18 speech delivered by the Minister, the lawyers pointed out that Rijiju obliquely referred to a ‘few retired judges,’ who till recently occupied high Constitutional offices, as being part of an ‘anti-India gang’.
By bracketing the critics, that too without naming them, as an anti-India gang, the Minister has transgressed all limits of constitutional propriety by claiming that the members of this ‘anti-India gang’ wanted to “make the judiciary play the role of the opposition. He pointedly threatened these retired Supreme Court judges that ‘no one will escape’ and ‘those who work against the country will pay the price,’ they recalled.
They said the Minister must remember that the government of the day was not the nation, and the nation was not the government.
The critics of the government were every bit as patriotic as those in government; and critics who highlight failures or shortcomings in the administration, or violations of constitutional norms, were exercising an inherent and most basic human right, and one which his Ministry was charged with protecting, the freedom of speech and expression, noted the lawyers.
They said under the Constitutional scheme, the space for criticism of the government was neither reserved for exercise in parliament or legislatures alone, nor was it confined to any particular class of persons or barred to any other.
Recalling the September 2016 statement of Prime Minister Narendra Modi given to Network18, the lawyers said the Minister must remember what the Prime Minister said then and again in his reply to the Motion of Thanks to President Draupadi Murmu on the floor of the Lok Sabha a couple of months ago.
The Prime Minister had said that the toughest questions and criticism must be levelled against governments, as it was the only way in which the governments could be kept alert and responsive, they added.
The statement said the right of every citizen to dissent, criticise and peacefully oppose any government and its policies or functioning was an inherent basic human right, which was also Constitutionally protected. Criticism of the government did not authorise a high state functionary to besmirch any individual’s patriotism, added the statement.
The lawyers said the views expressed by former Judges, responsible women and men who have shepherded the courts through thick and thin, even if such views be unpalatable to the ruling political dispensation, did not entitle the Minister to make such outrageous comments.
They further said the Law Minister could not fail to recall the words attributed to Voltaire, and to remind himself that a Law Minister, more than any other, must unfailingly stand up for those words: “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.
They asked the Minister to realise that by virtue of his office, he was the bridge between the executive and judicial wings of the state, and that he must maintain a dignified public discourse.