A week is a long time in the Supreme Court too

Deccan Chronicle.  | R Mohan

Nation, Current Affairs

The CJI is the one who, after all, declared that "Independent judges and noisy journalists are democracy's first line of defence".

Ranjan Gogoi (Photo: PTI)

The only non-event in an astonishingly eventful week was the duck that Virat Kohli scored in the Indore Test.  A week is not a very long time in cricket as they still play Tests over five days, though these days the contests hardly go the distance. A week is a very long time in politics though. And last week was a particularly long one in which the retiring Chief Justice set alight the political and legal worlds with a number of judgments in a series of cause celebres.

Not the man to bow out quietly at the sunset of his career, the CJI Ranjan Gogoi retired under the blaze of spotlights, etching his name in the annals of history by being a party to most significant verdicts, including the Ayodhya case  which had defied a legal solution for over 150 years. He had the wholesome attention of India on a Saturday (strictly belonging to the previous week) as he unveiled a unique solution to the land dispute.

No half measures like trisecting the disputed land as the judges of Allahabad had done earlier. The whole 2.77 acres, including the most disputed half acre under the destroyed dome, had to go to a Ram Temple on Ramjanmabhoomi. In lieu of it, the Muslims have been offered five acres, preferably in the vicinity from within the 67 acres taken over by the government in India's most sensitive land encompassing holy spots of two major religions.

The CJI is the one who, after all, declared that "Independent judges and noisy journalists are democracy's first line of defence". How independent he was could be measured by his presence at the famous January 12, 2018 "Gang of Four" press conference by top court judges dropping dark hints of the then CJI toadying up to the executive and playing ducks and drakes with the roster. So grave did the rebellion seem that Gogoi's elevation as CJI was seen as a possible flash point in the tug of war between the government of the day and the highest court.

Gogoi's actions in the highest chair may not have been in sync with the image of the rebels coming out in an unprecedented hostile formation that day last year, but he did find unanimity in the difficult Ayodhya verdict in which all five judges were convinced that, despite the dark history of a possible hostile takeover of a temple centuries ago and a wicked demolition of the masjid in 1992, the land could be handed over to the Hindus. If you are forward looking enough you could believe that it is a pragmatic judgment because both mandir and masjid are to be built.

The history of the Hagia Sofiya in Istanbul may have suggested a more acceptable solution all round, though even there the passage of time and the arrival of a despotic nationalist may see history being upended and the place going to the majority religion. Perhaps, the key word in all these discussions around religion is 'majority', which has historically been known to have its way while the minority dips into dejection and depression.  

Soon enough, the CJI had to head the bench that decided to pass on the Sabarimala conundrum to a larger bench.  Judges have always sat on a hot seat and can never rule in favour of both sides in a dispute. And when it comes to large benches there is the matter of dissenting opinions too. The matter of faith and religion lends too many complications as it is and to have a definitive verdict was the burden of the judges, an unenviable calling even Solomon would have agreed.

What is of great import is the reference to a larger bench comes with a sweeping equality provision wherein the discriminatory practices against women in all religions are to be considered, like entry to mosques and the Parsi fire temple . It is a huge responsibility to bear but the 7-member bench must consider and rule on all restrictive practices, most of them aimed against women. Meanwhile, Sabarimala becomes explosive again with women between 10 and 50 being discriminated against.

The CJI also led a bench that gave a second clean chit to the government in the Rafale acquisition case. Given the complexity of all defence deals, let us just say that regardless of what lies underneath the deal, the accusers have gone about it the wrong way. The entire election campaign of Rahul Gandhi based on the premise of "Chowkidar char hai" has been shown up. The net result is he will continue to be a Gandhi more seen on Twitter for five years, that is whenever he is not travelling to exotic locales for his R&R.  

To the credit of the CJI, his regime left an imprint in the RTI case, upholding the primacy of a law that enables the people to have a check on what any branch of the government and the judiciary is doing. It has been a hectic year and a bit for a CJI who was seen rebelling against the system and then being very much a part of it in parting shots that only strengthens the Establishment.

(R. Mohan is the Resident Editor of the Chennai and Tamil Nadu editions of Deccan Chronicle)