Supreme Court judge J. Chelameswar's letter last week to Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra, which the writer copied to all Supreme Court judges, suffices to inform the citizen that the health of the judicial system in the country is in poor shape - and that the "independence" and "pre-eminence" of the judiciary among the organs of the State today stand compromised.
The letter, which has been widely reported, makes it clear that the incumbent government thinks nothing of crassly intervening in the judiciary, wholly bypassing the Supreme Court. Regrettably, it also suggests that the present CJI, far from confronting the government and the law ministry on this critical issue, which is vital to democracy itself, perhaps thinks that discretion is the better part of valour.
The letter of the country's most senior judge after the CJI asks for a sitting of the whole court — all the judges of the Supreme Court — to discuss the matter of the Chief Justice of the Karnataka high court, Dinesh Maheshwari, who has alas made himself available to be used and trampled upon by the Union law ministry. In the process, the law ministry has, with the connivance of Justice Maheshwari, disregarded and denigrated the Supreme Court collegium which had twice sent the name of a district judge, P. Krishna Bhat, for elevation to the high court.
It can be argued that the head of the Karnataka high court, on his part, is guilty of dereliction of duty for not informing the Supreme Court that the law ministry was sending down unwarranted instructions to him without reference to the Supreme Court, which for a high court is the superior authority. A junior woman judicial officer in the state had alleged sexual misconduct against Mr Bhat. On the Supreme Court's instructions the then Chief Justice of the Karnataka high court had conducted a probe and honourably absolved Mr Bhat, suggesting also that the allegation was motivated.
On the strength of this, the Supreme Court collegium had recommended Mr Bhat's elevation. The law ministry sat on the file. The collegium made the same recommendation a second time. That made it mandatory for the law ministry to accept Mr Bhat's elevation. But it continues to sit on the file. Meanwhile, exploiting the servility of the Karanataka Chief Justice, it has reopened the probe in the Bhat case.
By now the CJI should have accepted Justice Chelameswar’s suggestion for a meeting of the whole court to discuss the government's disgraceful interference and the conduct of Justice Maheshwari. If the issue is delayed, or if the CJI fails to act in a convincing manner to uphold the independence of the judiciary, he will appear in poor light. That will be a sad day for the Indian judiciary.