If there was a prize for judicial triteness, the contributions of the Indian judiciary’s cream at the opening of the International Judicial Conference 2020, hosted by the Supreme Court, on Saturday would be a clear winner. Cringe-worthy as that was, it pales into insignificance seen against the sycophancy towards Prime Minster Narendra Modi, and the out-of context deference shown to exactly the sort of things said routinely by the current political establishment.
Their lordships simply failed to inspire confidence in the idea of the independence of the judiciary as they delivered sermons on the subject of “Judiciary in a Changing World” before a gathering from 20 nations. What impression of India’s democracy they left on visitors is moot.
Justice Arun Kumar Mishra, the third senior most judge of the Supreme Court, eulogised the PM as “an internationally acclaimed visionary” and a “versatile genius who thinks globally and acts locally” as he thanked Mr Modi for his “inspiring speech which would act as a catalyst in initiating the deliberations and setting the agenda for the conference”.
The PM, in his speech, thanked India’s judiciary for striking a balance between the needs of the environment and imperatives of development, and for delivering verdicts that were accepted by all Indians. These evidently struck Justice Mishra as being forays into genius territory. For other Indians, the question is apt to arise: In a tricky case, can ordinary citizens expect to be shown the same solicitude as the government if hosannas are publicly sung to the PM by a Supreme Court judge?
In the annals of India’s judiciary, the Supreme Court has keeled before the executive in the past (as during the Emergency) and is perceived to be doing so to this day. The Ayodhya case, the Judge Loya case, silence on habeas corpus matters pertaining to Kashmir, and the manner of handling the Rafale issue, have left much to be desired, and raised questions. However, it is hard to recall words that parallel Justice Mishra’s in praise of the PM.
Indeed, rectitude and reticence of a high order were not so long ago deemed worthy attributes even of sub-district judges, leave alone luminaries of the higher judiciary, as judicial officers routinely declined social and sometimes even family invitations to underline the neutrality and impartiality of their office. Once when then PM Rajiv Gandhi sought to visit the Chief Justice of India who had taken ill, the CJI quite rightly advised him not to, lest the harmless gesture be misunderstood.
The present CJI could have been more circumspect too at Saturday’s conference. Instead, Justice S.A. Bobde stressed “fundamental duties”, exactly as Mr Modi does. He spoke of courts functioning courts in India 2,000 years ago (Manu Smriti), which seemed like pandering to the gods of present-day politics, forgetting that legal institutions of ancient Egypt go back 5,000 years, and those of ancient Babylon (Hamurabi), ancient Rome — from which a good deal of modern laws derive — and ancient Greece pre-date the ancient Hindu system by many centuries.