First a disclaimer - I have turned cynical after being witness to all-round deterioration in standards of public behaviour. So, when I first saw the news about Chief Justice of India choking on his words and wiping tears while addressing an august gathering of chief ministers, chief justices - both former and serving, Union Law Minister DV Sadananda Gowda, senior Union Law and Justice Ministry officials, other dignitaries, the media and of course the Prime Minister of India, I thought that Justice TS Thakur was "doing a Modi" on the Prime Sevak of the country. On the dais, Modi downward, everyone must have had a Zuckerberg-like sensation when the Facebook top honcho could do nothing but look impassively as into the crowd at the Facebook Townhall just seven months ago.
On his part, Modi deviated from the script and besides offering a one-on-one meeting (what did he say? Alag se mil ke baat cheet kar lete hain? I hope he didn't say this because the phrase has a different connotation and every Indian knows what this means!), the prime minister recalled his intervention as Gujarat chief minister. Modi recounted that he attended these conferences as the representative of the western state - he did not hide his disdain for such conclaves - and in those sessions suggested that courts and judges cut down on their holidays to reduce pendency of cases. In his interaction with the media, CJI Thakur retorted that judges do not go on holidays to the hills but spend the time writing copious judgements.
How does one make sense of what transpired on Sunday and had the nation riveted on it till the incident was overtaken by events of greater dramatic value? Was CJI Thakur adding prestige to the office he holds or did he belittle the institution by a public breakdown?
|Chief justice Thakur addressing a conference of chief ministers and high court chief justices in presence of the PM . Photo: PTI|
Let's take up first things first. It is not rare for public figures to display emotions while speaking in public meetings or even in semi-public gatherings (like conferences, media interaction etc.,) In January this year American President Barack Obama cried while addressing a press conference on gun culture and violence it begot in the country. A debate was sparked: is it good for President (we can extend this to prime minister and other public figures in India) to be emotional or not? There cannot be a closure on the debate though most agreed, and rightly, that men do cry sometimes but when and how this gets triggered, differs from person to person, situation to situation.
So was CJI TS Thakur justified in his breakdown? Could he had have chosen another way of expressing pent up emotion and frustration at what he perceives as indifference of the political class to the crisis in judiciary and acute pendency of cases?
I clearly have no real problem with CJI Thakur displaying his softer side but I do hope that his public tears are not dismissed as a publicity device and instead evoke empathy. The incident needs to evoke not just compassion but must also arouse anger because it drawn attention to the deficiencies of the judiciary and the causes.
So what does the CJI say in between tears and chokes?
To begin with, his speech is a severe indictment of the government (Modi Bhakts please note before trolling, this is not indictment of just one government but all previous ones too) for stalling appointment of judges to the High Courts and doing nothing to increase the number of courts and judges. The numbers are sheer: 434 judicial vacancies in the High Courts; a 1987 Law Commission report warned about India slipping into grossly inadequate ratio of judges to population; former CJI Altamas Kabir's letter; to then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seeking steps to increase judges' strength over five years to at least 50 judges per million. And much more - we can fill up this website with the numerical deficiency and the imperfections in judiciary, but that would hardly serve any purpose.
Despite tom-toming how his government has gone about attempting to repeal outmoded laws on an occasions where the focus was not on it, Modi has spoken about looking beyond the night and seeking solutions. But judiciary is not the only institution in crisis. The Indian health sector, education, and bureaucracy in general terms are witnessing grave challenge. From the political system to the quality of our doctors, teachers, lawyers, chartered accountants, scientists, call centre executives and even politicians, there is overall decline in quality. The judicial system is actually not just witnessing a deficiency of numbers but also quality. What then is the way in which Modi and the CJI, if and when they sit for a tête-à-tête, are going to address the decline in the quality of judges. When I say this, I am not referring to the handful of judges in the apex court or the correspondingly larger assembly in High Courts (though many legal luminaries say that the rot begins at the top) but in the lower courts which continue to be the extremely arbitrary because such behaviour provides opportunities for decisions influenced by lucre and other means.
Let us not allow CJI Thakur's tears to go to waste and let's not get caught into debating whether his behaviour was proper or not. It is for the government to act and address the problems he has listed and the ones he has not. Judicial reforms cannot become a cliché as it has been for all other reforms - electoral or police where debate has continued endlessly. Everyone knows what the solutions are but no one wishes to initiate steps. The crisis facing Indian judiciary is greater because barring what is a visible on the surface there are far more serious issues beneath the surface.