Why Ram temple issue is lurking behind crisis in Supreme Court
The same powerful group that has shown exceptional interest in the judge Loya case fears that the CJI could rule in favour of building the Ram temple.
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The simmering dispute between the chief justice of India (CJI) Dipak Misra and four Supreme Court collegium justices - J Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, Madan B Lokur and Kurian Joseph - gets curiouser by the day. Despite several meetings to reconcile their differences, the gulf between India’s seniormost justices has not narrowed.
What precisely are those differences? At their press conference and in their seven-page letter, the four collegium justices were vague in their demands. For those who want linguistic clarity and brevity from our finest judicial minds, the letter gives little indication of either.
Sample this: “One of the well-settled principles is that the chief justice is the master of the roster with a privilege to determine the roster, necessity in multi-numbered courts for an orderly transaction of business and appropriate arrangements with respect to matters with which member/bench of this Court (as the case may be) is required to deal with which case or class of cases is to be made. The convention of recognising the privilege of the chief justice to form the roster and assign cases to different members/benches of the Court is a convention devised for a disciplined and efficient transaction of business of the court but not a recognition of any superior authority, legal or factual of the chief justice over his colleagues. It is too well settled in the jurisprudence of this country that the chief justice is only the first amongst equals, nothing more or nothing less.”
But if all Supreme Court justices are equals, why shouldn’t cases, sensitive or not, be assigned to benches led by “junior” Supreme Court judges? No clear answer has been forthcoming.
So what do the four rebel justices really want? First, they want the case relating to the death of judge BH Loya reassigned. That wish has been fulfilled. Justice Arun Mishra was hearing the Loya case. Rattled by the events of last week, he recused himself.
The CJI, in a show of authority, reassigned the case to a bench headed by himself. He was under relentless pressure to reassign the Loya case to a bench headed by one of the four collegium justices. He did not. Instead, he even transferred the two PILs related to the case pending in the Bombay High Court to his own bench. Last week, the petitioners’ senior counsel Dushyant Dave had pleaded “with folded hands” against the CJI doing that. The CJI brushed aside Dave’s plea.
A group of lawyers and politicians are using the Loya case, as they had earlier used the Ishrat Jahan case, to target BJP president Amit Shah. The confrontation between the Maharashtra government’s counsel Harish Salve and Dave in the CJI’s court on January 22, brought this out into the open. Dave claimed that Salve had defended Shah in the past and should not appear in the Loya case due to conflict of interest. The charge was summarily rejected by the CJI’s three-judge bench.
Salve has, meanwhile, submitted medical documents and other material to the Supreme Court to show that judge Loya’s death occurred due to natural causes. The CJI has posted the next hearing in the case for February 2.
But amid the judge Loya clamour, the case that lurks in the background is about building the Ram temple in Ayodhya. Like Banquo’s ghost that haunted Shakespeare’s Macbeth, the Ram temple case haunts the Supreme Court. The long drawn-out case is now with a bench headed by the CJI. He retires on October 2, 2018. There is an expectation that the CJI wants to deliver a verdict in the case before he demits office.
The same powerful group of lawyers, activists, politicians and sections of the media that has shown exceptional interest in the judge Loya case fears that the CJI could be inclined to rule in favour of building the Ram temple in Ayodhya where the Babri mosque stood.
Such a ruling would benefit the BJP in three big states due to go to the polls in December 2018: Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. All three states will feature binary BJP-Congress contests. All three face strong anti-incumbency. A pro-temple ruling would give the BJP a steroid boost ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
Two outcomes can now be divined. First, a chastened CJI, buffeted by the collegium’s rebellion, will postpone a verdict on the Ram temple case till after the 2019 Lok Sabha poll, citing its sensitivity. Second, the CJI could rule against building the Ram temple where the Babri mosque stood and instead suggest the construction of two new structures, a temple and a mosque, side by side. That would suit the Opposition ahead of 2019.
All of these well-laid plans though may amount to nothing. Even if the Supreme Court’s verdict goes against building the Ram temple, or the verdict is inordinately delayed, the anger that it will spark among devout Hindus will be electorally fissile.
In the end, therefore, the elaborate shenanigans we have been witness to in the Supreme Court over the past two weeks could end in a whimper. But the spotlight it has shone on the apex court and its hallowed innards will have served a purpose.
Why, for example, haven’t the senior justices of the Supreme Court shown similar ire, as they have over assignment of cases, against the real issues that bedevil India’s judicial system: deep-seated corruption, shambolic infrastructure, a mounting backlog of cases, lawyers holding clients to ransom with adjournments, and the opaque collegium system of appointing judges to the Supreme Court by other Supreme Court judges?
Such opacity hardly inspires confidence in India’s top judicial minds as they wrestle with the fissure within their ranks and Banquo’s ghost that hovers silently over the unbuilt Ram temple in Ayodhya.