Modi govt seems intent on taking over power to appoint SC, HC judges before 2024 polls

Law Minister Kiren Rijiju’s provocative remarks on the judiciary, the only institution not subservient to the Modi govt, make it clear that the regime wants to soon do away with the collegium system

Representative (Getty Images)
Representative (Getty Images)

Arun Srivastava

It would seem that the Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led Central govt is intent on transmuting the basic identity and character of the Indian judicial system in the near future. Clear hints of such a plan have been given by Union Law Minister Kiren Rijiju whose conduct of late matches that of someone acting more loyal than the king.

In his exuberance to please his bosses, Rijiju did not even bother for his own repute and credibility when he recently shared an old photo with a tweet on Tawang.

With the ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ catching the imagination of the masses, panic seems to have gripped PM Narendra Modi and his confidants. Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s latest remarks on the India-China border dispute too has evidently unnerved them.

Rijiju accused Rahul of insulting the Army and damaging India’s image, and tweeted a photograph of himself with soldiers, saying that Yangtse in Tawang was "fully secured now" with "adequate deployment" of army personnel. But the photo was apparently taken in 2019. Congress media chief Jairam Ramesh slammed the minister as a “Shameless Distorian”.

On Friday, Rahul had said that China was preparing for a war and accused the Indian government of ignoring the threat.

What is bizarre is that Rijiju has in the past cautioned the people against the menace of fake news and rumours. In July 2018, he had said: “State governments and all government agencies, along with NGOs, need to come together and create better awareness. Rumours and fake news are posing a danger to innocent lives.”

Meanwhile, Rijiju continues to target the judiciary, the only institution not completely subservient to the Modi govt.

Notwithstanding the fact that the Chief Justice of India Y.V. Chandrachud has made it clear in so many words that they would continue with the collegium system, Rijiju reiterated his stand that the SC should not have scrapped the National Judicial Appointments Commission Bill (NJAC) and that a new system to appoint judges was needed.

If the mood of the BJP leaders is any indicator of the things to come, Rijiju may make a move to revive the NJAC. If the party insiders are to be relied upon, the regime nurses the view that it must be achieved well before the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

The Modi govt’s intent to saffronise the judiciary was clearly manifest in the remarks made by Rijiju in Parliament. “The Supreme Court should not be hearing bail applications and rather hear constitutional matters. If the Supreme Court starts hearing bail applications and starts hearing all frivolous PILs, it will definitely cause a lot of extra burden on the Honourable Court, because Supreme Court by and large is treated as a Constitutional court," he said.

Of late, the apex court has been granting bail to those behind bars for years without trial or filing of charge sheets. This is perhaps causing discomfiture to the current regime as they include individuals targeted by BJP and RSS activists with frivolous and fictitious cases just for dissenting with their political views. Already the district and lower courts are under pressure from these saffron vigilantes to obey their dictates.

Nonetheless, within 24 hours of this diktat from Rijiju, the Supreme Court exposed its fallacy and triviality. CJI Chandrachud remarked, “No case is too small for the Supreme Court. if we do not act in matters of personal liberty and grant relief, then what are we doing here?"

The SC granted bail to a person who had been ordered to undergo consecutive sentences to the tune of 18 years for the theft of electricity.

The person was implicated in 9 cases and in each case, he was asked to serve 2 years in jail. He had already completed 7 years in jail.

“It is an absolutely shocking case,” observed the bench comprising CJI Chandrachud and Justice PS Narasimha.

The appellant approached the Supreme Court after the Allahabad High Court refused to order that his sentences should run concurrently. "If the Supreme Court is not to interfere in this matter, what are we here for? If we don't interfere in matters of personal liberty, and we don't order the release of this person, then what are we here for. We are then acting in breach of Article 136 of the Constitution," CJI Chandrachud said.

The CJI also observed, "When you sit here, no case is too small for the Supreme Court and no case is too big. Because we are here to answer the call of conscience and the cry for liberty of the citizens. That is why we are here. When you sit here and burn the midnight oil, you realize everyday there is one case or another like that."

In attending to such grievances, the Supreme Court performs its constitutional duty. There is no doubt that if the apex court had not intervened, it would have amounted to miscarriage of justice.

Noted lawyer Prashant Bhushan was right in saying that Rijiju’s comment showed the “anti-liberty mindset” of the minister and the government.

Rijiju also made an abstruse statement. While saying that more than 4.25 crore cases were pending in lower courts, he said: "We have to also ask the judiciary to ensure that the deserving people are given justice and those causing unnecessary burden are taken care of, so that they don't cause disturbances while the court is functioning or the court is discharging its duties."

Will Rijiju make clear what he means when he says “those causing unnecessary burden are taken care of”? Does it not aim at terrorising the people?

Recently, in a challenging tone, Rijiju had said that no one can say that the government has not cleared the judges’ appointments.

He has also been harping on the pendency of cases. If he is so concerned of the correct and prompt delivery of justice, why is his government not increasing the number of judges?

Participating in a debate in the Parliament last week, Rijiju postured as a victim. He lamented the government’s lack of say in the appointments of HC and SC judges.

Only last week, the Supreme Court had declined to direct the Modi government and the states to double the strength of judges, pointing out that the collegium was not in the position to fill the existing vacancies and expand infrastructure. Apparently rebutting Rijiju’s observations, the CJI D Y Chandrachud said, “These are all populist measures which you are suggesting. It is difficult even to fill the 160 seats in Allahabad High Court and you are asking for increasing the strength to 320!"

The Allahabad High Court, the biggest in the country, now has 60 vacancies against the sanctioned strength of 160 judges. The Bombay High Court, the second largest HC, has 28 vacancies. There are 335 vacancies in 25 high courts in the country, which have a total sanctioned strength of 1,108 judges. The Calcutta High Court has 18 vacancies, against the sanctioned strength of 72 judges.

The Supreme Court has cautioned the government that it would pass “judicial orders” if the government sought to “cross the Rubicon” by continuing to sit over recommendations on judicial appointments and transfers despite reiterations by the collegium.

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Published: 19 Dec 2022, 5:43 PM