A bold judiciary augurs well
By Maxwell Pereira
mfjpkamath@gmail.com

Does one sense a kind of boldness in the ranks of the judiciary lately? A boldness that was sadly missing when occasions demanded it earlier, as public sentiment and the silent majority perhaps viewed as then warranted? A boldness to uphold the law and its retributary aspect to make the powerful face the consequences of their ill deeds?

We do owe our courts a lot. But for the boldness exhibited - be it in the CNG matter which got us a better breathing air… or the sealing spree where the government has been brought to its knees hopefully to usher in some kind of rule of law in matters of urban discipline - things would continue to be in the rut. It does appear the entire governance per se is dependent today and is leaning heavily on the guts of the judiciary.

In matters of criminal cognisance though, one perceived, till lately, our courts to be timid. In common man's perception not exhibiting the kind of firmness or the extent of sentencing to enforce the supremacy of law over the law-breaker. Somewhere down the line it appears now the perpetrator has crossed the invisible 'Laxman Rekha' the judiciary had drawn for itself, for it to be more assertive and say enough is enough.

In between, didn't we suffer as a nation the ignominy of watching on TV scenes of someone accused of murder and notoriously known to be a criminal involved in many more heinous crimes, take oath in the nation's Parliament as an honourable Member! Rajesh Ranjan alias Pappu Yadav - a person who wielded influence and flaunted muscle power from within the jail where he was incarcerated, had earlier warranted the Supreme Court to transfer him to Delhi's Tihar jail, so that distance and better supervision here could control and negate his propensity to rig the impending poll, even from within Patna's Beur jail.

It was disgusting and disgraceful to note then that the very same Apex Court found its hands tied, to mechanically endorse and permit this individual his right to go to Parliament and take oath as a Member, five months after being eligible to do so, because he had been duly elected by the voters of Madhepura - his constituency in Bihar. To represent them and be part of the august body that guides and determines the destinies of the people, and makes laws for us all to respect and obey. I suppose this didn't involve guts, just a helpless interpretation of the nation's laws. But along gutsy lines perhaps of some consolation, the Court's recent stand denying him bail, with a firm directive not to file such requests any further.

As I see it, the discernible gutsy trend started perhaps in Maharashtra with the conviction of a minister and bureaucrats involved in a matter of non-compliance of court orders that led to consequent resignations and incarceration in jail - something unthinkable before this really happened. And lately, the conviction in the Shashi Nath Jha murder case of Shibu Soren, a minister in the Union Cabinet of prime minister Man Mohan Singh's UPA government. Closely followed by the conviction of the flamboyant BJP MP Navjyot Singh Sidhu, more popular today as a TV star for cricket's 'turning point' and heavily wooed for endorsements by corporates!

Things were decidedly different not too long ago. I remember a strange scene some of us were witness to at a conference on the criminal justice system organized by the Indian Law Society here in Delhi in the mid-90s. A spirited young police officer from Punjab then working in the CBI had made bold to express how most of the judiciary in Punjab had capitulated and abdicated their judicial functions during the era when Sikh terrorism in the state ran riot holding state functionaries to ransom in every field, judiciary included. The magistracy at whatever levels could find their voice again, the officer postulated, only to castigate police officers who had actually controlled terrorism once it was subdued by sheer dint and courage of the then police management in the state.

The officer was forced to withdraw his statement faced with the intimidatory tenor of the dignitary chairing the session - a former chief justice of the Punjab & Haryana High Court - who taking umbrage at the officer's direct accusation challenged him with a "if you withdraw your statement, I will chose to ignore that you ever made it" kind of a threat. Even so, respect for the worthy and generally for the judiciary desisted the lot of us attending that session discussing Punjab terrorism from joining issue while being quite clear that the officer had spoken the truth and merely voiced the sentiment foremost on all our minds.

That this was the state of the judiciary perceived so in public minds as a scared lot in the face of real threats to personal life and lives of own family is something rarely disputed. But there were other instances too, not necessarily terrorism related, when judiciary was found lacking - viewed as too timid to take on those powerful, more particularly politicians in power. The might of the legal fraternity is another that has always challenged and defied judicial boldness. Early in my service career I remember a murder accused lawyer who secured bail within 24 hours of arrest thanks to his cronies barging into the magistrate's courtroom determined to get him to sign on the dotted line.

And there are instances when judiciary has exhibited reluctance to take on the lawyers including the instance when members of the bar on strike ransacked the courtrooms in Delhi High Court, abused the justices and the police had to be called in to save the day - strangely with no report on the incident to the New Delhi police then or later, to take cognisance. And there is the case not too long ago of the then UP chief minister Kalyan Singh, when even the apex court after holding him guilty as charged ended up merely sentencing him "till the rising of the court".

Yes. Things are changing today. For the better. It is indeed heartening that the errant criminal politician is being brought to book; even if it is a case of delayed justice! Is it the general environment of public sentiment that is providing fillip to judicial boldness? Perhaps it is!

04.12.2006: Copy Right © Maxwell Pereira: 3725 Sector-23, Gurgaon-122017.tel no: 0124-4111026, 2360568; on website www. maxwellpereira.com ; email: mfjpkamath@gmail.com

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