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Executive Vs. Judiciary: A Storm In Bombay High Court

When lawyers took a stand.

30/08/2017 8:35 AM IST | Updated 30/08/2017 8:35 AM IST
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On a rain-lashed Monday afternoon, a group of about 50 lawyers filed into the Bombay Bar Association's hallowed headquarters at room no. 57 of the High Court building, all grim faces and dripping coats. Room no. 57 has an absurdly high ceiling, and requires several fans hung down by 35-foot long rods to properly cool it. They look like suspended raindrops. Together with the swirling monsoon outside, the fans perfectly supplemented the stormy meeting that ensued. The President of the Association, Milind Sathe, did not need to tell everyone why they had braved the unhinged rainfall to gather there, but he did, starting off the meeting by emotionlessly reading out a precis of the previous few days' events.

The [Bar] members unanimously decided that nothing less than a condemnation of the acts of the Chief Justice and the Advocate General would suffice. Some wanted them to resign.

It had all started with a petition filed by the Awaaz Foundation to enforce checks on noise pollution, which happened to be heard by the fearless and upright Justice Oka. After hearing the matter for some time on 23rd August, Justice Oka informed the Advocate General, representing the state government, that the bench was prima facie against the state on this one. The case was adjourned to the subsequent morning for the Advocate General to make further arguments. Desperate to ensure that court-imposed silent zones wouldn't hamper the ongoing Ganpati celebrations, on the next day the State presented Justice Oka not with arguments but with an ultimatum: it had made an application to Chief Justice Manjula Chellur, seeking that the case should be transferred from Justice Oka's bench. The reason given was his "bias" against the state on the issue involved. More's the pity. In an astonishing development, the Chief Justice actually agreed to transfer the case to a different bench. After three days of non-stop fury from the lawyers at the Bar, on the 27th the Chief Justice rescinded her earlier order and agreed to let Justice Oka hear the case. Too little too late. The Bar had decided to call an Extraordinary General Meeting to discuss the sorry turn of events.

With this narration, Sathe sat down, and was succeeded by a series of impassioned speakers, mainly among those who could lay claim to being leaders of the Bar. With each swipe at the government, the Chief Justice and the Advocate General, the heaving crowd at the back (the ones without seats, mainly the younger lot) clapped their approval. In an electric atmosphere that resembled the rowdy Athenian assemblies of ancient times, the members unanimously decided that nothing less than a condemnation of the acts of the Chief Justice and the Advocate General would suffice. Some wanted them to resign. The state government was (again unanimously) accused of "attacking the independence of the judiciary." These formed the most strongly-worded resolutions the Bombay Bar has passed since four judges were called upon to step down for losing its confidence.

The state government was (again unanimously) accused of "attacking the independence of the judiciary."

In his history of that court published over 50 years ago, the diligent PB Vachha, foremost chronicler of the high court's colonial avatar, dedicated an entire chapter to conflicts between the executive and the judiciary. "The most noteworthy feature of the history of law courts in Bombay," Vachha observed, "is the tale of continual clashes between the judges and the government". Had he been alive today, Vachha might have relished memorialising the events of the past few days.

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