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Did The Chief Justice Really Break Down Before The Prime Minister?

27/04/2016 10:44 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Hindustan Times via Getty Images
NEW DELHI, INDIA - APRIL 24: Chief Justice of India TS Thakur speaks during the inauguration of the Joint Conference of Chief Ministers and Chief Justices of High Courts, at Vigyan Bhawan, on April 24, 2016 in New Delhi, India. During the conference, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that he understood the Chief Justice's concern and added that going forward, he hoped that the Government and the Judiciary could work together to find solutions to these issues. Thakur, got emotional while saying that criticism of judiciary for delay is unfair. (Photo by Sushil Kumar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

Did T.S. Thakur, the Chief Justice of India, "break down" before Prime Minister Narendra Modi? Perhaps triggered by a feed from the Press Trust of India, virtually every newspaper reported that the CJI had an emotional breakdown.

The Hindu (often accused of being so conservative that they break down and miss a news break rather than be caught on the wrong foot with their reporting) said the CJI broke down several times. The Huffington Post too carried the PTI story with another breakdown headline. YouTube is filled with videos promising to show the Chief Justice breaking down in front of the Prime Minister.

[T]he imagery of the CJI using his handkerchief to wipe his face and sniffing a little has stuck in the public imagination, bolstered by headlines about a breakdown.

Now, a breakdown as one would normally understand it, involves a loss of mental or physical health, a collapse and more importantly, a loss of the ability to function properly. A simple look at the full video (yes, it takes 15 minutes to see this in full length, if one cares to) would point to no breakdown at all. Yet, the imagery of the Chief Justice using his handkerchief to wipe his face and sniffing a little has stuck in the public imagination, bolstered by headlines about a breakdown.

The Chief Justice of India is a man who presides over what is meant to be the most dispassionate arm of the Indian State. Proclamations of him "breaking down" and that too in the presence of the Prime Minister and various Chief Ministers--all individuals who head the executive division of the Indian State machinery-- portray the judicial mind as weak. What adds insult to injury is that the Chief Justice did not break down.

Emotional breakdowns happen in the courts of public opinion on prime time television and not on the part of those who preside over courts of law...

Was he emotional? Yes. Was it a passionate presentation? Yes. Did he himself point to it being so? Yes. He says at the end of his speech that he felt: "If nothing else has worked until now, an emotional appeal may work." Is he entitled to lead his institution with passion and human emotion? Indeed. Does the very display of any emotion and of the words "emotional appeal" mean he broke down? No. Emotional breakdowns happen in the courts of public opinion on prime time television and not on the part of those who preside over courts of law and justice.

No judge is a robot. Every judge is human and has to bring to bear his capacity as a judge to overcome personal emotions and predilections. The conflict between dispassionate judgement and human emotional predilections is the subject of a large body of literature. Of course, social media and its viral trends did not have time to consider such nuances before concluding that the Chief Justice had a breakdown. It is much like how the US media and the social media decided that Donald Trump had mimicked Indians. Some reports said Trump used a "fake Indian accent" to mock Indian call centre workers. All he quoted from his conversation with a call centre worker was "We are from India" with no accent at all--see this video too for yourself!

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