NEW DELHI -- In an unprecedented event in the history of the Indian judiciary, four judges of the Supreme Court appeared to break rank with the sitting Chief Justice of India, while raising concerns about the "administration" of the apex court and its implication on democracy.
Following their meeting with Chief Justice Dipak Misra on Friday morning, the four top judges of the Supreme Court (Jasti Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, Kurian Joseph and Madan Lokur) said that circumstances had compelled them to convene a press conference and speak directly to the public.
The main issue appeared to be the assignment of cases by the CJI in the Supreme Court.
"It is a discharge of our debt to the nation that has brought us here," they told reporters who were present at Justice Chelameswar's house. "We believe we have discharged our debt to the nation."
This is the first time that Supreme Court judges have made public the problems inside the highest court of the land.
Describing the event today as "extraordinary" in the history of the country, Justice Chelameswar said, "The administration of the Supreme Court is not in order."
"About a couple of months, four of us gave a signed letter to CJI and we wanted a particular thing to be done. The thing was done but it raised further questions about integrity of the institution," said the second most senior judge of the Supreme Court. "We owe a responsibility to the institution and the nation. Our efforts have failed in convincing CJI to take steps to protect the institution."
"The four of us are convinced that unless this institution is preserved and it maintains its equanimity, democracy will not survive in this country," he said.
Justice Chelameswar confirmed the difference of opinion is about the assignment of the case concerning Brijgopal Harkishan Loya, the judge who was hearing the matter of the allegedly staged killing of Sohrabuddin Sheikh.
In 2014, Loya presided over the special court set up by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in Mumbai to decide whether Amit Shah, then Home Minister of Gujarat and now the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), was involved in Sohrabuddin's death,
Loya, however, was transferred in June 2015, shortly after he had admonished Shah for failing to appear in court. Six months on, Loya died and his death was reported as a heart attack.
"We have seen a lot of wise men but we don't want wise men to tell us later after 20 years that the four of us have sold our souls. We construe this as a responsibility to the nation and we have done it," said Justice Chelameswar.
The four judges did not provide details of their grievances during the press conference, but they released the letter which they had sent to Chief Justice Misra.
"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. In the matter of the determination of the roster there are well-settled and time-honoured conventions guiding the Chief Justice, be the conventions dealing with the strength of the bench which is required to deal with a particular case or the composition thereof," the judges wrote in the letter.
"There have been instances where case having far reaching consequences for the Nation and the institution had been assigned by the Chief Justices of the Court selectively to the benches 'of their preference' without any rationale basis for such assignment. This must be guarded against at all costs," they wrote.
In November 2017, Chief Justice Misra took over the Medical College Bribery case from Justice Chelameshwar.
Writing in The Wire at the time, Supreme Court lawyer Prashant Bhushan said, "I believe the order that has been passed really undermines the order of Justice Chelameswar, the number two judge, referring this matter to five senior most judges of the Supreme Court on Monday. The CJ has passed an order saying that this matter will be listed after two weeks before a bench to be nominated by the Chief Justice."
"So, it's really a very very sad day in the history of the Supreme Court – firstly, I have not seen this kind of extraordinary interest being taken by a Chief Justice in a matter which involves him directly, and secondly, because of the kind of unseemly proceedings which took place in the Supreme Court."
Opinion has been divided on the "extraordinary" move by the four Supreme Court judges.
Supreme Court advocate Indira Jaising said, "It was very well done. I think we, the people of India, have a right to know what is going on within the judiciary and I welcome this."
Former Attorney-General of India Soli Sorabjee expressed his disappointment at the development. "I'm very very upset about this. I wish they hadn't done it. It will really have repercussions on the public image of the independence of the judiciary," he told CNN-IBN.
BJP leader and Rajya Sabha lawmaker Subramanian Swamy called for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's intervention. Swamy told ANI, "We can't criticize them, they are men of great integrity and have sacrificed a lot of their legal career, where they could've made money as senior counsels. We must respect them. PM must ensure that the four judges and the CJI, in fact, the whole Supreme Court come to one opinion and proceed further."
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