Criticising Union Law Minister Kiren Rijiju’s comments that a few retired judges are “part of an anti-India gang”, over 300 lawyers from across the country in an open letter on Wednesday demanded that the minister should withdraw the comments.
“We, the undersigned lawyers practising in diverse courts around the nation, deprecate the unwarranted attack launched against retired judges of the Supreme Court of India by Union Law Minister Shri Kiren Rijiju, at a conclave telecast live by a media house. The allegations of anti-nationalism against people who have dedicated their lives to upholding the rule of law, and the naked threat of reprisals against them, marks a new low in the public discourse of our great nation,” the letter reads.
Among the 323 signatories include senior advocates Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Kapil Sibal, Arvind Datar, Iqbal Chagla, Janak Dwarakadas, Sri Hari Aney, Raju Ramachandran, Dushyant Dave, Indira Jaising, Rajshekhar Rao, and Sanjay Singhvi.
In his address at the India Today Conclave in New Delhi on March 18, Rijiju had flagged what he called “a calibrated effort” to undermine the Indian judiciary and turn it against the government. “Recently, there was a seminar on accountability of judges. But somehow the entire seminar became about how the executive is affecting the judiciary. There are a few judges who are activists and are part of an anti-India gang which is trying to turn the judiciary against the government like the Opposition parties,” the minister said. Subsequently, responding to a question on the action taken by the government in this regard, he added, “Agencies will take action as per the provisions of law. Nobody will escape. Those who have worked against the country will have to pay a price for that.”
The letter condemned the remarks by saying that the Law minister “pointedly threatened” the retired Supreme Court judges and he “transgressed all limits of constitutional propriety”. The lawyers went on to remind Rijiju that as an MP, he is sworn to uphold and bear true allegiance to the Constitution and as a Minister of Law and Justice, “it is his duty to protect the judicial system, the judiciary, and the judges, both past and present”.
Referring to PM Modi’s remarks on Network18 in September 2016, and his reply to the Motion of Thanks to President Draupadi Murmu at the Lok Sabha, the letter reiterated that the toughest questions and criticism must be levelled against governments, as that is the only way in which governments are kept alert and responsive. “We unhesitatingly state that critics of the government are every bit as patriotic as those in government; and critics who highlight failures or shortcomings in the administration, or violations of constitutional norms, are exercising an inherent and most basic human rights, and one which his ministry is charged with protecting, freedom of speech and expression.”
The letter went on to add that views expressed by former judges, who are “responsible women and men who have shepherded the courts through thick and thin” do not entitle the Rijiju to make such “outrageous comments”, even if such views may be unpalatable to the ruling party. “These unacceptable threats meted out against retired judges, have the effect of inciting the public against our judges and judicial system and deserve to be strongly condemned,” the letter said.