NINE MONTHS after he retired from the Supreme Court, Justice Arun Mishra took charge Wednesday as chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).
Justice Mishra became a judge of the apex court in 2014 after having served as Chief Justice of the Rajasthan and Calcutta high courts. He retired from the Supreme Court on September 2, 2020.
His appointment for a three-year term at the NHRC drew a sharp reaction from Leader of Opposition in Rajya Sabha, Mallikarjun Kharge, who said the Government’s appointments to the Commission “smack of partisanship & quid pro quo”. “I strongly condemn this,” he posted on Twitter.\
In a note attached to the tweet, Kharge, who is part of the high-powered selection committee, said he had sought the appointment of a person belonging to Scheduled Caste or Scheduled Tribe as chairperson or even as a member of NHRC in light of the “rise in cases of atrocities” against these communities.
“Since the Committee did not accept any of my proposals, I express my disagreement with the recommendations made by the Committee, in regard to appointments to the posts of Chairperson and Members of NHRC,” Kharge wrote.
Sources said that Kharge had written to the Prime Minister before the panel met on May 31. “I also pointed out that the appointment of chairperson or member of NHRC cannot be ignored simply on the pretext that there is no specific provision to this effect,” Kharge said, referring to rules that do not have specific requirements to appoint an SC/ST as NHRC members.
However, sources said, the Government’s view was that the NHRC already had members from the National Commission for Scheduled Castes as ex-officio members.
The post of NHRC chairperson had been vacant since former Chief Justice of India H L Dattu retired in December last year. In March, former Supreme Court judge Justice Prafulla Pant, who has been an NHRC member, raised the issue of vacant posts in the National Commission and State Commissions, terming it a “matter of concern”. Subsequently, Pant was appointed the acting chairperson of NHRC.
In 2019, the Parliament had amended the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993 to revise the eligibility criteria for the post of chairperson of NHRC and state human rights commissions. While only a retired Chief Justice of India could be appointed as NHRC chairperson earlier, the amended law allowed a judge of the Supreme Court to be considered for the position.
Incidentally, in February 2020, months before his retirement, Justice Mishra had raised eyebrows by praising Prime Minister Narendra Modi at an international judiciary conference. “We thank the versatile genius, who thinks globally and acts locally, Shri Narendra Modi, for providing us inspiring thoughts which would act as a catalyst in initiating the deliberations, and setting the agenda for the Conference,” he had said.
The remarks were condemned by the Supreme Court Bar Association, which said in a statement that they reflected “poorly on the independence of the judiciary”.
Justice Mishra was a part of the Supreme Court in January 2018, when four senior judges at the time — Justices Ranjan Gogoi, Madan B Lokur, J Chelameswar and Kurien Joseph — held a press conference to question the allocation of cases by the then Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra.
At the Supreme Court, Justice Mishra heard several important cases, including the Sahara-Birla diaries; the Haren Pandya murder; the medical college bribery case; amendments to Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act; and, the matter related to the turf war that broke out between two senior officers over the CBI leadership.
In 2019, Justice Mishra headed a five-judge Supreme Court Constitution bench on matters relating to the interpretation of a key section of the Land Acquisition Act, 2013, which went on to confirm a ruling by a bench he was earlier a part of.
Two verdicts of which Justice Mishra was a part invited protests for their impassivity towards marginalised sections and were later stayed.
In February 2019, a bench led by Justice Mishra directed the eviction of forest dwellers and tribals whose claims over land were rejected under the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights Act), 2006. And, in his last judgment as Supreme Court judge, he ordered the clearance within a month of slums along 140 km of Delhi’s railway network.