With the four most senior judges of the Supreme Court publicly questioning the functioning of the apex institution, a “shocked” government struck a cautious note, with Minister of State for Law P P Chaudhury saying that the judiciary “will sort out the matter itself” and Attorney General K K Venugopal adding that their press conference “could have been avoided”.
The Opposition, however, described the judges’ allegations as “disturbing” and “extremely serious”, with Congress president Rahul Gandhi saying that the points raised by them were “extremely important”.
Speaking to The Indian Express, a senior government functionary described the situation as “unprecedented” and “without a reference point from the past”.
“We were aware of rumblings among members of the Collegium during the stint of the last two CJIs. But we did not know that things have come to a tipping point… That three more senior judges have also come together, including the one who is in queue to be next chief justice, is a serious development,” said the functionary.
The government, he said, is “consciously keeping aloof” on the two key issues – Memorandum of Procedure (MoP) and allocation of cases – raised by Justices J Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, Kurian Joseph and Madan B Lokur in their letter to Chief Justice of India Dipak Mishra, which they released during the press conference.
“The roster issue is entirely an internal matter of the judiciary. We are watching how it is resolved within the judiciary. But the one thing that need to be kept in mind is that it should not create a precedent that can hobble high courts across the country. If the chief justice’s primacy is diluted in rosters, it will create chaos in high courts,” said the functionary.
Government sources maintained that joining the issue would be “seen as taking sides” and “dangerous” considering that the CJI’s term runs till October, and that Justice Gogoi is expected to take over.
Reacting to the press conference, MoS Chaudhury said: “Our judiciary is reputed all over the world, is independent and will sort out the matter itself.”
Referring to the judges’ comments, Congress chief Gandhi said: “They have mentioned that there is a threat to democracy, I think it needs to be looked into, it needs to be looked into carefully. They have also made a point about Judge Loya’s case. That is also something that needs to be investigated properly. It needs to be looked at from the highest levels of the Supreme Court. This type of thing has never happened before. It is unprecedented. And I think all citizens who love the idea of justice, who believe in the Supreme Court, are looking at this issue.”
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On Friday, a bench of Justices Arun Mishra and M M Shantanagoudar asked the Maharashtra government to file the autopsy report in the death of special CBI judge B H Loya, who was hearing the Sohrabuddin Sheikh encounter case.
Attorney General Venugopal, who met the CJI after the judges’ press conference, said: “What has happened today could have been avoided. The judges will now have to act in statesmanship and ensure that the divisiveness is wholly neutralised, and total harmony and mutual understanding will prevail in future. This is what all of us at the Bar want and I am sure that the judges, including the CJI, will rise to the occasion.”
Reacting to the judges’ remarks, a “deeply anguished” West Bengal Chief Minister and TMC chief Mamata Banerjee said: “Judiciary and media are the pillars of democracy (and) extreme interference of Central Government with Judiciary is dangerous for democracy.”
CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury described the judges’ allegations as “very, very serious charges”.
“These are tantamount to saying there is interference. Important matters being allotted to junior benches ignoring the senior judges. These are serious allegations. This is something that cannot be allowed to continue. Together the entire establishment must ensure that judiciary’s independence is maintained,” Yechury told The Indian Express.
Asked about Justice Gogoi’s mention of the Loya case and whether there was outside interference in allocation of cases, Yechury said: “What they have left unsaid says many things.”