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Why their lordships should be mindful of language

January 29, 2009 1:47:07 am

Court-room drama serials lie. Real court-rooms are calm,time-consuming,deliberative,even boring affairs. Passion is replaced by process; drama by documents. There is method to this monotony. Courts are places where facts are ascertained,laws interpreted,and the two put together by dispassionate judges. This requires that judges not prejudge,and not get swayed by either partisan passion or public perception; that the court be a temple of reason,where justice is as much delivery as perception,what you say as important as how you say it.

This is why Supreme Court Judge Arijit Pasayat’s recent comments were so jarring. He is reported to have said: “[A terrorist is not fit to be called human. He’s an animal,so what is required is animal rights.” He was responding in part to the horror of the Mumbai attacks,and to the general fear in India that terrorism is finding new recruits. But the tone of his comments are in sharp contrast to the calmness and lack of emotion that presumably characterise his own in-court judgments. In cases as charged as these,where public emotion is high,it is important that the judiciary not be swayed by the street — and avoid using words that would sway the street,in turn. Judges’ words that empower popular passion encourage those very un-judgelike figures,vigilantes; as well as those who would deny the basis of our legal system by denying the in-human,un-human terrorists representation.

Yes,Justice Pasayat himself would undoubtedly give terror suspects the benefit of due process in court,but his off-court comments go against that crucial bedrock of our jurisprudence,the presumption of innocence. How can guilt be determined even before the trial and conviction? Justice Pasayat may have been right in pointing out that terrorists “destroy the very basis of the citizen in this country.” But language is important; the choice of words distinguishes the rule of law from street anger. Justice Pasayat’s musings,even if off-court,are troubling. Our Supreme Court has for so long stood as a beacon to this country; its judges should take pride in that narrative,not undermine it.

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