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Journalism of Courage

Rekha Sharma writes: CJI Ramana’s tenure had some highs, and many belied hopes

Rekha Sharma writes: Given the crisis in the Supreme Court's credibility, he could have been more assertive, forthright and reformist. But, unlike some of his predecessors, N V Ramana leaves the Court better for his tenure.

Chief Justice of India N V Ramana being garlanded during the felicitation programme by the Supreme Court Employees' Welfare Association. (PTI)

Judges must never forget that sooner or later, they too will be judged. Of late, we have witnessed many who failed their oath of office and withered away unwept, unsung and unhonoured. Chief Justice of India N V Ramana, who retires on August 26, took over the reins of the Supreme Court in difficult times when the fundamental rights and civil liberties of the citizens were under threat as never before. Speaking against the government or its policies was treated as equivalent to speaking against the Indian state. People of all hues, including political opponents of the present dispensation, journalists, social activists, artists, and comedians, irrespective of their age or standing in life, were booked under the sedition law or the draconian Unlawful Activities and Prevention Act (UAPA), making it difficult — almost impossible — for them to obtain bail.

Judges at the district level, barring a few brave exceptions, treated the police version as the gospel truth. High courts were loath to interfere. Most people do not have the wherewithal to come to the Supreme Court. However, when journalist Siddique Kappan, who was apprehended on his way to cover the Hathras gangrape, approached the Supreme Court after spending over two years in custody he was sent back by the then Chief Justice. Even more shockingly, this was done with the observation that the court wanted to discourage petitions under Article 32 of the Constitution.

Against this background, Justice Ramana faced the onerous task of restoring the people’s faith in the judiciary. To his credit, by and large, he lived up to what was expected of him — though he could have done much more. Soon after assuming charge, speaking from a public platform, he said that the “judiciary is an independent organ which is answerable to the Constitution alone, and not to any political party”. It was a message to the political class that he was his own man. On another occasion, he said that “people are confident they will get relief from the judiciary — they know when things go wrong the judiciary will stand by them”. This statement held out the hope that the judiciary was there to protect the people. As Justice Ramana retires, it is time to look back, and see if he lived up to his own words. The answer isn’t black or white.

The bench headed by Justice Ramana passed some laudable, and pro-citizen orders — the order in the Pegasus spyware case, for example. A batch of petitions was filed in the Supreme Court alleging that the government had purchased software that was infiltrating malware into the digital devices of its political opponents, some senior state functionaries and others. The issue rocked Parliament, and an entire session was washed out. The government was not prepared to divulge any information, citing national security concerns. The Supreme Court pulled up the government and observed that “the state cannot get a free pass every time the spectre of national security is raised, and that national security cannot be the bugbear that the judiciary shies away from”. It appointed a committee overseen by a former judge of the Supreme Court to look into the matter. The committee has submitted its report.

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Recently, Justice Ramana’s bench also agreed to revisit the British-era sedition law as embodied in Section 124 (A) of the Indian Penal Code. In the meanwhile, the bench urged the Centre and state governments to refrain from lodging FIRs under the said section. Given that the sedition law was being invoked by the police at the drop of a hat, this too was a welcome order. Again, had it not been for the CJI’s bench, Ashish Mishra, son of a Union Minister for State who allegedly mowed down five persons under the wheels of his SUV, would not have been in jail. The same bench also halted the demolition drive in Jahangirpuri, launched by Delhi municipal authorities targeting a particular community, and ordered the authorities to maintain the status quo.

Justice Ramana’s tenure had its disappointments too. The foremost among these was his failure to list cases of immense national and constitutional importance, such as the challenge to the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution, the Citizenship Amendment Act, Electoral Bonds Scheme, etc. By not listing these cases, he followed in the footsteps of his predecessors, giving the impression that he was shying away from hearing these matters. As a result, these cases appear to be dying a slow death.

The Registry of the Supreme Court was under intense attack. It was openly being accused of favouritism. No less a person than a former judge of the apex court lamented the issue. He said that he had seen cases involving big money, and fancy law firms being listed in four weeks, while those involving junior lawyers not being listed even for six months. While citizens were crying for justice, there were forces set to defeat even their access to that right. Given this state of affairs, one expected Justice Ramana to put in place some corrective mechanisms.


While Justice Ramana deserves to be complimented for appointing a large number of judges to various high courts, and nine to the Supreme Court, these appointments have come at a price. The fact that Justice Akil Kureshi was not elevated to the apex court invited several questions. That this happened with Justice Ramana at the helm – who is known for his fairness — is disappointing.

One does wish that he had been more assertive, forthright, and reformist. He would have also added lustre to his tenure had he taken suo motu notice of the release and garlanding of Bilkis Bano’s rapists and the havoc played on the constitutional rights of the people by a recent judgment of the Supreme Court on the Prevention of Money Laundering Act. Yet, all said and done, Justice Ramana did try to change the face of the Supreme Court for the better.

The writer is a former judge of the Delhi High Court

First published on: 26-08-2022 at 11:13 IST
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