In times when all institutions are being asked to prove their innocence, Justice Ranjan Gogoi has framed the challenge for the judiciary in India. In the third Ramnath Goenka Memorial Lecture (read full text here), he plotted it against a very long and broad canvas. He spoke of “Two Indias” that are in conflict today — one “that believes that it is the New Order” and the other “that lives below a ridiculously drawn Poverty Line on daily wages in night shelters with no access to education or healthcare, let alone access to the courts of law”. He spoke of the judiciary’s role in removing the disparity between the two nations in one, the two countries that live together and yet stay apart. To meet the challenge of this new India, or Indias, the judiciary must bring on a long overdue “constitutional moment” of its own — that would help it to become “more pro-active, more on the front foot”. India’s courts will need to quicken the processes of justice for everyone, ensure their efficacy on the ground, and also make them more sensitive and responsive to the poor and the minorities, the marginalised and the unfree.
These are also times when it often seems that the enormity of the task of institutional regeneration is matched only by the dead weight of apathy and unmindfulness of those who inhabit crucial institutions. In that context, Justice Gogoi’s spelling out of the judicial predicament and the way out is as reassuring as it is magisterial. He acknowledged the great “societal trust” that the judiciary is endowed with, and must live up to. He pointed out that to guard its precious credibility and legitimacy, its immense moral leverage, it must remain “uncontaminated” and “independent”, and “fierce”. And for that, if it needs to look within, and even more importantly perhaps, to measure its distance from other institutions, it must do so. At the same time, he seemed to warn against hubris, of the threat to justice that can emanate from righteousness. Justice Gogoi drew a fine distinction between “finality” and “infallibility” — while the judiciary must aspire to the latter, it must make sure to discard the conceits of the former.
Most of all, even as Justice Gogoi spoke of the specific and special challenges faced by the judiciary, he did not view it in isolation. If the courts are set in the teeming landscape of a nation striving to be egalitarian while remaining pluralistic and democratic, justice does not stand alone either. It must be viewed, for Justice Gogoi, as “an amalgam” of ideals like “socialism”, “democracy”, “liberty” and “fraternity”. In this backdrop, his message to his own colleagues, who may nurture a self-image defined by hauteur and distance: To guard the mandate of the institution and the indivisible wholesomeness of its processes, if judges need to be not just “independent”, but, like journalists, also “noisy”, they must not hesitate to be so.