In July, delivering the third Ramnath Goenka Memorial Lecture, Justice Ranjan Gogoi had quoted from an article in The Economist which said that “independent judges and noisy journalists are democracy’s first line of defence”. He agreed with the sentiment, said Justice Gogoi, while suggesting, in today’s context, a telling tweak: “… not only independent judges and noisy journalists but even independent journalists and sometimes noisy judges”. On Tuesday, Chief Justice Gogoi led a miffed court in adjourning in a matter of minutes the hearing on CBI chief Alok Verma’s plea against the government’s decision to divest him of his responsibilities. The court’s ire was apparently provoked by the fact that certain aspects of the CBI case, including DIG M K Sinha’s petition alleging corruption, had appeared in sections of the media. Something about the CJI’s anguish and censure, something about his prioritising of “confidentiality” in a public trial, does not meld well with the spirit of his earlier remarks which recognised the need for journalists to be not just noisy but also independent, and not just independent but also noisy.
To be sure, there can be cases when a judge closes a courtroom in the overriding interest of free and fair justice. But the bar must be set high for imposing restrictions, the standard must be strict and the purpose narrowly tailored. There can be security and other reasons, as in rape cases or those involving juveniles. But it is not clear at all that the present case, born of a crisis of institutions that has played out in full public view — involving the country’s premier investigating agency, the political establishment, and maybe the national security set-up — merits this vehemence about sealed covers from the court. In fact, at a time when it is being called upon to weigh in on serious issues thrown up by the civil war that had evidently broken out at the top of the CBI and questions of due process raised by the government’s midnight intervention in the matter, the court’s concern for “confidentiality” and the “CBI’s dignity” seems more than a little off-key.
Justice Gogoi has eloquently described the judiciary as the “last bastion of hope”, and said that it must be more “on the front foot”, more “pro-active”. Those are wise words, especially in times when it may seem that there is a creeping imbalance of power between institutions because of a political executive armed, after three decades, with a decisive majority. But even as it asserts itself more strongly and fully, the judiciary, being the prime custodian of the constitutional letter and spirit, must also protect and nurture the space of other countervailing institutions. Justice Gogoi’s appearance in the January press conference was a powerful statement on the public’s right to know. In the CBI case, the court has its work cut out. The media doing its job only contributes to, not takes away from, the quality of justice.