Updated: April 24, 2021 9:11:26 am
Chief Justice of India S A Bobde retired Friday completing his 17-month tenure where the spotlight was shadowed by the Covid-19 crisis. So his legacy is more of a tenure where what could — and should — have been done seems more full of promise than what was done. On the administrative side, he retires perhaps being the only Chief Justice to have not made a single recommendation of a judge to be appointed to the Supreme Court. In November 2019, when he took over, CJI Bobde inherited almost a full court from his predecessor but the collegium he headed foundered and failed to make any progress since. In his effort to bring consensus, Justice Bobde tried, even in his last weeks in office, calling a collegium meeting even as at least two of his colleagues are learnt to have expressed their reservations. However, despite the collegium conundrum in his tenure, he did spark a serious — and much-needed — conversation on appointing India’s first woman Chief Justice.
From the bench, in the very first month of his tenure, CJI Bobde made determined efforts to resolve the most contested cases on matters of faith. In January last year, he formed a nine-judge Constitution bench to hear the Sabarimala issue, along with other cases of perceived religious discrimination against Muslim and Parsi women. Initially, as the pandemic began, CJI Bobde-led benches made crucial interventions. The court, on its own motion, passed directions to the government to ensure the supply of mid-day meals to children as schools were closed and called for the release of prisoners to avoid overcrowded jails. However, it showed great hesitance later in responding to the unprecedented social and economic distress the pandemic had set off, even as High Courts held governments accountable. Arguably, one of his most consequential rulings came in his last week. The two crucial rulings on appointing ad-hoc judges and setting timelines for the government to act on the recommendations of the SC collegium will have a lasting impact and shape the contours of the relationship between the executive and the judiciary.
As he passes the baton to the 48th Chief Justice of India N V Ramana, CJI Bobde also leaves behind a disquieting perception that the highest court has been, a little too often, ready to give an overweening executive the benefit of doubt. When the pandemic struck and the lockdown distress spread across the country, citizens turned to the SC to intervene and ask questions of the government. As they are doing now while they wait for a bed or an oxygen cylinder. Such fundamental rights also lie at the heart of the key constitutional challenges waiting to be heard: Be it the change in status of Jammu and Kashmir or the electoral bonds case or the Citizenship Amendment Act. There can be no greater marker than this of the apex court as the last bastion of the citizen’s rights and freedoms, especially when framed against the power of the state. Welcome, Chief Justice Ramana.
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