Solicitor General Tushar Mehta’s grandstanding in the country’s apex court on Thursday crossed several lines. First, the line of propriety. Unlike the Attorney General, the SG is not a constitutional but a statutory authority; he appears on behalf of the government in court. Yet, on a day when the country’s highest court finally, if belatedly, questioned the Centre and the states on the plight of stranded migrant workers, it takes a particularly blind and blatant partisanship, apart from a moral obtuseness, to question, instead, the commitment and credentials of those who are pointing to the unfolding tragedy and calling for urgent redress and accountability. In Mehta’s overwrought rhetoric, they are “prophets of doom” who “only spread negativity, negativity and negativity”, and who are “not showing any courtesy to the nation”. He contrasted them with ministers “working overnight”. Mehta also spoke of “the vulture and a panic-stricken child” — evoking the image captured by South African photojournalist Kevin Carter in Sudan, which, in the early ‘90s, sparked a debate on the journalist’s professional and personal responsibility, the dividing lines that can blur or grey in challenging situations. While that debate is an important one, and it goes on, Mehta’s attempt to hang his own narrow rage on it misfires completely. The fact is that it is the journalists’ focus on the arduous trek of the migrants, as they attempt to go back home, having lost their jobs and with no resources to fall back on, that has made their plight visible and compelled the government, and now the Court, to respond. The fact also is that Mehta had stood in court on March 31 and made the misleading claim that there are no more migrants on the road.
Mehta crossed yet another line when he sought to lecture to the imagined enemies and critics of government, and to the apex court itself, on the meaning of judicial independence — “For them, Lordships are neutral only if you abuse the executive”. Some high courts, he said “are running a parallel government”. The latter was an allusion to the fact that high courts have seemed more outspoken about the humanitarian toll of the pandemic and the response to it. As this newspaper reports today, as many as 19 High Courts across the country have been pushing and prodding officialdom towards redressal and relief for the most vulnerable during the pandemic. Is the second highest law officer in a country that prides itself for the noise of its democracy really suggesting that, in a public health emergency, any criticism of the government, from activists, journalists, Opposition, and courts, is unwelcome? Is he trying to pit the Supreme Court against the high courts?
Of course, there will always be some in the Bar or in the PIL cottage industry who give out integrity certificates to the judiciary and quickly take them back, depending on which way a particular verdict goes. But it’s a bit rich for Mehta, as counsel for the government, to lecture the bench — and the world — on what judicial independence should mean. There is a question, too, for the Supreme Court. The SG’s outburst draws attention to the SC’s silence. It would be unfortunate, indeed, if the SG’s unwise and mean-spirited exuberance is allowed to be seen to, in some way, or in any way, be endorsed by the highest court.
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