The new chief justice of India, T.S. Thakur, has begun his innings on a note that is at once calming and heartening. Acknowledging the gathering debate on what many see as a climate of growing intolerance in the country, Justice Thakur has pointed to the independence of the judiciary and rule of law as fundamental countervailing forces. “So long as there is rule of law and constitutional rights are guaranteed to everyone, there is nothing to be worried about,” he said. Justice Thakur’s intervention comes as a reminder that even if one institution fails, an equipoise of institutions, an intricate system of checks and balances, is a promise of protection of the fundamental rights of citizens — the perceived encroachment of which lends the intolerance debate its charge. He spoke of the “spirit of tolerance” and “mutual respect” that undergirds coexistence in a society of diverse faiths, but more crucially, the 43rd chief justice of India emphasised the constitutional guarantee not just for citizens, but also to non-citizens, in this country.
Of course, Justice Thakur’s reiteration of the judiciary’s commitment does not settle the intolerance debate. But it fills in a crucial blank. All through the months that this discussion has grown more and more audible — spurred by the murder of rationalists in different parts of the country, the lynching of a man in Dadri by a mob driven by rumours of the storage or consumption of beef, or the loose talk by those in power — a pattern has become visible. The expression of insecurity and concern by ordinary and famous citizens from below has been met with the reticence of the uppermost echelons of the political-governmental leadership. Even the debate inside Parliament has not pierced this silence at the top, with the government mostly countering the Congress, accusing it of the greater intolerance, instead of addressing the people. In this context, Justice Thakur’s bracing words, spoken directly to the citizens, are especially significant.
By coming out in support of the Delhi government’s new plan to allow odd and even number cars to ply on alternate days from January 1, Justice Thakur intervened in another consequential debate. “All is not well with Delhi”, said the CJI as he argued for the need to be open to new solutions for controlling air pollution. He would himself try car-pooling with a colleague who lives near his house, the new chief justice said, sending out an enormously encouraging signal from an institution that has consistently led the way in initiating and implementing environmental reform in the capital.