The author is former secretary, ministry of information and broadcasting
Examinations and elections have been rigged; medicines and food have been adulterated, share prices manipulated and fixed — you name it, we’ve done it. Except that in all this a few institutions have, by and large, maintained a high standard of probity and dignity. One of these has been the higher judiciary of the country; the high courts and the Supreme Court. Over all these decades they have kept the respect and trust of people; one clear example of this is the fact that whenever there has been an event that has created a controversy or has resulted in some form of disaster, there has always been a cry for a judicial inquiry, for an inquiry by a judge of a high court or the Supreme Court.
The members of these courts have done this at great cost to themselves; they have by and large avoided partying, leading a very hectic social life, and have stayed away from any but the most select of public gatherings. This must have often meant loneliness — most of us want to meet people occasionally, put our feet up and gossip — and yet they have chosen to be more solitary than most, in order to keep the character of the institution of which they have been a part above all controversy and comment.
There have, of course, been the exceptions; now and then one heard of a judge who spent lavishly on furnishings, took an official car thousands of miles to his home town or did something else not becoming his high office. But it’s been only recently that a number of judges have been reported to have not just acted in a manner unbecoming of a high court judge, but have — according to media reports — been involved in questionable acts in concert with the infamous former chairman of the Punjab public service commission, R.P.S. Sidhu. Their acts have been inquired into, it is reported, by the chief justice of the Punjab high court and for a time all cases were withdrawn from them. Now one at least appears to have been transferred to the Guwahati high court.
This episode left one a little dismayed at what appeared to be the dark stain of corrupt practices spreading to the highest court in a state, but worse was to follow. An “unsavoury incident” seems to have occurred involving some members of the Karnataka high court — an incident that seems to have included drinking and consorting with women of rather doubtful character. Again, an inquiry has been conducted, and, again, recommendations that at least one of them be transferred to the Guwahati high court seems to have been made.
One has to sympathize with the bar association of the Guwahati high court, which has protested vehemently against these transfers. That court cannot be treated as a repository for judges whose conduct has been found to be reprehensible while functioning as judges in other high courts. But the issue is not that simple. A judge who has been found to have acted in a manner unbecoming of his high office — and if that has been of a very extreme nature — can be impeached, which is something that has rarely been done. Perhaps only once, and not with any positive results. Alternatively, all judicial work can be withdrawn from him, inducing him consequently to resign. That may or may not work. A third course would be to move him elsewhere, which seems to have been the favoured decision in the incidents relating to the Punjab and Karnataka high courts. All three courses are difficult to implement.
Transfers may well have been a difficult, unavoidable choice, but it is very definitely impractical. A high court, and all the judges sitting in them, are looked up to as the final dispensers of justice, which is the cornerstone of our society. There is a trust that justice will be given by them; and in most cases their decisions are accepted as binding. In some cases there are, of course, appeals to the Supreme Court, but relative to the cases dealt with by the high courts, these are few. Given this, would it be practical to expect that same trust, confidence and respect to extend to the decisions of these judges' Transfers solve no problems, certainly not at this level.
What does' The answer must lie in the judicial system itself. It has been reported that the chief justice of India has formed a committee of three chief justices of high courts to consider this matter and one can only hope that they will not only consider how such unhappy incidents can be effectively handled but also the larger question of how persons ought to be selected to hold these high positions. It is not only a question of an unblemished record, vital though that is; it is equally a question of temperament, of disposition, of personal habits and characteristics. While one is not saying that one has to look for persons who have renounced the pleasures of worldly life, one is saying that there would have to be a consideration of some personal behavioural characteristics — careful, dispassionate consideration.
But having said that, let it also be said that in this matter, caution and care must be of the utmost importance. One says this with respect, because the judiciary is still one of the institutions that has on the whole kept its integrity, its dignity and its impartiality intact. It has sedulously built up its reputation, that very precious thing, difficult to build and keep, and so very easy to lose. To modify Shakespeare a little, this submission to the committee set up by the chief justice would be most apt:
Good name in man and woman,
dear my lords,
Is the immediate jewel of their
Who steals my purse steals trash;
’tis something, nothing,
’Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been
slave to thousands.
But he that filches from me my good
Robs me of that which not enriches
And makes me poor indeed.
We may be surrounded by venal, thieving politicians; by corrupt officers and commercial executives who fiddle with the share market bringing ruin to thousands. But over the last fifty years we have had the good fortune of having had a judicial system which has earned the respect of the world; but more than that, it has earned the trust of the people in the country. That is a trust no politician will ever get, and it is too precious to have even the slightest doubt cast on it.