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WHITE COATS AND OLIVE GREEN

By dismissing meaningless petitions, such as the one regarding nursesí uniforms, the Supreme Court is guarding against judicial activism

There are some professions which have come to be associated with a certain form of dress. It is difficult to imagine a general without his uniform. Sometimes a particular kind of accessory becomes associated with a profession or even an individual. A doctor with a stethoscope has become a stereotype, as has Winston Churchill with his cigar. A uniform often becomes a matter of pride and of identity. This is especially true of those who work in the armed forces. Nurses in the armed forces are pulled in two directions. Their calling demands that they be dressed in spotless white, made famous by Florence Nightingale, but their sense of belonging to the armed forces imposes the typical olive green military uniform on them. The military authorities in India had asked members of the Indian Military Nursing Service to wear a white coat over their military uniform. This would help in identification, it was thought. The nurses did not take kindly to this and petitioned the Supreme Court to do away with the obligatory wearing of the white coat. The Supreme Court dismissed the petitions. The episode appears trivial but has certain important ramifications.

The Supreme Court bench was entirely justified in its dismissal of the petitions. Too much of the valuable time of the apex court is taken up by this kind of meaningless petitions which do not require the courtís intervention at all. It is difficult to imagine why this matter cannot be sorted out by the military establishment itself. Moreover, how is it of any consequence to anybody whether nurses wear a white coat or not. The court has rightly pointed out that nurses will continue to provide the yeoman service that they usually do, irrespective of whether they wear a white coat or not. What is crucial is their sense of duty, not their sense of dress. A person takes to nursing out of a sense of commitment, not as just another way of earning a living. This is why the lady with the lamp has come to epitomize what nurses stand for.

The more significant part of the episode is the courtís dismissal of the petitions. As a trend in India, the judiciary is being drawn into issues which are strictly not the business of the judiciary. There may be valid reasons for this over-activity on the part of the judiciary, but the trend is disturbing. The judiciary has been asked to pass an opinion on Ayodhya, on whether rallies should be held or not, on the height of the Narmada dam and so on. The judiciaryís duty consists of deciding whether a particular act transgresses the law of the land or not. This might sound like an ultra-conservative interpretation of the role of the judiciary, but it is the only way to preserve the balance between the three pillars of democracy ó the legislature, the executive and the judiciary. India has already experienced the dangers inherent in judicial activism. By dismissing meaningless petitions, the Supreme Court is beginning to guard against activism.

Judges are as duty-bound as nurses are. In fact, a greater awareness of duties among people would reduce the need for judicial intervention and make for a more civilized society.

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