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THE EYES OF THE BEHOLDER

- The judiciary’s prestige is guaranteed, it has to earn respect

I wrote in these columns last month on the holy and the sacred. Prompted by the observations of the judge, Markandey Katju, about some fellow judges, I write today on prestige and respect.

Judges and prestige travel together, with ease. Respect is a more demanding fellow journeyer.

The very moment that a judge enters his or her office under an oath, prestige enters his or her being. It precedes the judge ante-median and dutifully follows, post.

But respect hovers, like a truant halo, now there and now gone.

Prestige is almost part of the terms of engagement, an accoutrement. It is brassy, like a mace or the emblazoned brooch sewn on a liveried sash. It can be shined. Prestige is, in fact, a perquisite.

Respect is ‘Nota’, none of the above. Respect does not in fact ‘lie’ in the recipient. It resides in the giver. It is trained at the receiver, invisibly, inaudibly.

Prestige superannuates, respect knows no retirement. Prestige is enjoyed. Respect is earned.

From whom?

Quite simply, from the beholder’s saying: “Here is one I respect.”

I can think of judges, not from the distant past but from our times, the very times Katju is writing about, for whom I have felt exactly that. Three of them happen to be women — Leila Seth, Ruma Pal and Prabha Sridevan, with others in that large circle including V.R. Krishna Iyer, Chittatosh Mukherjee, and J.S. Verma, who passed away just a few months ago.

‘We the people’, have no direct role in the judiciary’s composition. Nor are we particularly interested in acquiring such a role. But we do want to be assured that this process is fair so that we can have respect for it. And that — respect for the judiciary — we want to have.

Respect is retractable. It is extended on trust, and maintained in verification. When it comes to elective offices, the system of periodic elections serves as an instrument of respect-revalidation or respect-retraction, faith-reiteration or faith-reversal, trust-reaffirmation or trust-revocation.

But when it comes to institutions like the judiciary, respect for it as an institution or for individual incumbents in judicial office is unaccompanied by the dynamics of periodic re-affirmation or of retraction except when, eroded by palpable misconduct, respect for the institution is sought to be vouchsafed by off-loading the errant individual through the constitutionally-devised processes of impeachment.

The effect of this cocooning or cloistering is that while the prestige of judges has remained constant, respect for them (including those on judicial and other commissions) has fluctuated. This is unfortunate and I believe this can change if the concern within our courts shifts from questions pertaining to their prestige to questions pertaining to the respect they command.

It is certainly the responsibility of the government to vouchsafe the prestige of judges but vouchsafing the respect that the judiciary commands is its own responsibility, indeed, its own exclusive responsibility.

Prestige is about perquisites and privileges. Respect is about trust. Prestige is self-obsessed, respect un-self conscious.

Prestige comes in the shape of a red-lamp atop the car, respect comes from that car not cutting the red traffic light.

People move to a side, often pasting themselves against a wall, unsmiling, to let Prestige pass. People greet, with or without a bow, for Respect.

Higher than esteem, beyond regard and ahead of admiration, respect is not the subject of politeness, civility or courtesy. In the phrase ‘paying one’s respects’, the concept has got routinized into a form of idle ceremony. But where it is earned and not extended, where it is offered from one’s instinctive appreciation and not from calculation or analysis, where it is given without expectation or conditionalities, it is something sublime.

Prestige is twinned to authority. Respect to trust.

The judges, M.C. Chagla and S.T. Desai inspired trust. Why?

Because while adhering to the law, they appealed to values.

Some senior readers of this column will remember that in 1957, Tata Iron & Steel Co. wanted to change their memoranda of association in order to allow the company to make contributions to political parties. The matter went to court. The judges, Chagla and Desai, ruled in the Bombay High Court allowing the change but with the weight of moral obiter. They said: “The very basis of democracy is the voter and when in India we are dealing with adult suffrage it is even more important than elsewhere that not only the integrity of the representative who is ultimately elected to Parliament is safeguarded, but that the integrity of the voter is also safeguarded, and it may be said that it is difficult to accept the position that the integrity of the voter and of the representative is safeguarded if large industrial concerns are permitted to contribute to political funds to bring about a particular result… (W)e think it our duty to draw the attention of Parliament to the great danger inherent in permitting companies to make contributions to the funds of political parties. It is a danger which may grow apace and which may ultimately overwhelm and even throttle democracy in this country. Therefore, it is desirable for Parliament to consider under what circumstances and under what limitations companies should be permitted to make these contributions.”

Twelve years after those bitter truths were uttered, in 1969, a ban did get to be imposed on corporate contributions to election funds. But not even seven years had elapsed after that ban when re-thinking started. A bill was introduced in Parliament in 1976 seeking to give companies the power to donate up to 5 per cent of their profits to political parties. Nine years thereafter, Section 293A came to be recast altogether by the amendment act of 1985. And how was the bill’s object described? The words used were: “With a view to permitting the Corporate Sector to play a legitimate role within the defined norms in the functioning of our democracy, it is proposed to substitute a new section for section 293A of the Companies Act.”

With the vice-like grip of money throttling democracy, we know why the judges, Chagla and Desai, commanded the respect and trust they did.

The one flawless thing in the world, I believe, is forgiveness. The only thing priceless, I believe, is trust. And trust is at the core of respect. It is either there, or not there. It cannot be insinuated into anyone or anything. It has, simply, to be.

I would like to think of our judiciary with respect, bearing in mind men of the intellectual courage of Chagla and Desai, not of the examples Katju has spoken of.

But to the extent that he has reminded us of the scope for respect in the judiciary, albeit by showing contrary examples, he has done the nation a service.