The following question is from Reading Comprehension
Hard cases, it is said, make bad law. The adage is widely considered true for the Supreme Court of India which held in the height of the Emergency, in ADM Jabalpur v. Shiv Kant Shukla that detenus under the Maintenance of Internal Security Act (MISA) could not approach the judiciary if their fundamental rights were violated. Not only was the law laid down unconscionable, but it also smacked of a Court more “executive-minded than the executive”, complicit in its own independence being shattered by an all-powerful government. So deep has been the impact of this judgment that the Supreme Court’s current activist avatar is widely viewed as having its genesis in a continuing need to atone. Expressions of such atonement have created another Court made to measure — this time not to the measure of the government but rather the aggrandised self-image of some of its judges.
Let us look back to the ADM Jabalpur case. As a court of law, the Supreme Court was called upon in the case to balance the interest of public order in an Emergency with the right to life and personal liberty guaranteed to every person. Nine High Courts called upon to perform the same function had found a nuanced answer by which they had held that the right to life cannot be absolutely subservient to public order merely because the government declared so — the legality of detentions could be judicially reviewed, though the intention of the government would not be second-guessed by the Court. This was a delicate balance. The Supreme Court however reversed this view and made the right to life and personal liberty literally a bounty of the government. Given that the consequences of their error were entirely to the government’s advantage, it was widely viewed as the death of an independent judiciary. The excessively deferential, almost apologetic language used by the judges confirmed this impression.
Today, however, while public interest litigation has restored the independent image of the Supreme Court, it has achieved this at the cost of quality, discipline and the constitutional role judges are expected to perform. The Court monitors criminal trials, protects the environment, regulates political advertising, lays down norms for sexual harassment in the workplace, sets guidelines for adoption, supervises police reform among a range of other tasks of government. That all these tasks are crucial but tardily undertaken by government can scarcely be questioned. But for an unelected and largely unaccountable institution such as the Supreme Court to be at the forefront of matters relating to governance is equally dangerous — the choice of issues it takes up is arbitrary, their remit is not legal, their results often counterproductive, requiring a degree of technical competence and institutional capacity in ensuring compliance that the Court simply does not possess. This sets an unhealthy precedent for other courts and tribunals in the country, particularly the latter whose chairpersons are usually retired Supreme Court Justices. To take a particularly egregious example, the National Green Tribunal has banned diesel vehicles more than 10 years old in Delhi and if reports are to be believed, it is considering imposing a congestion charge for cars as well. That neither of these is judicial functions and are being unjustly being usurped by a tribunal that has far exceeded its mandate, is evidence of the chain reaction that the Supreme Court’s activist avatar has set off across the judicial spectrum.
Finally, the Court’s activism adds to a massive backlog of regular cases that makes the Indian justice delivery mechanism, slow, unreliable and inefficient for the ordinary litigant. As on March 1, 2015, there were over 61,000 cases pending in the Supreme Court alone. It might be worthwhile for the Court to set its own house in order, concomitantly with telling other wings of government how to do so.
As we mark 40 years of the Emergency and the darkest period in the Supreme Court’s history, it might be time to not single-mindedly harp on the significance of an independent judiciary. Judicial independence is and must remain a cherished virtue. However, it would be blinkered to not confront newer challenges that damage the credibility of our independent judiciary today — unpardonable delays and overweening judges taking on the mantle of the national government by proxy. The Supreme Court 40 years on is a different institution — it must be cognizant of its history but not at the cost of being blind to its present.
Which of the following is a suitable title for the passage?