Who do people wronged by the state turn to?

The decision of the former Chief Justice of India to accept the Rajya Sabha nomination has besmirched the judiciary’s reputation

Published: 20th March 2020 04:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 20th March 2020 03:10 AM   |  A+A-

tapas ranjan

Till the end, I kept hoping Justice Ranjan Gogoi would turn down the Rajya Sabha nomination. It just couldn’t happen in India. This was not the US where judges were political appointees. Surely the man who had headed a judiciary renowned the world over for its independence would hesitate, despite his questionable last judgments, to besmirch its reputation? And for what? Can an MP ever get the respect the Chief Justice of India does? Alas! Those who scoffed at my expectations were proved right. Judges, I have always thought, were a class apart, especially those of the higher judiciary. This impression originated in the 1980s, when the phenomenon of Public Interest Litigations (PILs) transformed the Supreme Court. Filed often by human rights organisations that had burst on the scene after the darkness of the Emergency, these PILs received astounding judgments.

Two such judgments remain in mind till today as they forced arrogant rulers to acknowledge the inherent dignity possessed by even the poorest citizen. Responding to a petition filed in 1981 by journalist Olga Tellis and argued by Indira Jaising, against the eviction and deportation of Mumbai’s pavement dwellers, a Bench headed by then CJI Y Chandrachud held that such evictions violated the pavement dwellers’ right to livelihood, which was part of their right to life. The court asserted that principles of natural justice demanded that those evicted need notice of eviction, and they must be given alternate accommodation. In their judgment in response to a petition filed by the People’s Union of Democratic Rights regarding contract workers employed for the 1982 Asian Games, Justices P N Bhagwati and Baharul Islam went further. Courts must change into “courts for the poor”, they said, and PILs were one way of bringing about this change, by ensuring justice to the poorest citizens. Contract workers, they held, were entitled to a minimum wage as a fundamental right, else their labour would be looked upon as forced labour.

The impression of judges created by these judgments was only strengthened by the way Justice B N Srikrishna conducted the proceedings of the Commission of Inquiry into the 92-93 Bombay riots. Nervous riot victims found a judge of the Bombay High Court, seated on his raised platform, not only listening to their halting depositions patiently, but sharply questioning the very policemen who had run amok against them. Justice Srikrishna helped these victims, who had lost all hope of a hearing, regain faith in the concept of justice. And the little that has been done to bring to book the policemen indicted by him is again thanks to the judiciary. Only after CJI A S Anand asked the Maharashtra government what action it had taken against ex-Joint Police Commissioner R D Tyagi, indicted for the murder of nine innocents, did the government file a case of murder against Tyagi and other policemen. The Bombay High Court denied anticipatory bail to Tyagi, and though he was discharged, it was the only riots case where policemen stood in the dock in a criminal court.

Again, it was Justices F I Rebello and  R S Mohite of the Bombay High Court who forced the CBI to investigate the firing inside the Hari Masjid that killed six, describing it as a case that “affects the very soul of India”. When the government rushed to the Supreme Court in appeal, Justices P Sathasivam and A R Dave rejected it, stressing that this was an “extraordinary’’ case. That the CBI exonerated sub-inspector Nikhil Kapse, indicted for having ordered the firing, is a different matter. Mumbai’s riot victims know that if justice has eluded them, it’s because successive governments have used their vast powers to thwart every step of their struggle. The judiciary has always stood up for them against these governments, even describing the police in the Tyagi case as “protectors (who became) predators’’. In the decade after the riots till it was banned, no riot victim from Mumbai joined the ranks of the Students Islamic Movement of India. The March 12, 1993 blasts, whose masterminds outside India exploited the anger of a few Mumbai Muslims, remain the only act of revenge for the riots.

This rock-solid faith in the judiciary was shaken badly when the Supreme Court handed over the disputed land in Ayodhya to those who had supported the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Despite calling the demolition a criminal act, the judges didn’t bother to set a deadline for completion of the case against those accused of the crime. Now, just four months later, the judge who headed that Bench accepts a Rajya Sabha nomination by a government whose guiding lights spearheaded the demolition, a government committed to building a temple on the very site where the Babri Masjid stood.What will the apex court mean now, for those whose lives changed forever in the riots after the demolition? And not just them. Be it Bastar’s Adivasis tormented by the state-backed vigilante force Salwa Judum; those facing a slow death by starvation; or potential targets of mob lynching—the apex court has protected the most vulnerable citizens by holding governments accountable.

Can this image of a judiciary standing tall and imperious against a powerful executive, punctured though it may have been over the last year, hold any longer? And who do people wronged by the state turn to, once they realise the court won’t protect them? Did these thoughts cross the ex-CJI’s mind when he accepted the Rajya Sabha nomination?

Freelance journalist based in Mumbai Email:


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    If Baharul Islam can be an example of a judge known for independence
    1 year ago reply
  • Swaminadhan Krishnamurthy

    Why not the author appoint himself as the Chief Justice of India and deliver judgments as per his urban-naxal thinking? The article displays complete ignorance of law and is trash. I request you to kindly publish the most illuminating and explosive rebuttal by Justice Gogoi published in The Times Of India dated 20.03.2020 to the motivated accusation of the politicians
    1 year ago reply
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