We don’t hear anything these days about Justice P D Dinakaran or Justice Soumitra Sen or Justice K G Balakrishnan. That is a relief. We do hear about Justice M N Venkatachaliah, Justice J N Verma, Justice K T Thomas, Justice Santosh Hegde and Justice Markandey Katju. That is a reassurance. This is one league where The Good outweighs The Not Good.
In our society, the political class has lost its moral base. So has Parliament. The famed ‘Fourth Estate’ also has lost much of its sheen. The judiciary, despite corruption corroding its ranks, has retained a measure of credibility, thanks to the outstanding contributions of some outstanding judges and lawyers. They are our saving grace.
When Home Minister L K Advani set up the National Commission to Review the Working of the Constitution, allegations rose about the BJP’s intentions. It was the choice of Justice Venkatachaliah as chairman of the commission that muted the criticism. The retired CJI made two points that further emphasised the commission’s credibility. First, he said a parliamentary commission might have been better but “the excellent need not be the enemy of the good”. Second, he said “the commission, given its composition, can never push the agenda of any political party” as was being charged. He was referring to the commission’s members such as P A Sangma, Soli Sorabjee and Abid Hussain, considered close to the Sonia Gandhi family. In the end, the commission’s report (2002) was left to gather dust, but Justice MNV goes on with human rights and anti-corruption campaigns.
When the nation as a whole was shattered by the horror of the Delhi gangrape, Justice Verma Commission’s report on what needed to be done provided a balm to aching hearts. Not only was the report compiled in record time, it was hailed as bold, imaginative and comprehensive. To our misfortune, it fell into the hands of an indecisive government. In its anxiety to please all, including criminal elements in politics, it turned the commission’s proposals into a toothless law. But Justice Verma remains an authoritative voice whose integrity matches his judicial wisdom.
As a member of the three-member bench that sentenced Rajiv Gandhi’s assassins to death in 1991, Justice Thomas had the courage to say that it would be against the spirit of the Constitution to carry out today a sentence that was not carried out for 22 years. He also referred to uninvestigated aspects of the case, such as the funding of the plot. And he made a significant legal point. A 2010 judgment by Justice S B Sinha had ruled, he said, that it was not enough to look at a crime; it was necessary also to take into account the character of the criminals and the circumstances. Thus, do the concepts of propriety and fairness progress from one positive mind to another.
Few retired Supreme Court judges have won public admiration the way Justice Hegde has by bringing to light the depth of corruption in the name of mining. He seems to have upset some politicos again by saying that illegal operations cannot be justified on the ground that such operations provide employment to some people. That, he said, would be like arguing against the arrest of Dawood Ibrahim lest the people working for him lose their jobs. But isn’t that a valid argument and a valid example? What is there for political leaders to get angry about? Unless it is a case of the cap fitting the head.
Justice Katju is in a class by himself. His style is brusque, his words cutting. Sometimes they cut too deeply, leaving bruised images around. But his intentions are honourable and he has the guts to fight for what he feels just. He sticks his neck out, whether it is pardon for Sanjay Dutt or mercy for Zaibunnisa. We should be grateful that he stands tall even in the firing line.
These men may have retired, but their commitment to their calling has not. Their learning, their judicial training and their uncompromising independence remain at the service of the country. They are, in the language of the Gita, the goodness of the good. Our country would be diminished without them.