An innocuous query asking if judges declared assets to their chief justices has resulted in a landmark judgment empowering millions of Indians.
Delhi High Court’s verdict declaring that the office of the CJI falls under the RTI Act is historic for several reasons.
First, it heralds an era of transparency and accountability in the judiciary, which has come under attack from politicians, media and civil society for its refusal to adhere to democratic norms.
Second, it has declared RTI a fundamental right under Articles 14 (Right to Equality), 19(1)(a) (Right to Freedom of Speech and Expression) and 21 (Right to Life) of the Constitution. It means RTI is no more a mere statutory right.
Third, it empowers the Indian against an organ of the State that does not want to practice what it preaches.
It is indeed an irony that the Supreme Court, which in 2003 made it mandatory for candidates to declare their criminal antecedents, wealth and educational qualification, etc, resisted the RTI law in the name of judicial independence.
One can only agree with the high court’s view that “judicial independence is not a judge’s personal privilege but a responsibility cast upon him”.
The preamble to the Act says it is passed because “democracy requires an informed citizenry and transparency of information...and to contain corruption and hold governments and their instrumentalities accountable to the governed”.
Democracy functions though institutions and a mechanism of institutional checks and balances. The HC, which hailed the RTI law as “the most significant event of Indian Democracy”, will actually strengthen this mechanism.
Under the Constitution, the judiciary is entrusted with the responsibility of protecting citizens’ rights against legislative misadventures and executive excesses. It was strange to see the Supreme Court taking a narrow view of a law aimed at empowering the common man.
Senior advocate Rajiv Dhavan said: “The RTI Act is crystal clear. Until the Act is amended there should be no question of SC taking the matter further. It is not a question of winning of losing a case. It is a question of the esteem in which rule of law is held in this country. The SC should accept the decision gracefully. It should not sit in judgment for itself.”
Now, the million-dollar question is whether the Supreme Court will challenge this verdict. It can, but only at the cost of its own credibility.