The institution responsible for protecting human rights is in search of a boss, which the government may find it difficult to provide by May next year.
The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) was rendered headless after its chairman, Justice S. Rajendra Babu retired on May 31.
Three days later, a former Supreme Court judge, Justice G.P. Mathur, was appointed as its acting chief.
The reason for a stop-gap arrangement: the Protection of Human Rights Act, 1993, specifies that the NHRC chairperson “shall be a person who has been a Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.”
Further, the retired chief justice of India (CJI) should not be more than 70 years of age, according to the Act.
“A person appointed as a member shall hold office for a term of five years from the date on which he enters upon his office or until he attains the age of 70 years, whichever is earlier,” the Act specifies.
Of all the former chief justices of India, who are alive, there are only two who are below 70. The government, however, seems to have decided against both of them.
“Former CJI R.C. Lahoti will turn 70 in November next year, while Justice Y. K. Sabharwal is just 67, but were ruled out,” said a senior government official, who was not willing to be named.
“The allegations of corruption against Justice Sabharwal put him out of the race, while proximity of Justice Lahoti with a particular political party sealed his fate,” the official said.
Both the former judges were unavailable for their comments.
In the given circumstances, the earliest the government can hope to get a regular NHRC chief would be in May next year, when the incumbent CJI K.G. Balakrishnan retires from the Supreme Court.
It would also depend on whether Justice Balakrishnan would be interested in accepting the post, if it would be offered to him.
The other option could be to amend the 1993 Human Rights Act to allow retired Supreme Court judges to head the commission. However, the possibility of such a step being taken appears bleak.
Former CJI, Justice J.S. Verma, who also served as the NHRC chief between 2000 and 2003, expressed surprise at the commission being rendered headless. “Such an important institution in these days, when the human rights occupy a central place in democracies across the world, should not be neglected,” he said.