There has been a voluble demand for an inquiry to be conducted into allegations of misconduct by former Chief Justice of India Y.K. Sabharwal. The fact that the controversy is being played out in the media, with no sign of any action being considered to verify or disprove the charges, is cause for disquiet, especially since there is no codified procedure to take action against an allegedly tainted retired judge. The allegations against Mr Sabharwal — that his two sons benefited from decisions that he had made during his tenure in the Supreme Court, and from his position as CJI — are serious. If proven true, they will cause incalculable harm by putting the integrity of the members of the higher judiciary in doubt. But unless an honest probe is undertaken, one will be either besmirching an innocent man’s reputation or sweeping possible guilt in the higher judiciary under the proverbial carpet.
Every public body is bound to be accountable for its actions. And the judiciary, being the arbiter of justice, is expected to set itself the highest standards of conduct. For too long, however, it has insulated itself from being subjected to any scrutiny. For one, a Supreme Court decision has made criminal investigation against a sitting High Court or Supreme Court judge impossible without the CJI’s permission, which is rarely sought or forthcoming. For another, impeachment proceedings have already been found to be cumbersome and unworkable, requiring 100 MPs to be signatories to the motion. Also, fear of being in contempt of court, despite the recently-added provision of being able to use truth as a defence, has largely kept the media from bringing judicial scandals into public notice. Finally, the judiciary has always held that its autonomy would be compromised if ‘outsiders’ were allowed to conduct inquiries against its members. An in-house probe by judges on the actions of colleagues with whom they have worked closely hardly inspires confidence.
Parliament must not dither in creating an impartial body that will look into all complaints against judges, sitting or retired. Mr Sabharwal has had the privilege of having held the highest judicial position in the country. Ironically perhaps, the process of restoring confidence in the judiciary must begin with him.