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The Grand Dame of Tilak Marg turned 60 this month

Judges and lawyers of the Supreme Court have shown that they are human and that they are frail, but they have also displayed courage and wisdom and vision

analysis Updated: Aug 24, 2018 12:12 IST
Supreme Court,Delhi,Tilak Marg
Sixty years ago, the Supreme Court commenced its functioning within this majestic edifice in the first week of August 1958(AFP)

As winter stole upon Delhi in October 1954, an elderly gentleman in an impressive achkan was seen presiding over what appeared to be a formal function. There was applause and tea, both warm without being enthusiastic (as has been the uninterrupted practice at Delhi’s government events), and of course, speeches. The assemblage consisted of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Chief Justice of India Mehr Chand Mahajan and President Rajendra Prasad, laying the foundation stone for what is today India’s most important institution.

Although the Supreme Court was decreed by the Constitution in 1950 itself, it took nearly eight years to find a permanent home. During the interval, it was housed in the regal Hall of Princes in Parliament, where the foundations were laid for some of independent India’s most salutary Constitutional principles. In barely the first two years, that hallowed hall churned out judgments on the scope of our life and liberties in AK Gopalan (1950), on the freedom to associate in VG Row (1952), on equality in Anwar Ali Sarkar (1951), on classification in Kathi Raning Rawat (1952), on community quotas in Champakam Dorairajan (1950), the right to property in Sankari Prasad (1951) and free speech in Romesh Thappar (1950).

It was clear that the early location within the precincts of the legislative wing did not deter their Lordships. Statutes were regularly quashed as being violative of Constitutional freedoms, which eventually led to a desperate Pandit Nehru piloting the First Amendment through the provisional Parliament so that his lawmakers found easy passage for measures on land reform and public order.

It still took till 1956 for a triangular piece of land to be earmarked opposite the Hardinge Bridge for a shift. As was the norm then, the task of constructing new government buildings fell to the Central Public Works Department that saw two Maharashtrians at the helm: first Ganesh Bhikaji Deolalikar, and then Shridhar Krishna Joglekar. Although many of their successors chose to depart from the colonial precedent of the ‘Delhi Order’ set by Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker, these early stewards of the CPWD did not.

It had fallen to Joglekar to oversee the new construction, and he set about it in an Indo-British style. Clearly, Rashtrapati Bhawan was an inspiration, as is evident from the imposing dome with canopied pavilions that were placed on 15-inch supports. As with Vigyan Bhawan, which was constructed contemporaneously along the Mall (Raj Path), the Court’s buildings prominently featured overhanging eaves, and these were emulated when extensions were added to the building in 1979 and 1994.

However, what was unique about the new complex was not evident from the street. The actual layout within the oddly-shaped piece of land was to reflect its purpose: when seen from the sky, the Supreme Court is designed as the scales of justice, comprising a central beam with two pans, placed evenly. Beneath the imposing dome is the court of the Chief Justice of India, which holds portraits of the first and fourth Chief Justices – Harilal Kania and BK Mukherjee. Both of them unfortunately passed away in office, and never got to see the very building that today remembers them. On either side of court one are courts two to five with the remaining nine courtrooms housed in an arc around the back. Either wing arising from the beam contains the offices of the registry, the attorney general, other law officers and the libraries. The two pans provide cramped chamber space to practising advocates.

Sixty years ago, the Supreme Court commenced its functioning within this majestic edifice in the first week of August 1958. In these six decades, it has seen more than 200 judges and several thousands of their judgments. Millions of litigants have knocked on its doors, and billions of pages of documentation have sought to further their causes. But the legacy of this institution is not borne by its numbers, but by the values it has sought to uphold. It has been buffeted by many storms. Judges and lawyers have shown that they are human and that they are frail, but they have also displayed courage, wisdom and vision. Those pillars have marked three score in stony silence, the echoes of many a sterling address or tempered remark lost within its recesses. And yet, this forbidding façade is for many a sign of hope — the death row convict, the evicted tenant, the abused spouse and the bankrupt corporation — they all arrive at those portals with a prayer on their lips.

The empress of Tilak Marg is thus much like a fine legal argument. Hewn from rock and shaped to perfection with the sweat of the builder’s brow, she aligns herself in harmony with her task. As a new day dawns, she is set.

It is 10:30 am. Time for court.

Gopal Sankaranarayanan is advocate, Supreme Court of India

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Aug 24, 2018 12:11 IST