In defence of freedom
At a time when there have been questions about both the quality of Indian democracy, particularly its record on civil liberties, as well as the independence of the Indian judiciary, a sacrosanct pillar of the Constitution, Chief Justice of India (CJI), NV Ramana delivered the PR Desai Memorial Lecture on Wednesday. In his speech, the CJI issued a reminder about the meaning of democracy, elaborated on the principles of rule of law, and underlined the need for the judiciary to remain independent of all external pressures. His interventions, each of which go to the heart of contemporary political debates, are welcome.
CJI Ramana spoke about an expansive notion of democracy that went beyond elections. By highlighting the centrality of everyday political discourse, both “reasoned and reasonable”, criticisms, and protests, to the democratic process, he sent out a message to those (spanning across the political divide) who have often sought to trample dissent or frowned upon public opposition to policies. This is especially important since the political executive has shown a tendency to impose excessive control on independent institutions and civil society.
The CJI also spoke of how the judiciary’s role included ensuring that laws are in conformity with the Constitution and keeping a check on “governmental power and action”. And for this, it was crucial that the judiciary remained independent of any control, “directly or indirectly”, by the legislature and the executive, or the rule of law would become “illusory”. At a time when there have been controversies around courts, either because judicial decisions have been aligned with executive preferences or because honourable judges haven’t shown due restraint in taking up post-retirement positions, this is an important reminder of the value of institutional duties and checks and balances. The Supreme Court can walk the talk by promptly taking up pending cases, including the ones on electoral bonds, constitutionality of decisions such as the effective abrogation of Article 370, the division of Jammu and Kashmir, and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, and offering its views on the perceived use of anti-terror laws to crack down on free speech. And finally, CJI Ramana, while emphasising that judges shouldn’t live in ivory towers, pointed to the role of social media platforms in seeking to influence judicial outcomes and their failure to distinguish between right and wrong, real and fake, good and bad. This, too, is important, for the law, and only the law, must be the guiding factor in all judicial decisions.