Tag Archives: Constitution of India

Where the text trumps the context

The tension between a regulator and the courts in interpreting the real meaning and the “facial” meaning of a ruling is not going away anytime soon

By Somasekhar Sundaresan

The United States (US) Supreme Court’s ruling upholding the travel ban imposed by President Donald Trump brings to the fore a core question that often comes up in regulatory proceedings even in India. The question is whether a judge must look only at the text of an instrument or an order under challenge, ignoring all other attendant circumstances.

The US Supreme Court ruling is a watershed and will be discussed for decades. At the heart of the dispute was whether Trump aimed the travel ban at Muslims and if he did, would it violate the US Constitution. In a nutshell, here is what the court considered and ruled.

By a wafer-thin majority of 5:4, the majority of five judges of the US Supreme Court have literally written counters to the views expressed by the remaining four judges to hold that Trump’s face ban did not “facially” name Muslims and should therefore not be seen as aimed at Muslims. Trump ran an election campaign publishing a document called “Statement on Preventing Muslim Immigration”, which called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States”. He spoke about how “Islam hates us” and that the US has “problems with Muslims coming into the country”. After he was elected, responding to whether he would proceed with “banning Muslim immigration” he said: “You know my plans. All along, I’ve been proven to be right.” When Trump first announced a ban on persons from specific Islamic societies entering the US, his campaign advisors used the term “Muslim ban” when explaining it.

Trump withdrew this ban and made changes to it. To the list was added a non-Muslim society and some exceptions and waiver proposals whereby the US would give waivers on a case-to-case basis. This is what came up for review by the US Supreme Court. Ruling that the travel ban proclamation was “facially neutral towards religion” and that the references to “extrinsic statements many of which were made before the President took the oath of office”, the five judges took the view that they would not hold the travel ban to be motivated by reference to one particular religion.

While the minority of four judges who disagreed have argued extensively with factual evidence to point out how specious the seemingly neutral language in the Trump ban proclamation was, the majority of five judges have ruled that it would not be swayed by the external evidence since they were not to sit in judgement over whether to denounce those statements but were to sit in judgement on whether on the face of it the President had the power to issue such a proclamation and whether it entailed reasonable measures for making it work. The majority of five found the waiver programme to be adequate although the minority of four dealt with how the waiver programme was a façade and that neither the ban proclamation nor the waiver was being put to work as they claimed to work.

Often, in the regulatory environment in India, instruments are written that seem to be drafted in a generic fashion but are effectively instruments that operate as an order that would clearly apply only to specific persons. One such example was a “circular” from the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi), directing that inter-depository transfers should be effected free of cost. One of the depositories challenged it as an “order” (every order is appealable). The Securities Appellate Tribunal (SAT) held that it was indeed an order that was amenable to appeal and disagreed that the order, termed a circular, deserved to be set aside. The Supreme Court of India ruled that any circular that is “referable” to the legislation-making provisions of the Sebi Act would not be an order and cannot be appealed against — the only challenge then would be in a writ petition in the constitutional courts and not by way of an appeal in the SAT.

The SAT is often faced with situations where it has to take this call —whether an instrument is referable to law-making powers or executive powers. “Extrinsic” evidence such as the one that came up with the Trump ban too plays a role. Regulators often speak quite clearly about what they plan to do with the measures they introduce, and one would need to necessarily see the instruments issued, in context. Regulatory design in India, merging legislative and executive functions in the same authority, brings the position much closer to the Trump travel ban proposition. It is another matter that the generic term used by the regulators would read in motherhood terms such as “investor interest”, “policyholder interests” and “depositors’ interests”.

The tension between the regulator and the courts in interpreting the real meaning and the “facial” meaning will remain a long-standing one. It is somewhat like the proverbial priest answering a kid’s question about smoking and praying. When asked if one may smoke while praying, the answer is “no” while whether one may pray while smoking would beget the answer “yes”. One can often be trumped in the process.

This column was published under the head Without Contempt in editions of the Business Standard dated July 5, 2018

Much to thank Kejriwal and Baijal for

When a vague and open veto power resides with an external authority, the effectiveness of its usage lies in the absence of confrontation. Only a litigious battle can put these arrangements to rest

By Somasekhar Sundaresan

The stand-off between the elected Delhi government and the unelected bureaucrat Lt Governor appointed by the Union government has seen a ceasefire for now. There are lessons to be learnt from this for the regulatory system that governs almost all the business and the economic activities in the country — ranging from financial markets to telecommunications to food.

The similarities are stark. The elected Delhi government owes its existence to the Constitution of India that was specifically amended to create the space it occupies. Regulators such as the Securities and Exchange Board of India (Sebi), the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority of India (IRDAI) and the like owe their existence to special Acts of Parliament. The Lt Governor of Delhi has the functional power to formally take actions that the Delhi government decides upon (much like how it is the President of India who signs a bill passed by Parliament into law by granting his assent). Every legislation that creates a regulatory authority has a provision that stipulates that the Union government has the power to issue directions on matters of policy to the regulatory authority, and the decision of the Union government is final on what constitutes a policy matter.

Now, picture Sebi or the IRDAI or for that matter the pension fund regulator making regulations to regulate a certain activity — say insider trading. Picture the Union government stepping in to say that since it has the power to issue directions of policy, it would direct that the regulations should not be brought into effect until the Union government is satisfied that the outcome it desires has been fully reflected, and that it would take time to decide on what is the outcome that it desires. It is not that such intervention does not potentially happen. Perhaps nothing would pass through the regulatory authority’s board of directors unless the government is satisfied with what is ultimately passed. But assuming it does not work this way, imagine the regulatory authority’s board of directors taking its role seriously and doing its statutory bidding, only to be told that it should not be doing what it wants to do.

That is the institutional checks-and-balances design that is in play across the nation. And it is very easy to subvert that process if the oversight measures meant for usage in exceptional circumstances, become the norm. The exception would then become the rule. In other words, what happened in Delhi in the stand-off between the Lt Governor and the state government is a stand-off that indeed can happen across the board, across the society and across the nation.

The position with judicial appointments is not dissimilar at all. The appointing authority is the government — the warrant appointing a high court judge or a Supreme Court judge is executed and signed by the President of India. After the collegium system came into existence (let’s leave out why and how it did, out of the discussion for now) it is the judges’ collegium that would pick the candidates for appointment and the President executes the warrant of appointment.

When a vague power to issue policy directions is in place, the takeover of an institution is complete. It can never stand to reason to ask the question: “Show me one instance where such power is used.” That such power is effectively put to use would in fact be evidenced by the absence of a public stand-off of the nature that the Republic just witnessed in New Delhi. The power to sack a duly elected state government under Article 356 of the Constitution has been the subject of intense jurisprudence that has evolved over the years. As has been the case with the power of the President to second-guess the actions of the council of ministers. Case law has led to a reasonable and sane working of constitutional restraint being read into the checks and balances. Presidents have sent back proposals to sack elected state governments to the Union government, but if reiterated by the elected Union government, Presidents have been told by case law, that they have to sign it.

Unless there is confrontation, case law will not emerge to breathe life into written words in the law. A confrontation between the Union government and a regulator came to the fore when the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India had running battles with the Union government. More recently, two regulators fought but the then finance minister first asked them to resolve their battle in a court of law instead of using the power to issue directions – later their respective laws were amended on the subject matter of the dispute.

When a vague and open veto power resides with an external authority, the effectiveness of its usage lies in the absence of confrontation. Since an external agent can officially ask you to bend, you would crawl beforehand, instead of risking being asked to bend. Only a litigious battle can put these arrangements to rest by bringing in a reasonable framework in which the conflicts can be avoided with institutional dignity intact for both agencies. There is much to thank Kejriwal and Baijal for.

This post was published as my column titled Without Contempt published in the editions of Business Standard dated June 21, 2018

Surgical strike at a chronic ailment

Our regulators have to go beyond procedural reform and gaming of processes to improve rankings on Ease of Doing Business

By Somasekhar Sundaresan

It was a judgement waiting to be written. The conduct of the government in litigating on issues long-decided by courts and clogging the courts, even while mouthing platitudes about how the government must not indulge in frivolous litigation, has been called out by the Supreme Court in a crisp and precise judgement.

The seven-page order, imposing costs of Rs 100,000 on the government (yet again), is a must-read not only for every government department at the Centre and the states, but more importantly for every regulator that doubles up as civil courts and generates litigation by writing orders, even on closed issues, merely because the parties before it are different. Remarkably, in the order (passed in a government service litigation — titled Union of India & Others vs Pirthvi Singh & Others) the Supreme Court has pressed the right button by observing that India suffers badly in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings primarily because of such conduct by government agencies.

A quick look at the facts would show what is regular and well-expected from the government, state agencies and regulators. The Supreme Court came to dismiss a bunch of appeals filed by the Union of India in December 2017. The very same issues came up again in a new appeal by the Union of India in 2018, and that appeal was dismissed in March 2018. When dismissing this appeal, the Supreme Court noted that the appeal in question was unnecessary and vexatious since many cases had already been decided in the same manner. To ensure this is taken seriously, costs of Rs 100,000 were imposed on the Central government.

The appeal now dealt with by the Supreme Court had agitated the same issue and was filed in March 2018. The government took no steps to withdraw the appeal despite the earlier misadventure having invited strictures and costs.

The judgement notes: “The Union of India must appreciate that by pursuing frivolous or infructuous cases, it is adding to the burden of this Court and collaterally harming other litigants by delaying hearing of their cases through the sheer volume of numbers. If the Union of India cares little for the justice delivery system, it should at least display some concern for litigants, many of whom have to spend a small fortune in litigating in the Supreme Court.”

The judgement quotes from a 2010 document titled, “National Litigation Policy” as part of a pompously-named “National Legal Mission to Reduce Average Pendency Time from 15 Years to 3 Years”. This document, made under the UPA government has been adopted by the current NDA government with a newer version in 2015, followed by an “Action Plan” formulated in 2017. One of the principles supposed to have been adopted is that the government would be an efficient and responsible litigant. One of the listed traits of an “efficient litigant” is that “bad cases are not needlessly persevered with” while a trait of a “responsible litigant” is “that litigation would not be resorted to for the sake of litigating”. Observing that that removal of unnecessary government cases would save valuable court time that could be spent in resolving other pending cases, the document notes that the “easy approach” of adopting the line of “let the court decide” must be eschewed.

The Supreme Court notes: “…under the garb of ease of doing business, the judiciary is being asked to reform. The boot is really on the other leg.” Having noted the Ease of Doing Business rankings (India ranks among the lowest in contract enforcement year after year, despite the gaming coupled with reform in other areas), the court has really touched upon a critical area. While government litigates blindly, regulatory agencies, that are mini-republics with the legislative, executive and judicial functions rolled up into one entity, are the worst. Regulatory agencies are themselves given the powers of the civil courts and they start the process of prosecuting and ruling all on their own. Often, the quasi-judicial rulings of regulators are upheld in appellate tribunals but many an order gets set aside. These are routinely appealed. Worse, even when earlier rulings are available, regulators persist with repeating their overruled rulings hoping that appeals to the higher courts (in most legislation, it is directly to the Supreme Court) would lead to different outcomes. Even when the court has not stayed the tribunal’s rulings, regulators continue to ignore appellate decisions. There are even cases where a newly appointed regulatory official wants to leave his mark and re-interprets decades-old jurisprudence, which despite failure in appeal, is further carried in appeal.

In the case at hand, the Supreme Court also noted that the government was blowing up money on 10 lawyers, including an Additional Solicitor General and a Senior Advocate, expending tax payers’ monies wastefully. This too is typical and par for the course with regulators. Engaging senior law officers of the government, and senior private lawyers with respectable names and standing, is the easiest way to project that the frivolous appeal has something unique on facts that would warrant ignoring earlier closed decisions, and overturn, at times, decades of jurisprudence. In the courts of many judges, appeals by regulators perceived to be “experts”, are admitted for the asking, while appeals by private litigants are put to a higher standard, often disposed of at the stage of admission — the wrong assumption being that regulators are more responsible in deciding what to appeal.

The apex court’s observations are a reminder of one serious facet of what ails the justice delivery system. Our regulators have to go beyond procedural reform and gaming of processes to improve rankings on Ease of Doing Business. Conducting a thorough 100-percent audit of all pending appeals filed by regulators to decide what ought to be withdrawn, would be a good way to start.

This column was published under the title Without Contempt in the editions of Business Standard dated May 24, 2018

States challenging Central Law embellishes Federalism

By Somasekhar Sundaresan

A Bench of the Supreme Court is reported to have criticized the Government of West Bengal and its advocate for filing a writ petition challenging the mandatory introduction of Aadhaar.

According to news reports, a judge is reported to have asked the lawyer how a state can challenge law made by Parliament. Taking the cue, it is learnt that West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s lawyer agreed to get the individual who is the Chief Minister to be the petitioner instead of the state government.

According to this report in Bar and Bench, the judges are reported to have asked:

How can a State challenge a law made by the Parliament? You are challenging the vires of the Act.”

To protect the litigation in substance, finding fault with form, the Court is reported to have suggested,

“Let an individual come, let Mamata Banerjee come. But how can the State come? Tomorrow, what if the Centre challenges a law made by a State?”

This exchange may have been handled expeditiously had petitioner not displeased the Court by countering its observations. The move would have also suited the West Bengal Chief Minister, as it would give her direct political mileage. However, it begs the question if there is indeed any basis for a perception of illegality or impropriety in a state government challenging a law made by Parliament.

Interestingly, the answer, subject to some nuance, is clearly in the negative. There is no bar on a state government challenging law made by Parliament in the Supreme Court. On the contrary, under Article 131, the Supreme Court has exclusive original jurisdiction, to the exclusion of all other courts, over disputes amongst Central government and state governments, as indeed between state governments, where questions determinative of the existence or the extent of legal rights are involved.

In fact, the notion that challenges to law made by Parliament should be circumscribed, came up during the Emergency when Article 131A was inserted to provide that only the Supreme Court could deal with challenges to such legislation. Right after the Emergency, this provision was repealed. That temporary limitation was one of the forum, and not of the eligibility of the party who could litigate.

Then there is the age-old issue of whether a writ petition under Article 32can be pursued by a non-individual, but that does not seem to have been the basis of the change of form of the challenge to Aadhaar by the West Bengal government. The discomfiture appears to have been the seeming impropriety of a state government taking on law made by Parliament. That concern, even from the standpoint of propriety, appears misplaced.

Besides, if public interest litigation filed by individuals can be considered to be “appropriate proceedings” under Article 32, it would stand to reason that a state government (which would be held to a greater standard of propriety in its conduct) too should be able to move court. Of course, a petition without merit can be thrown by the court as it would throw out any petition that is without merit. A state government would be taking serious political risk if the apex court were to stricture it for indulging in frivolous litigation.

In fact, the recent history of the United States is rich with examples of states challenging law made by the Centre. Early this year, US President Donald Trump issued an executive order banning entry of persons from specified Muslim nations into the United States. A total of fifteen state governments – California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and Washington – chimed in with the state government of Hawaii, to challenge it.

Even the equivalent of a “Union Territory” – the District of Columbia (Washington DC, which is like our National Capital Region) – challenged the travel ban. By a sleight of hand, the US President’s team replaced the travel ban under challenge with a new ban, adding a couple of non-Muslim nations to the list of banned sources of travellers and the fight has been reset to the first round again.  Hawaii is leading the fight again, and there is no reason why the other states would not join hands.

A state initiating litigation against the Centre in a court of law, over a constitutional issue, would embellish the robustness of the health of a federal democracy. Likewise, if for example, a State Legislature were to make law that is in the domain of Parliament, it would be a matter of robust federalism that the Central government challenges such law. The Supreme Court would be the right forum for resolving such disputes.

Indeed, there are various types of inappropriate use of judicial time for inter-governmental disputes and propriety would demand that those are not indulged in. For example, the income-tax department often files writ petitions challenging decisions of the Settlement Commission; the Enforcement Directorate is known to have challenged the Reserve Bank of India’s decision to compound offences under exchange controls; a former Union Finance Minister announced to the media that he had advised the capital market regulator and the insurance regulator to approach a court of law to litigate and resolve a turf war over unit-linked insurance schemes that were accused of also being mutual funds.

Last year, the state governments of Bihar and Jharkhand were rebuked by the Supreme Court for a dispute going back to 2004, over sharing of the guest house and state government office between the two states after the separation of Jharkhand from Bihar.

But a challenge to legislation made by Parliament by a state government, or for that matter, a challenge by the Central government to law made by a State Legislature hardly appears inappropriate.

The author is an advocate practising as an independent counsel.

This column was published in the Bar & Bench on November 9, 2017

Last resort shouldn’t turn into first choice

By Somasekhar Sundaresan
The of India is reported to have blessed a settlement between a litigating lender and a corporate borrower after the process for insolvency under the newly-legislated had been set in motion.

 

The parties settled their differences and their settlement terms were approved setting aside the process, using the court’s powers under of the  This is a material development and points to the need to take a close re-look at some of the policy choices made in the new bankruptcy law, which is now about nine months old.

 

First, the process brings on par with lenders, who may have thousands of crores in loans to a borrower, any operational creditor (say, supplier of furniture) who claims dues of just over a lakh of rupees, in the legal capacity to trigger the “resolution process” under the code.  The grounds on which the National Company Law Tribunal might refuse to set the process in motion are limited — for operational creditors, the primary ground is the existence of disputes before the claim is made. In other words, only uncontested dues on which there is a default would lead to the being attracted. The case in the was not of an operational creditor but of a financial creditor, but that does not matter for the analysis here.

 

Second, once the resolution process is set in motion, a moratorium kicks in. No debt can be enforced on the company against whom the claim was made. While this might seem normal about “bankruptcy protection” it works well only for companies that are truly bankrupt. For companies that are solvent but have bona fide disputes over claims made by counter parties, this results in a prompt trigger of pariah status. If your promises cannot be enforced against you, no one would transact with you. This is all the more reason for the setting of the process into motion to be done with a great deal of care and caution. Until a recent ruling by the National Company Law Appellate Tribunal, various benches of the National Company Law Tribunal, which administers the new law, had taken a position that unless actual litigation had been initiated, no claim of any operational creditor could be regarded as disputed.

 

Third, not only would a moratorium kick in, but also an “interim resolution professional” would stand vested with all the powers of the board of directors of the company. The powers of the board of directors would stand suspended forthwith. The moratorium and the change of control are certainly fantastic features to handle the best interests of stakeholders of a truly insolvent company but they are certainly poisonous and not medicinal for a company that is solvent but can be threatened with initiation of the resolution process. Therefore, the very threat of a possible initiation of this process leads to coerced recovery that could in fact hurt a larger segment of lenders, who truly have the long-term financial interests of the company at heart.

 

This is why HDFC Bank Managing Director Aditya Puri’s statement that resorting to the insolvency courts is not the best solution unless the borrower is a wilful defaulter makes immense sense. In his reported words, this is a law of “last resort” and not the “first thing”. The capacity of any goods or services provider — an operational creditor — to set such a serious process in motion as the first thing, is worrisome. Once the moratorium kicks in, even the financial creditors of a company for which a moratorium has kicked in, would get hit and be unable to recover their dues.

 

Indeed, the creditors’ committee that is supposed to work during the moratorium could comprise a majority of creditors, who see a future in the company and can drown out the voice of the lone creditor who does not. Therefore, theoretically, if one does call the bluff of an aggressive operational creditor or a disgruntled financial creditor, and stays the course, the initiation of the resolution process can eventually come to mean nothing. However, this is theoretical and not practical. Once the world at large rearranges its view of a company whose promises cannot be enforced and has to deal with a chartered accountant or company secretary acting as a resolution professional without experience in running a business, even a reasonable view of creditworthiness of a doubtful debtor has to change to a perception of a bad debtor.

 

In this context, the coding in the law that entails no roll-back once the resolution process is set in motion is a hard and blunt weapon of last resort, which can cause more injury than warranted when used as the first resort. When the uses “for doing complete justice” and takes on record the settlement terms between a creditor, who has set the resolution process in motion and the debtor on whom a moratorium has kicked in, it is because really unjust and unintended consequences can emerge from the working of this law.

 

For the long-term health of the effectiveness of the bankruptcy law, it would have been better to help the new law build its core strengths by generating capacity and getting the resolution professionals and bankruptcy professionals to build bandwidth and gain competence before unleashing the burden of handling the entire society’s corporate debts on them. The burden of private corporate debt recovery could have been held back from imposing itself on the enforcement machinery until the immediate task of serious financial debts working itself through. The Supreme Court, which has powers to intervene and roll back a moratorium in the interests of justice, having used this power, it is time for a serious and quick rethink and pilot short amendments to make this law effective with a review scheduled for after two years.

 

This column was published in the Business Standard’s editions dated July 27, 2017 under the title Without Contempt

Undeclared Emergency: We are like that only

Voices for and against argument that there is an undeclared Emergency gets shriller every year

It is that time of the year — the last week of June — when the Emergency is remembered, various commentators lament the attempt to kill the spirit of the Constitution and others celebrate how the system fought back. Increasingly, the last week of June has also come to entail a discussion on a state of “undeclared Emergency”. The voices for and against the argument that there is an undeclared emergency gets shriller every year.
Some home truths are critical. First, no party in power is innocent of the charge of introducing elements of an “undeclared Emergency”. Be it the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) or the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), every successive government has contributed its share of draconian laws, subversion of Parliament, blasé violation of constitutional principles with law officers finding ingenious arguments to defend them in the courts. Each government builds on the foundation laid or fortified by the earlier government, regardless of political hue. Each Opposition screams against “undeclared Emergencies” and only builds on the foundation when voted into power.  
Examples will make this point clear. The UPA effected draconian amendments to the law governing foreign contributions to the social sector that have resulted in foreign-funded non-government organisations (NGOs) being barred from indulging in an ambiguously-and-widely defined “political activity” even while foreign-funded business enterprises face no such restrictions. Corporates with foreign shareholding are free to lobby for changes to law and lobby Members of Parliament and senior bureaucrats, while NGOs with foreign donations simply cannot meet these worthies to influence their thinking and express their points of view. The administration during the NDA government built on this well-laid foundation and started actually knocking NGOs hard.  
Likewise with interventions with media businesses or just crony capitalism. Bennett Coleman and Co, the owner of The Times of India, was hounded by the Enforcement Directorate during the United Front government comprising a bunch of 13-odd political parties led by Deve Gowda first and I K Gujral next, followed by the NDA. Tehelka and NDTV can write full primers on what can go wrong when you get on the wrong end of the state machinery. Tehelka’s substantial financier Shankar Sharma faced the music under both regimes — the NDA and the UPA (the allegations for which his broking firm had been punished in 2001 were levelled again to punish him personally, this time under the UPA). The Vedanta Group came in for serious stick under the UPA. Cairn India was forced to apply for approval for a change of ownership, and then given approval with the condition that substantive litigation against the government must be withdrawn. 
Second, a government in power has to be really very stupid to formally use the E-word and declare a state of emergency. It can now do so only if it were to entirely lose all faith in the democratic system to come to believe that it would get away with it. Indira Gandhi’s declaration of Emergency fell in the former category. Her termination of the Emergency showed that she too had not lost faith entirely and by the time she realised her cronies had gone too far, it was really late. Today, with the love and glory for the armed forces being felt so widely, as a society we may be heading towards a tipping point towards the latter — a loss of faith in democratic politics. However, no politician who has a decent career would have the capacity to come out the closet and declare an Emergency by design. 
The situation is much like the discourse and debate in Israel, where awareness of discrimination under Hitler’s Germany is always highlighted in the incessant debate over the “undeclared apartheid” against Palestinians. It would be stupid for Israel to embrace the epithet of “apartheid” and therefore, it would always highlight how apartheid in South Africa was different in vital features from the discrimination in Israel. Our social debate on “undeclared Emergency” is quite similar. One can keep pointing out that there is no official censor to review news reports, but others can point out that when the situation does not demand an official censor, you do not need to appoint one. The actions of the “Censor Board”, as the film certification board has come to be known, are adequate pointers to the social state.
Finally, as a society, Indians have always craved for a dictator they can elect. Ruthlessness has always been an admired trait in large sections of the Indian electorate and society. Indira Gandhi was popular in her day. The PM in office is as popular today. Their decisiveness and sense of direction is a matter of envy of the other politicians and pride for the layman. Therefore, it is not at all really necessary for a formal declaration of emergency. You can blame Indira’s indiscretion on being blinded by her cronies — astrologers and Sanjay Gandhi’s disjointed blokes and being cut off from ground realities. Let us remember that it was not the feeling of constitutional injury that led to her downfall right after Emergency — it was the forced nasbandi by population-control vigilantes that led to the disaffection of the masses. The government that succeeded her was as draconian — a simple example of trying to arrest a former PM without even a warrant should do to make the point. Morarji Desai had sought to put down the Maharashtra movement in the Bombay Presidency with a firm hand — directing firing on protestors.  
Perhaps a more honest way to handle this debate is or all to acknowledge by saying, “We are like that only.”
This column was published “Without Contempt” in the Business Standard edition dated June 29, 2017

A chance to score a judicial point

In the Justice Karnan row, the judiciary can demonstrate that they will not flinch on accountability

The controversy is entering unseemly territory. Yet, it has presented a never-before opportunity for the judiciary to score an important point in the scheme of constitutional

 

At every stage of being disciplined, Justice C S Karnan has made society suspend disbelief. He has been purporting to pass unprecedented ex parte orders against of the Supreme Court, among others, directing the Chief Justice of India and other not to travel out of India so as to “prevent them from infecting” territories outside India with their anti-Dalit attitude. Whether Justice Karnan’s conduct is contemptuous of the judiciary, whether he is at all of sound mind, and what, if any, the punishment for contempt should be, may eventually be determined judicially. However, there can be no doubt about one fact — his behaviour is eminently impeachable.

 

At the time of this column going to press, no one in authority has used the i-word. The very thought appears to be far removed from serious consideration.  Reasons vary. Some believe that it would be meaningless to do so with the judge having just weeks left in office. Others feel that a judge being impeached would tarnish the history book. Leaving aside what reasons compete for keeping away from impeachment, here is a simple political thought.

 

Impeaching a judge of a high court or the Supreme Court is, for all the right reasons, a tough task. Misconduct by a judge can be lightly alleged by any party unhappy with a judge’s decision. In every litigation, there is at least one party unhappy with the outcome (at times, all parties can be unhappy, but such is life when differences cannot be resolved mutually). Arms of the state, in particular, governments, government agencies and the bureaucracy are the biggest contributor of litigation in the country. This renders vulnerable, and unless effectively protected under the Constitution, it would be impossible to have a credible and respected judicial arm of the state.

 

The constitutional tension and between the executive arm and the judicial arm of the Indian state has been typically informed in recent times, by the debate on It is no judge’s case that must not be accountable at all for misconduct, but it is vitally important to ensure that misconduct is not lightly alleged. The constitutional amendment to change the manner in which are selected and tested for accountability, and the amendment being struck down, has been the high point of this constitutional political tension in the past two years.

 

Now, presents a fantastic opportunity to the judiciary. No judge in the higher judiciary has presented a stronger case for being impeached. Impeachment requires elected members of Parliament to speak up and act. To impeach a judge, misbehaviour or incapacity has to be proven as grounds for tabling an impeachment resolution in any House of Parliament.  In the Lok Sabha, 100 members have to come together to set the ball in motion while in the Rajya Sabha, 50 members would do.  The Speaker in the Lok Sabha and the Vice-president who chairs the Rajya Sabha have to accept that a motion to impeach a judge may be tabled. Each House of Parliament is required to vote with a majority of not less than two-thirds of the members present and voting.

 

At every stage of being disciplined, Justice C S Karnan has made society suspend disbelief. There can be no doubt about one fact - his behaviour is eminently impeachable

At every stage of being disciplined, Justice C S Karnan has made society suspend disbelief. There can be no doubt about one fact — his behaviour is eminently impeachable

If our politicians are serious about judicial and the need to bring to account, an impeachment motion for should be a sitter. Reality is different. The political system will bring into motion the conventional political dynamics for the vote. Justice Karnan’s defence of the indefensible is largely based on one single point — that he is being targeted on caste-based lines because he is a Dalit. Dalit Members of Parliament could call his bluff if they so desire. A government that is said to be committed to finishing off caste-based — with a beginning having been made in the Uttar Pradesh elections —and indeed, said to be committed to bringing in an era of judicial accountability, should easily find 100 members in the treasury benches of the Lok Sabha or 50 members in the treasury benches of the Rajya Sabha to do the task of setting the ball in motion.

 

If Supreme Court were to transparently (read, publicly) ask for such a motion to be passed, it would set the cat among the pigeons.  Parliamentarians would have to deal with having been called upon to play their constitutional role — something they say they are keen to see do properly. And, if Parliament flounders, whether on caste lines, linguistic lines, or indeed any political lines (the nuanced and intense floor management in the 1990s when Justice Ramaswami’s impeachment motion was considered by Parliament comes to mind), the judiciary would have proven its point — that the judiciary will not flinch from taking to the logical and ultimate end, and it is the political system that is unable to handle it. It would prove to Indian society that the legislative obsession with how are appointed, while important, is not founded on outcomes but on the of who may occupy high judicial office.

 

On the other hand, if Parliament indeed acts to impeach Justice Karnan, that would in itself be a milestone in India’s constitutional history. Not one judge having been impeached in the Republic’s seven-decade history is not a nice sign. It is a pointer to the checks and balances built in by the founding fathers of the nation not having been put to use at all. If politicians play the usual card of convincing the judge to resign midway during impeachment proceedings, the judiciary would have still made its point that it is unflinching in calling upon the system to work towards So, the situation presents a win-win opportunity that is waiting to be seized.
This piece appeared in the column titled Without Contempt in the editions dated May 25, 2017 of the Business Standard