|Rediff India Abroad Home | All the sections|
The Rediff Special/Indira Jaisingh
June 10, 2003
I met the President of India.
How did it all happen?
I had written an article on the sorry state of affairs in the Supreme Court of India and the arbitrary manner in which judges are appointed. I mentioned that we, the people, have a right to choose our judges, just as we have the right to choose our members of Parliament. Shekhar Gupta, editor-in-chief, The Indian Express, was good enough to publish it in his newspaper in February.
To my utter amazement, within hours of the morning newspaper having reached me, I received a call. The caller said, 'Rashtrapatiji [The President] would like to speak to you.' Before I had time to say anything, the President came on the line. He complimented me on the article. I could not believe my ears and did not know what to say. I thanked him and thought it would be the end of the conversation.
But the discussion continued.
I expressed anguish at the declining standards in the dispensation of justice in our country. The President took a keen interest in what I had to say. He too had a lot to say. We ended up having a conversation about ways of changing the system we now have for appointing judges. I requested that we meet sometime -- there was so much I had to say and it was impossible for me to do so on the telephone.
It was a wonderful feeling to know I had an ally in a most unexpected place on matters concerning the state of the judiciary. I though to myself that all my campaigning for changes in the system was worth it; there was someone listening somewhere, someone who matters.
I knew he was a busy man and did not expect him to agree to meet me. But he did agree, saying his doors were open to anyone who wanted to meet him. He assured me that we could meet sometime later and have a more detailed discussion.
My respect for the President shot up tremendously. I was impressed that he kept himself so well informed on the functioning of the judiciary. The fact that he took the trouble to call me was, for me, a measure of his concern for issues of national importance. And the fact that he called, despite his other equally significant concerns, was inspiring. I was determined to meet him at some point to pay my respects.
I tried unsuccessfully to call Shekhar Gupta and tell him about the President's phone call. He is obviously a busy man and I could not convey to him my gratitude for having published the article. I hope he is somewhere there, listening to me.
Months later, I filed a petition in the Supreme Court requesting the report of a high-level committee that probed allegations of sexual misconduct against three judges of the Karnataka high court in February -- in what had come to be known as the Mysore sex scandal -- be made public. The report had allegedly come to the conclusion that there was no evidence against the three judges and I believed it was of utmost public importance that it be made public. I had appeared before the committee and given it all the information that was available with me. Naturally, I was keen to know the outcome of the case.
To my surprise, the Supreme Court gave a judgment saying I had no right to receive a copy of the report. It sounded rather strange. Why would anybody want to keep a report exonerating judges under wraps? The reason given in the judgment was that this was a private enquiry, meant only for the eyes of the Chief Justice of India. How could it be a private enquiry when it was publicly announced and members of the public were invited to give information, which they did?
The judgment was clearly wrong. I decided to campaign for transparency and accountability in the judiciary.
It was then that I decided this would be an appropriate time to meet the President to share some of my thoughts with him. I also wanted to learn his views on the subject. I sought an appointment.
On the appointed day, I became nervous and almost wanted to call it off. But one cannot stand up a President, so I went, despite my nervousness. It was a strange experience for me.
On entering Rashtrapati Bhavan, I saw a stream of school kids, accompanied by their teachers, leaving the building. This was proof enough of the President's consistent and deep interest in children. It made me feel more confident.
But I felt lost in the grand and pompous corridors of Rashtrapati Bhavan. They seemed endless. Security was very much in place but since each detail had been planned, there were no delays. I was ushered into a well-appointed sitting room and offered mithai (sweets) and other goodies. I declined and asked for water instead.
Thankfully, I did not have to wait too long. A handsome young man escorted me to the President's study. At the door, he announced my name loud and clear. The President did not look up. He continued reading his papers, including some that I had sent him. I walked up to his desk and waited to be acknowledged.
This was the first time I was meeting the President face-to-face. I wondered whether he resembled his photographs.
He looked up and asked me to sit down. He did resemble his photographs! His famous hairstyle, real and imagined, came to my mind and I remembered all the magazine articles I had seen about them.
I felt strange examining the details of his personality rather than discussing matters of state. My mind was distracted by all that I had heard and read about him. One generally imagines the President to be a pompous, married man with an elegant, aging wife by his side. It was such a relief to know he was a bachelor and I would not have to enquire after his family or be asked to tea parties by his wife.
The President looked good. He was full of energy and clearly involved with the issue at hand. He laughed and smiled like any other human being.
We talked about how judges were appointed. We had our disagreements. I felt there was no political will to resolve the issue of accountability as far as the judiciary was concerned. He reminded me politely that, as far as the appointment of judges was concerned, the government has no role to play. It was the judges alone who took decisions under the 1992 SCBA decision. I agreed that, although this was true in theory, it was my understanding that when it came down to practice, there was a consensus between the two. We could not agree on this matter.
There are good people everywhere, he said. A good scientist shines, he added, and you cannot ignore the light. So, too, a good judge, a good lawyer shines; you cannot ignore them. But what happens when you consciously put a dark shroud over the light, I asked?
I was then treated to an enthusiastic lesson in science and in the application of scientific laws to a social phenomenon. He explained that just as there is a relationship between 'lift' and 'drag' in aviation, there is a similar relationship in society. In aviation, if you reduce drag to zero, there will be no lift off. The question, he said, was to minimise the 'drag.'
We have experimented with two different systems, now let us experiment with a third -- the idea of having a National Judicial Commission. It will soon be debated in Parliament. We need some system in place and the question is which system has the minimum drag, he told me.
I listened in wonder, never having heard the laws of aviation applied to political and social phenomena. It did not occur to me then, since I was not a physicist, to tell him that in advanced systems of aviation, there was no 'drag' in outer space or, at least, there is very little drag. He instructed me to search the Internet on these and other issues, something I had already done. I sat there feeling I was back in a classroom and was being pleasantly instructed by a professor. I was captivated by his infectious enthusiasm. He had clearly established a relationship between the teacher and the taught.
I then asked some questions about some information I was seeking; I had not received any answers from anyone on the subject. He listened; I could feel his computer-like mind processing my question. He knew the answer but he did not answer me.
He is a charming diplomat, I decided. My mind drifted away from the subject of judicial accountability. It was time to go.
His secretary announced, "Time for your next appointment." He ignored the warning, but only for a few minutes. I was uncomfortable knowing that my time was up. The meeting ended with a warm smile. Once again, I appealed to him to support the cause of judicial accountability. Let us see what happens in Parliament, he said.
Supreme Court lawyer Indira Jaising is a frequent contributor to rediff.com
The Rediff Specials