'The Vision of Justice was indeed attained in the courtroom.'
'Not once, but multiple times.'
'But has it translated into reality?'
'Has the success of these sterling verdicts reached the ground?' asks Justice Ranjan Gogoi, the next Chief Justice of India.
Illustration: Uttam Ghosh/Rediff.com
A few months back, I had the occasion to deliver the Justice P D Desai Memorial Lecture, at Ahmedabad. And there I had proposed that attaining Constitutional Idealism was not like chasing a rainbow and the Supreme Court, through its pronouncements, had been reflecting it.
It would not be a display of the pessimism of the intellect today if I were to say that while, indeed, attaining Constitutional Idealism (= Vision of Justice) is not like chasing a rainbow, but, it is so only in the courtrooms.
Perhaps, because fields are where the rainbows are ("fields" being the operative word).
The point being that the way nation is built and the way this grand Vision of Justice is attained in the confines of the courts through judicial pronouncements and the way they are built on the ground are two very disparate realities.
Agreed, the aspirational aspect of the Constitution and the operational aspect of the Constitution will always be two different notions.
The aspirational aspect is high idealism of a kind that is almost moralistic and preachy.
The operational aspect has to do with the very strange realities of the ground, almost defeating.
But then even if we may be slow to move to bridge the gap between the two, which itself is not an acceptable compromise either, but we must, at the least, not become retrograde.
Take, for example, the ruling in Shreya Singhal v Union of India 3 (2015).
It is a celebrated judgment where the Supreme Court held that the public's right to know was directly affected by Section 66A.
Interestingly, while doing so, the Court was certainly inspired by, amongst other rulings,Romesh Thapar v State of Madras 4 (1950); Brij Bhushan v State of Delhi 5 (1950); Bennett Coleman & Co. v. Union of India 6 (1973).
If you would recall, these were perhaps some of the earliest pronouncements protecting an Independent Indian's Speech and Expression and were delivered in the light of the rights of the Press, which verdicts themselves had endorsed that a democracy was a marketplace of ideas where the people had a right to know; that prior restraints were anathematic to a democracy and that the freedom of speech and of the press is the Ark of the Covenant of Democracy.
Shreya Singhal took this legacy ahead as it improved upon the jurisprudence on the independence of the Press to attain and promote the Constitutional precept of plurality of thought, diversity of opinion and the ethos of democracy in the tech-age and in the context of online speech.
The Vision of Justice was indeed attained in the courtroom.
Not once, but multiple times.
But has it translated into reality?
Has the success of these sterling verdicts reached the ground?
I will let the facts speak for themselves.
On the ground, it is a descent into chaos.
And it is worrisome on all counts when you sue the messenger or when you shoot the messenger, or when the messenger itself declines to deliver the message because of the fear psychosis.
On June 19, The Indian Express had published a very insightful article (selected from The Economist) titled as 'How Democracy Dies'.
It said, at one place, that, 'independent judges and noisy journalists are democracy's first line of defence... Reports of the death of democracy are greatly exaggerated. But, the least bad system of government ever devised is in trouble. It needs defenders.'
I agree but will only suggest a slight modification in today's context -- not only independent judges and noisy journalists, but even independent journalists and sometimes noisy judges.
While Shreya Singhal was significant in its own right, NALSA v Union of India 7 breathed new life into the Equality principle.
The Court understood that our Founding Fathers' vision about fundamental right against sex discrimination was to prevent differential treatment as a result of one's not conforming to generalisations.
The judgment made a momentous foray into the fountain-head of dynamism.
And, I will get back to it but before I do that, I must touch upon a very fascinating judgment of 1986 vintage called Bijoe Emmanuel v State of Kerala 8.
This was a case where three Jehovah's Witnesses had refused to sing the National Anthem (as their tenets dictated so) when it was being sung in their school.
They did stand up though. Nevertheless, they were expelled from the school.
When the case found its way to the Supreme Court, while holding that the expulsion would be in violation of their Fundamental Right to 'freedom of conscience', the Court observed that 'the real test of a true democracy is the ability of even an insignificant minority to find its identity under the country's Constitution.'
The court also felt the need to add a thought. And, I feel compelled to quote it.
It is the penultimate line of the verdict and it says 'Our tradition teaches tolerance; our philosophy preaches tolerance; our Constitution practices tolerance; let us not dilute it.'
Recently, in Adi Saiva Sivachariyargal Nala Sangam v Government of Tamil Nadu 9, the Court held that even in the matters of religious beliefs, Constitutional legitimacy cannot be foregone and following Justice B K Mukherjea in the Shirur Mutt case (of 1954), went on to hold that it is not the State or the religious Indian but the Constitutional Court which decides on what constitutes essential practices of any particular religion.
Some of you could be wondering about how these judgments are even related.
They are not.
But they are at the same time.
Dissimilarity is that the first one originates in a very intimate, private sphere of life and the other two originate in what everybody seems to want to have a say in -- the matters of faith.
But, it is the similarity that should be the take away.
The judgments beyond their bare letter, say that, societal morality is fickle and not that, but Constitutional morality that ought to dictate terms.
As an Israeli judge, Aharon Barak points out it is not the transient spirits of time but the fundamental values that should be the guiding voice.
In his last address to the Constituent Assembly, Dr Ambedkar had said that we must not only be a political democracy but a social democracy as the former cannot last unless lies at the base of it the former.
And, social democracy, he defined, as a way of life which recognises liberty, equality, fraternity as one principle.
I wouldn't want to wade into knowing if we are a successful political democracy, but, I do, earnestly believe, that we are a social democracy, in all aspects.
But again, largely jurisprudentially. And the disparity is there because the two Indias -- both just as perceptible -- are at conflict.
Edited excerpts from Justice Ranjan Gogoi's Ramnath Goenka Memorial lecture in New Delhi on July 12, 2018.