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How the Supreme Court held nation's attention in 2019

By Abhishek Anshu, Manohar Lal & Sanjeev Kumar
December 27, 2019 12:18 IST
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Verdicts paving the way for construction of a Ram Temple at Ayodhya and India's multi-billion dollar Rafale fighter jet deal with France were 2019's landmark imprints of the Supreme Court, which also found itself at the centre of a controversy with then Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi being accused of sexual harassment before getting the clean chit.

Controversies around former CJIs notwithstanding, Justice (retd) Gogoi was the first head of the judiciary against whom a stunning claim of sexual harassment was made by a former apex court employee.

The controversy was put to rest following a clean chit to him by the Supreme Court's In-House Inquiry Committee, headed by present CJI S A Bobde who took charge as head of judiciary this year.

 

The top court also saw a spate of pleas against the Centre's historical move abrogating the provisions of Article 370, which gave special status to Jammu and Kashmir, and subsequent restrictions and detention of leaders like Farooq Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti.

A five-judge Constitution bench has been set up to examine the validity of the Centre's move bifurcating the Jammu-Kashmir in two Union Territories.

The year would, however, be remembered for the historic verdict on the centuries old Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid land dispute at Ayodhya.

A failed mediation put the onus on the top court to resolve the issue. A five-judge bench, headed by the then CJI Gogoi, heard the parties involved for 40 days -- second longest hearing in its history -- and unanimously cleared the way for construction of temple at the disputed site and directed the Centre to allot a 5-acre plot to Muslims for a mosque.

The apex court widened the scope of judicial scrutiny into alleged discrimination against women in various religions by referring to a seven-judge bench the pleas seeking review of its historic 2018 verdict allowing women and girls of all ages to enter Kerala's Sabarimala temple.

It said that a larger bench should frame parameters to deal with alleged discrimination against Muslim and Parsi women -- entry of Muslim women into mosques and 'dargah' as also Parsi women, married to non-Parsi men, being barred from the holy fire place of an Agyari.

The politically-sensitive Rafale jet case, which kept the Modi government on tenterhooks, ended in favour of the Centre with the apex court upholding its last year's decision and dismissing various review pleas for a Central Bureau of Investigation probe into inter-governmental India-France pact to procure 36 fully loaded fighter jets from Dassault Aviation.

The year also saw the top court shed its reluctance on sharing information under the Right to Information Act, with a path-breaking verdict holding that the CJI's office is a public authority under transparency law and amenable to disclosure.

It however put caveats saying that "judicial independence" and nature of information has to be kept in mind while disclosing information in "public interest".

Pleas related to nationwide protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019, which aims to provide citizenship to persecuted minorities of Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, also engaged the top court which referred the issues of alleged police atrocities on protestors to the concerned high courts.

It decided however to examine the constitutional validity of CAA by issuing notice to the Centre on 59 pleas filed by various parties, including Congress leader Jairam Ramesh and Indian Union Muslim League.

Besides, it monitored the exercise of finalisation of Assam’s National Register of Citizens in which 19,06,657 of the total 3,30,27,661 applicants were excluded.

The year also saw the Supreme Court take tough stand against rising sexual offences against women and children. It upheld the death sentence of one of the four convicts in the 2012 Nirbhaya gang rape and murder case and came up with guidelines for setting up special courts in each district with over 100 FIRs to deal with POCSO cases.

Politically influential persons including expelled Bharatiya Janata Party MLA Kuldeep Singh Sengar and former Union minister Swami Chinmayanand, accused of sexual offences, found themselves at the receiving end.

It transferred the Unnao rape case involving Sengar from a Lucknow court to Delhi's trial court which sentenced him to life term till last breath.

It took suo motu (on its own) cognisance on assessment of the criminal justice system in response to sexual offences, saying that despite amendments to law for effective and speedy trials, the NCRB's 2017 data showed 32,559 rape cases being registered in India.

In the financial corruption arena, senior Congress leader P Chidambaram repeatedly sought relief from the top court in INX Media cases and was subsequently granted bail after spending over 100 days in custody.

Cracking whip on errant builders, the top court cancelled Amrapali Group's registration under realty law RERA, and ousted it from its prime properties in the NCR.

It also directed completion of corporate insolvency resolution process for Jaypee Infratech saying the revised resolution plans be invited only from NBCC and Suraksha Realty.

Cash-rich Board of Control for Cricket in India, managed by the apex court appointed Committee of Administrators headed by former CAG Vinod Rai, finally became a free bird as the top court ordered that the elected representatives of the BCCI headed by former Indian captain Sourav Ganguly would take charge to run it.

Reliance ADAG Chairman Anil Ambani was held guilty of contempt by the apex court which ordered debt-laden RCom to clear Rs 453 crore dues to Swedish telecom gear maker Ericsson or face a 3-month jail term.

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Abhishek Anshu, Manohar Lal & Sanjeev Kumar
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