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Indian Supreme Court Has Failed To Protect Fundamental Rights

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Justice Markandey Katju and Advocate Janhvi Prakash go over cases heard by the Indian Supreme Court and argue that it has repeatedly failed to protect the fundamental rights of the Indian people.

Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting. These words in the title of this article are from the Bible – Daniel, 5:27 – were used by Sir Winston Churchill in 1938 to criticise Neville Chamberlain, the then British prime minister, for signing the shameful Munich Pact with Hitler, and they can be aptly used for the Indian Supreme Court too for its recent dismal, distressing, disheartening and discomfiting performances in repeatedly failing to protect the fundamental rights of the Indian people, which was its sacred and solemn duty under the constitution.

The Indian Constitution, promulgated in 1950, had a part containing certain ‘fundamental rights’ of the people. These fundamental rights incorporated the theory of the English political philosopher, John Locke, who, in his Second Treatise on Civil Government, (written in 1690) that every citizen had certain ‘natural’ rights, which even the King could not violate. This theory was the basis of the Bill of Rights in the US Constitution, as well as the Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789 by the French National Assembly during the French Revolution. Under the Indian Constitution, these fundamental rights were rights which even the legislature or executive could not legally violate.

But who was to ensure that they were not violated? This was the job of the judiciary, which was meant to be independent of the legislature or executive.

The Supreme Court and High Courts were set up to act, inter alia, as guardians of the constitution and protectors of the fundamental rights of the people. The judges take a solemn oath to uphold the constitution.

Thus, in State of Maharashtra vs Bhaurao Punjabrao Gawande (2008) 3 SCC 613, the Supreme Court observed that while the first object of the founding fathers was to give to the people a constitution whereby a government was established, their second object, equally important, was to protect the people against the government. The Court observed:

“The imperative necessity to protect the people’s rights is a lesson taught by all history and all human experience. Our Constitution makers had lived through bitter years of the freedom struggle, and had seen an alien government trample upon human rights which the country had fought hard to preserve. They believed, like Jefferson, that ‘an elective despotism was not the government we fought for‘. And therefore, while arming the government with large powers to prevent anarchy from within and conquest from without, they took care to ensure that these powers were not abused to mutilate the liberties of the people.“

In one of its early decisions, State of Madras vs VG Row, AIR 1952 SC 196, the Supreme Court held, “As regards the fundamental rights the Court has been assigned the role of a sentinel in the qui vive,” with the expression ‘sentinel on the qui vive’ (on the lookout), being reiterated again and again in several decisions of the Court.

In the 13 Judge Constitution Bench decision in Kesavanand Bharati vs State of Kerala, (1973 ) 4 SC. 225 (408), the Supreme Court observed, “The Constitution has entrusted to the judiciary the task of safeguarding the fundamental rights of the people.“ On page 907 of the same decision, the Court observed that the judicature is the guardian of the constitution, and can check legislative or executive action, and the same view has been taken in National Legal Services Authority vs Union of India, (2014) 5 SCC 438, Raja Ram Pal vs Hon, Speaker ( 2007) 3 SCC 184 ( 429 ), etc.

As held in Navtej Singh Johar (supra), once violation of the fundamental rights of a citizen or a group of citizens is brought to the notice of the Court, the Court cannot remain a mute spectator. As held in Shakti Vahini vs Union of India (supra), when there is violation of fundamental rights, the court cannot choose the path of silence.

As observed by the Supreme Court in C.Ravichandran Iyer vs Justice AM Bhattacharjee ( supra), “Under the Constitution, it is the judiciary which is entrusted with the task of keeping every organ of the state within the limits of the law. The judiciary must protect the citizen against violation of his constitutional or legal rights, and it must stand between the citizen and the state as a bulwark against executive excesses, and misuse or abuse of power by the executive.“ 

In Shakti Vahini vs Union of India (supra) the Court observed, “Once a fundamental right is inherent in a person, intolerant groups cannot scuttle the right by leaning on any kind of philosophy, or self-proclaimed elevation.”

This being the settled constitutional position, we may now ask whether the Supreme Court of late has been doing its solemn duty of protecting the rights of the people? It must be regrettably said it has not, rather the impression which has been created by its recent verdicts, orders and actions (including its inactions) is that it has, with some exceptions, largely surrendered before the political executive, instead of behaving like an independent organ of the state which it was expected to be. Consider the following,

  1. In the article, ‘The Ayodhya Verdict Is Based On A Strange Feat Of Logic’, it has been stated that this disgraceful judgment will go down in the annals of Indian legal history in the same category as the shameful ADM Jabalpur vs Shivakant Shukla decision, except that unlike the latter, in this one there is not a single courageous dissent. In substance, the Court has held that might is right. It is like a bully snatching a sandwich from a child in school, and the teacher giving a ‘balanced decision’ that the bully can keep the sandwich, and the child will be given a slice of bread as restitution.
  2. The Supreme Court Collegium recommended Justice Kureshi of the Bombay High Court to be appointed as chief justice of MP High Court. Instead of making the appointment, the government sent the recommendation back to the Collegium, evidently because Justice Kureshi is a Muslim. Thereafter, the Collegium should have reiterated its recommendation, and then in view of the verdict in the case, the government would have had to make the appointment. But instead, the Collegium disgraced itself by surrendering, and instead recommended his transfer as the CJ of the much smaller Tripura High Court.
  3. The Supreme Court Collegium had recommended the appointment of Gopal Subramaniam, an outstanding senior advocate of the Supreme Court, and former Solicitor General of India, as a Judge of the Supreme Court. But the government objected as he had been a lawyer against BJP leader Amit Shah in the Sohrabuddin case. Instead of reiterating his name, the Supreme Collegium meekly surrendered
  4. After abrogating Article 370 of the Constitution on 5th August, there has been a clampdown in Kashmir. Many restrictions were imposed, for example, a ban on internet, imposition of curfews. Moreover, many political leaders including the 82-year-old Dr Farooq Abdullah are still in detention. Many petitions challenging the violation of the democratic rights of Kashmiris were filed in the Supreme Court, but the court, like Bheeshma Pitamah who refused to intervene in the ‘cheer haran’ of Draupadi, has turned a Nelson’s eye to the same. What then remains of the lofty doctrine proclaimed in Navtej Singh Johar and Shakti Vahini, that when there is violation of fundamental rights, the judiciary cannot remain a silent spectator?
  5. In the case of the Bhima Koregaon accused and Prof Saibaba, the Supreme Court should have quashed the prosecution using the Brandenburg test (relied on in Arup Bhuyan vs State of Assam, and Sri Indra Das vs State of Assam) but it did not even consider the same.
  6. Abhijit Iyer Mitra should have clearly been granted bail in view of the decision of the celebrated Justice Krishna Iyer in State of Rajasthan vs Balchand, that bail, not jail, is the normal rule, unless the accused is likely to abscond or tamper with the evidence, or was accused of a heinous crime. Abhijit had only made a satirical tweet, for which too he had promptly apologized. Yet his bail application was rejected, with a flippant and cruel remark by CJI Gogoi that the best place for him was in jail.
  7. The brave police officer Sanjiv Bhat who gave an affidavit against Modi and his role in the massacre of Muslims in 2002 has been clearly victimised, and he should have been set free, but the Supreme Court refused to do justice in the matter.
  8. Recently about 50 masked hooligans beat up students and teachers in JNU with the police apparently complicit, and about 30 persons were admitted to AIIMS, Delhi with serious injuries. The Supreme Court should have, suo motu, issued a notice to the concerned authorities, and taken the guilty to task, but again it turned a Nelson’s eye.
  9. The UP police brutally beat up the anti-CAA protesters, and even entered some houses (probably all Muslims), beat up the inhabitants (including old people) and destroyed or looted property. Again, the Supreme Court took no notice, though this was widely reported in the media.
  10. Within 72 hours of his reinstatement by the Supreme Court, the CBI Director Alok Verma was removed by a panel headed by Prime Minister Modi. The Supreme Court should have reinstated him, but did not do so.
  11. Ever since the present government came to power, there have been continuous attacks and victimisation of Muslims by lynching, hate speeches, etc. A former Union Minister even garlanded some alleged lynchers. Instead of taking strong action against the lynchers, often the family members of the victim are harassed. Surely, it is the duty of the judiciary to grant protection, but it rarely does anything except utter homilies.
  12. There is frequent and arbitrary use of sedition and preventive detention laws against those who criticise the govt. This is evident from the cases of cartoonist Aseem Trivedi in Maharashtra, Prof Ambikesh Mahapatra of Jadavpur University in West Bengal, folk singer Kovan in Tamil Nadu, and Kashmiri politicians like Farooq Abdullah and others under detention. Their cases make the right to liberty in Article 21 illusory.

Unfortunately, the Supreme Court nowadays rarely interferes in this gross violation of this most precious of all rights (vide Md Sukur vs State of Assam), although in one of its very first decisions, Romesh Thapar vs State of Madras, delivered in 1950, it had held that in a democracy, people had the right to criticise the government.

In the article ‘Farooq Abdullah Detention: The Supreme Court Is Also On Trial’, it has been said that the most important case in India today is not the Ayodhya appeal, but the trial of the Supreme Court itself. We are afraid that the people’s verdict is likely to go against the court unless it quickly recovers and resumes its role of guardian of the liberties and rights of the people.

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