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Mainstream, VOL LIII, No 16, April 11, 2015

Disturbing Signals

Sunday 12 April 2015, by SC

EDITORIAL

Several developments in the last few days at the Centre and in the States have caused considerable controversy and concern.

First, there was the exchange of letters between Justice Kurian Joseph of the Supreme Court and Chief Justice of India H.L. Dattu on the issue of the right to convene a judicial conference of all Chief Justices and Cheif Ministers during the long week-end from Good Friday to Easter Sunday.

Justice Joseph, in his letter to the CJI on March 18, mainstained that “such an important conference shouldn’t have been held when some of us, who are otherwide expected to the part of the event, are otherwise committted on account of the holy days when we have religious ceremonies and family get-together as well”.

Within two days Chief Justice Dattu responded. In his letter of March 20 he averred: “The question that I have to ask myself, perhaps I can’t ask you, is whether it is institutional interest or individual interest that one should give preference to. As far as I am concerred, I would give priority to the former and not to the latter...”

On the points raised by Justice Joseph in his letter and CJI Dattu’s reply to it, Peter Ronald deSouza, a Professor at the Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS), clearly states in an article in The Hindu that “in any conflict between the individual and the collective, the individual must triumph”, adding: “...even when there is a clash between individual and group rights, the rights of the individual come out on top, as should be the case.” These words carry a lot of weight and cannot be rejected offhand.

Now let us try to decipher the PM’s speech to the joint conference of the CJs and CMs. Referring to Narendra Modi’s suggestion that “five-star activists” were driving the judiciary, former Additional Solicitor General and senior advocate of the Supreme Court, Indira Jaisingh, underlines in an article in The Indian Express:

The message for the judiciary is: “Don’t mess with me or my development policies”. This is nothing short of interference with the independence of the judiciary. In a speech replete with not-so-veiled references to the various people’s movements taking place across the country on land acquisition, forest rights, mining etc, the Prime Minister made it clear that he sees “five-star activists” as the biggest threat to the country’s development and progress....

The Prime Minister is clearly rattled by the reach of people’s movements even though his party is armed with the entire state machinery to muzzle or suppress criticism — and is actively doing so. The fact that civil society has frequently approached the judiciary to claim relief or get arbitrary executive decisions struck down has not gone down well with him.

Her words cannot possibly be taken lightly.

Meanwhile the killing of as many as 25 persons in two separate incidents in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana on April 7 has raised legitimate questions on police accountability.

In the first instance, the police claimed firing in self-defence in the Seshachalam forest in Andhra Pradesh that killed 20 of about 100 Tamil woodcutters but this claim has come under the cloud of serious doubts according to preliminary reports. The woodcutters were allegedly linked to a red sanders smuggling mafia but a senior police officer with the red sanders anti-smuggling task force informed that the labourers killed were armed with only sticks and stones.

In neighbouring Telangana the police gunned down five terror-case undertrials on the plea that one of them snatched a gun and opened fire on the police party; but photographs show the dead undertrials handcuffed in the police vehicle. So this plea is open to serious questions.

Fundamental questions of law enforcement and human rights are involved in both the incidents. What is imperative in the circumstances is an impartial probe to restore public trust in the criminal justice delivery system.

All these constitute disturbing signals that gravely undermine the democratic content of our polity.

April 9 S.C.