A black week for our venerated democratic institutions got a tad darker on Friday. In a whirlwind 5 days we have witnessed acquittals of murder convicts, votives of militant hate and architects of massacre. With the second ever impeachment motion against a Supreme Court Judge, no less the Chief Justice himself (first ever), the country stands at a precipice, an edge to an abyssal fall.
The week of criminal acquittal started with National Investigation Agency (NIA) quashing the charges of plotting and perpetrating the bomb blast at Mecca Masjid against prime accused Swami Aseemanand and four others. On May 18, 2007, nine people were killed and fifty eight injured in a bomb blast at the Mecca Masjid on the occasion of Friday prayers. The NIA did not state whether it would appeal against the acquittal. Judge Ravinder Reddy of the special National Investigation Agency (NIA) court resigned immediately after giving the verdict (even though he resumed work on Friday!). The Hyderabad court verdict in the 11-year-old case acquitted all five accused. It includes the head of Vanvasi Kalyan Ashram Swami Aseemanand or Naba Kumar Sarkar, RSS pracharak Devendra Gupta, RSS functionary Lokesh Sharma, Bharath Mohanlal Rateshwar, member of Hindu Vichar Manch, and a farmer, Rajendar Chowdary.
NIA had come under the scanner when it didn’t even appeal against bail that was given to the accused within 90 days. As per Times of India reports, NIA is reluctant to appeal against the verdict owing to a dearth of material evidence. Relying on confessions, which were easily invalidated by ‘obtainment under duress’ charge, the case lost its evidentiary vignettes. Out of 304 witnesses, 78 were disqualified on the basis of being formal witnesses. 66 out of the remaining 226 turned hostile and revoked their support for prosecution. The ruling was a blow to the relatives of the victims. Their despondency has led to graver concerns regarding the faith in judiciary which seems to be edging closer to exhaustion. Even the opposition, especially Congress has failed to pick up the ante and claim the cause of victims and put the ruling party under scrutiny. What they have been able to muster are few odd comments from the likes of Randeep Surjewala and Ghulam Nabi Azad.
Then on Thursday, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court dismissed petitions seeking an investigation into the 2014 death of Judge Brijgopal Harkishan Loya. At the time, he was presiding over a case against Amit Shah, president of BJP. He was an accused in extra judicial killings especially the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case in 2005 while serving as home minister of Gujarat. Shah was exonerated by Judge Loya’s replacement. He concluded there was no case against the BJP president. According to THE CARAVAN, Judge Mohit Shah, a former Chief Justice of Bombay High Court had allegedly offered a 100 crore bribe to Judge Loya and he was under severe mental pressure to succumb to such inveigling. The discrepancies in the account of Judge Loya’s death and post mortem, also brought to light by THE CARAVAN, had led to the review of the circumstances surrounding his death.
On Friday, the Gujarat High Court made a volte face and dismissed the conviction of Maya Kodnani, former BJP state minister for her complicity in the bloodletting of Gujarat riots, worst in independent India’s history. Paucity of consistency in witness testimonies was given as the underpinning reason for the capsizing of her conviction. Maya Kodnani was acquitted on Friday even when the case had eye witness testimonies of her adjuring the crowd, disbursing swords and upbraiding communal hate. She was convicted for the violence in Gujarat 16 years ago. In 2012, a trial court held Kodnani and 31 others guilty in the massacre at Naroda Patiya and sentenced her to 27 years in prison. She has been out on bail since 2014 for health reasons. During the Gujarat riots of 2002, almost 2,500 people, most of them Muslims, were killed. The pogrom was perpetrated allegedly to avenge 59 lives lost in the Godhra train carnage which left a trail teeming with charred bodies of Hindu pilgrims. Narendra Modi was the incumbent Chief Minister of Gujarat and was given a controversial clean chit by special investigation.
On Friday itself, 7 opposition parties and 71 members (7 retired now) of the upper house of Parliament i.e. Rajya Sabha, launched an unprecedented bid to impeach the Chief Justice India (CJI), Dipak Misra. Congress Party, the Communist Party of India, Samajwadi Party and four other parties have foisted accusations of misbehavior amounting to failure to protect the independence of the judiciary from executive meddling and other four charges. Among them is a scathing indictment that CJI wields his power arbitrarily to allot sensitive cases and foul acquisition of land.
Importantly, a Supreme Court judge can be removed for misbehaviour or incapacity only by an order of the President after winning a special majority in both houses of parliament i.e. obtaining at least two-thirds of votes from the house’s total membership.
In January, four judges of the Supreme Court held a press conference and publicly excoriated the CJI for his rostering of cases and judicial appointments. One of such cases was the Judge Loya case. They presaged Supreme Court’s administrational mismanagement and invoked a sense of impending chaos while taking the unprecedented move of washing Court’s dirty linen in public. CPM had first floated the idea of impeachment in January itself.
Misra is expected to superannuate this October when he turns 65, having joined office last August. Misra has largely opted for silence amidst such barrage of hostilities and accusations. However, as lead of a three member bench, he eluded to the fact that CJI is the highest authority and he cannot be distrusted. Interestingly, the four judicial officers claiming that Judge Loya’s death was natural cannot be questioned either. It paints a rather unimpeachable Gospel purity to the sacrosanct position of Judges.
Politically, there seems to be tedium vitae in Congress’s grand old tenets of secularism and protection of minority interests in a tyrannical storm of majoritarian muscle flexing. The comments like “BJP succeeded in wrongly convincing people that the Congress was a Muslim party” by UPA Chairperson Sonia Gandhi sets the bar for democratic debate to an all time low. There seems to be an ideological shift. It seems there is a strategy of selective punches aiming to transmogrify the party image with a softer tint of saffron.
Ideologically, if Congress severs its age old links to centre-left ethos, leaving it unhinged and unanchored to its history and suspect on its future. Its reaction or lack thereof one to the Mecca Masjid blast verdict, Kodnani verdict or Judge Loya verdict may spell more trouble in the UPA Elysium. Taking BJP at its own game may very well leave the party with a humbling knockout in political pugilism.
With erosion of trust in the custodian of our fundamental rights as citizens, we are trudging toward our own Dark Age riddled with political corruption, cindered innocence and celebrated butchery of justice. The sequence of these events has engendered volatile conspiracy theories. The speculation has further eroded the sanctity of absolute incorruptibility of the highest echelons of Justice. Our democracy needs a redoubtable and independent judiciary staying true to the basic structure of our hallowed Constitution. No individual, not even the heads of legislature, executive or judiciary can be accorded the veil of invincibility over the supremacy of our Constitutional goals and protections. As Lord Atkins adjured, “Justice is not a cloistered virtue and must suffer the scrutiny and respectful, even if outspoken comments of ordinary people,” inexorably when if it disturbs the privileged socio-political inertia.
Zeeshan Ali is currently pursuing masters in Journalism and has passionate interest in Sports, Science, Literature and Theology.