New Delhi: Despite run-ins with Centre, Supreme Court has upheld its independence in last 9 yrs

New Delhi: Despite run-ins with Centre, Supreme Court has upheld its independence in last 9 yrs

The BJP-led NDA government under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi completed nine years on Friday.

New Delhi : The BJP-led NDA government under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi completed nine years on Friday. The first question the pops in one’s mind is that in these nine years, did the central government have tumultuous or a cordial relations with the Supreme Court.

Covering nine years of Centre-Supreme Court relations would compel one to ask whether the apex court did face its worst crisis of credibility which it never did under Congress rule; if the court did well to protect its judicial independence and come down heavily on the forces attempting to dent its authority; and if it stood firm by its constitutional role in high-stakes cases and did enough to protect the life and liberty of citizens.

The Opposition has claimed that money-laundering law is being used for a political witch-hunt and alleged the politicisation of investigations conducted by central agencies.

On April 5 this year, a bench headed by Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud made it crystal clear that political leaders do not enjoy an immunity greater than an ordinary citizen of the state, while refusing entertain a petition by 14 Opposition political parties, led by the Congress, alleging misuse of CBI and ED against Opposition leaders and also seeking guidelines for the future.

Last week, however, the Supreme Court exhorted the ED not to create an atmosphere of fear and orally told it that even a bona fide cause becomes suspect when the agency behaves like this. The apex court hinted that the agency needs to temper its zeal in probing allegations against the leaders of the Opposition. Equating these scenarios, it is apparent that the Supreme Court would not allow any political force -- either the ruling government or the Opposition -- to dilute its judicial independence. However, the path to judicial independence is complex and courts have to walk on a tightrope to protect people’s faith in the judiciary.

In November 2019, the two decisions by the Supreme Court -- dismissing review petitions against its verdict in the Rafale deal and ruling in favour of Hindu side in the Ayodhya title dispute -- gave relief to the ruling dispensation. The apex court’s rulings were criticized by many then, however unfazed with unbridled criticism the court did not abdicate its constitutional role.

In January 2021, the Supreme Court stayed the implementation of three controversial farm laws, which were being fiercely opposed by farmers, who held a large protest on the outskirts of the capital for more than a month.

In June 2021, the Supreme Court called Centre’s paid vaccination policy for citizens 18-44 years of age as “prima facie arbitrary and irrational”. The apex court said the Centre’s “Liberalised Vaccination Policy”, which covered the 18-44 age group, expected them to pay through their noses for their jab.

In October 2021, a bench headed by then Chief Justice of India (CJI) N.V. Ramana appointed an expert committee to inquire, investigate, and determine whether the Pegasus spyware was used on Indian citizens, including journalists, activists and politicians, to access stored data. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing the Centre, had refused to divulge details whether Pegasus was used or not, stating the information may affect the national security concerns of the country. However, the apex court said the court’s effort is to uphold the rule of law, without entering the “political thicket”, and added the alleged use of Pegasus on the citizens of the country, was of “grave concern”.

In May 2022, the Supreme Court suspended pending criminal trials and court proceedings under Section 124A (sedition) of the Indian Penal Code. A three-judge bench headed by CJI N.V. Ramana said “All pending trials, appeals and proceedings with respect to the charge framed under Section 124A of the IPC be kept in abeyance”. It was contended before the court that about thousands of people were in jail under the sedition provision. The apex court allowed the Centre to reconsider the British-era law.

In August 2022, the Supreme Court prima facie agreed to re-consider two aspects of the Prevention of Money Laundering Act (PMLA) upheld by its judgment on July 27, which deprived an accused a copy of the Enforcement Case Information Report (ECIR) and the second, the transfer of the burden of proof of innocence onto shoulders of the accused instead of the prosecution.

The apex court clarified that its move to re-consider two aspects shouldn’t be construed to mean that it was against the government’s efforts to prevent the circulation of black money or money-laundering.

Chief Justice of India Uday Umesh Lalit during his brief 74-day tenure granted bail to activist Teesta Setalvad, arrested for allegedly fabricating evidence in the 2002 Gujarat riots cases, and Siddique Kappan, a Kerala-based journalist. In October 2020, Kappan was arrested while on his way to Hathras in UP where a Dalit woman had died after allegedly being gang-raped. The state governments had vehemently opposed any relief to Setalvad and Kappan.

On his last working day, a five-judge bench headed by Chief Justice Lalit with a 3:2 majority upheld the validity of the 103rd Constitution amendment providing 10 per cent reservation to people belonging to economically weaker sections (EWS) in admissions and government jobs. However, Chief Justice concurred with the minority view of Justice S Ravindra Bhat.

Earlier this month, a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court unanimously recognised the control of the Delhi government over administrative services and clarified that the lieutenant governor (LG) does not have sweeping executive powers over the national capital.

The apex court said that the Centre should be mindful of the unique “asymmetric federal model” of governance adopted for the national capital.

Also, in the legal battle between Uddhav Thackeray group and Eknath Shinde group over the ‘real’ Shiv Sena, the apex court said the then Maharashtra governor Bhagat Singh Koshyari erred in concluding that Uddhav Thackeray had lost the majority in the House and neither the Constitution nor the laws enacted by Parliament provide for a mechanism by which disputes amongst members of a particular political party can be settled, and they certainly do not empower the governor to enter the political arena and play a role (however minute) either in inter-party disputes or in intra-party disputes.

The apex court in clear words expressed its skepticism about the incumbent Maharashtra CM Eknath Shine route to power.

From the discussion above, it appears the Supreme Court hasn’t allowed any force to puncture holes in its judicial independence, which it had so valiantly exerted over several years. Also, the apex court has proved the critics -- who often claimed with an occasional exception, the quality of the court’s reasoning has dented its authority -- wrong.

However, as the apex court emerge as a champion of judicial independence, crucial cases await the apex court’s physical hearing, which include the challenge against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) of 2019; the abrogation of Article 370 of the Constitution; whether sedition law deserves in the modern democracy; and, the question of equal right to worship, which has been triggered by the Sabarimala temple entry for women case.

The year ahead will be very crucial for the apex court, as the ruling dispensation would not like to go to polls with a dented image, especially at the hands of the judiciary.

Recently, in a major cabinet reshuffle Prime Minister Narendra Modi has appointed Arjun Ram Meghwal as the new Minister of Law and Justice, and moved Kiren Rijiju to Earth Sciences.

The change in guard indicated the Centre’s desire to get rid of the confrontationist image -- following Rijiju’s frequent fulminations against the Supreme Court collegium. It appears that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would want to step aside any unnecessary escalation in his regime’s confrontations with the judiciary in the one year left in his tenure.

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