One of my closest male friends is a senior IAS officer, now retired. He belongs to a family of scholars and public servants, and has degrees from two of the world’s great universities. He has some special areas of expertise, such as education and health, and speaks four Indian languages fluently. With these skills, and without pulling any strings or ingratiating himself with any politician, he ended his career as Secretary to the Government of India in New Delhi.
While in service my friend worked very long hours. To whichever post he occupied he brought commitment, knowledge, and patriotism. He sought to craft policies in tune with what he understood to be the spirit of the Constitution, and to try and see that they were implemented. But when his efforts failed due to the corruption or cronyism (or plain incompetence) of his colleagues or of his Minister, he did not leak evidence of their wrong-doing to the press. When he was with his Minister in a conference he would speak courteously to the editors and reporters present. But he would not grant them privileged access to confidential material, nor would be speak to them, as it were, ‘off the record’.
My friend is now retired. He is now on social media, occasionally lends his name to a signature campaign, and may have written the odd signed op-ed. However, this is because he is now a free citizen, no longer bound by the oaths and obligations of his office.
I have known hundreds of IAS officers. Some were as smart as my friend, but keen to convey their brains away from the IAS and towards a sinecure at the World Bank. Some others were as honest, but wanted the world to know this, by leaking documents and speaking to the press while still in service.
In his intelligence and integrity my friend was an outstanding public servant. But, I now wonder, did he ever feel tempted to go to the press because of some grave malfeasance committed by his peers or superiors which could have undermined Indian democracy and its institutions? I ask this question because I was in the audience in the Constitution Club in New Delhi last Friday, when the second highest ranking judge of the Supreme Court of India gave an hour-long interview to the journalist Karan Thapar.
I live in Bengaluru, and am not exactly an expert on the law. But I had, like all concerned citizens, been following recent developments in the Supreme Court, and thus knew of the loss of faith in the current Chief Justice among some senior lawyers and even among some of his colleagues on the bench. I had read the letter that Justice Chelameshwar and three other judges wrote to the Chief Justice, as well as reports of the press conference they conducted thereafter.
I was in Delhi last week, and on Friday 6th April dined with a female friend from college days, who happens to be a senior lawyer. She told me about the conversation scheduled for the next day, and said I must attend. When I protested my ignorance about the law, she answered that because of our old acquaintance she knew the depths of my ignorance better than most. But she said I must still come, since it would (or should) interest a student of Indian democracy.
So I went. I am glad I did. For Karan Thapar does his homework far better than other anchors. As always, he had prepared his questions well; although on occasion he should perhaps have allowed the Judge, who speaks slowly and with many pauses, more time to frame and elaborate his answers. (Thapar is accustomed to interviewing garrulous politicians and academics, whose responses come out in a great, unstoppable, rush.)
There is a video recording of the conversation up on YouTube. The audience that day was large and diverse, with lawyers young and old, famous and upright, with a sprinkling of journalists thrown in. We listened in absolutely rapt attention, broken only by the occasional round of applause for certain remarks that issued from the Judge’s mouth.
Reflecting on the event a week later, I think that three statements that Justice Chelameshwar made were of particular significance. The one that got the most applause was with regard to who would succeed Justice Dipak Misra as the next Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Justice Ranjan Gogoi is by all relevant criteria the leading candidate; but since he signed that collective letter there has been speculation that the Government might try and stop his elevation. When Thapar asked whether this could happen, Justice Chelameshwar said it was very unlikely, adding that if it did, this made the contents of their letter even more relevant. Since Narendra Modi’s Government seems as eager to manipulate the judiciary as was Indira Gandhi’s, this was a pre-emptive strike in favour of judicial independence.
The statement that got the second most applause was made more or less spontaneously. Justice Chelameshwar said, with quite some emphasis, that he would not accept any post-retirement job under this Government or any other. Given that a recent Chief Justice, P. Sathasivam, had greatly sullied the image of his fraternity by accepting a Governorship soon after retirement, this statement was testament to Justice Chelameshwar‘s own sense of professional honour and self-respect.
Both these statements were brave and necessary. But there was a third, met with much less applause, which was equally significant. This was when Justice Chelameshwar came out categorically against the attempt to impeach the current Chief Justice. The impeachment of a particular individual, he suggested, was no solution to a systemic crisis. He is absolutely right; for populist hysteria and partisan politics have crippled too many of our institutions already. The Supreme Court must be saved from both.
As signficant as what Justice Chelameshwar said was what he did not say that evening. Karan Thapar sought several times to get him to elaborate on the contents of the letter to the Chief Justice as well as the contents of judgements to which Justice Chelameshwar had been party. But the Justice merely referred him back to what was already in the public domain.
It is altogether unprecedented for sitting judges of the Supreme Court to grant face-to-face interviews to journalists, and in front of a live audience too. In that sense this was a historic event, and my lawyer friend was right in persuading me to witness it. But what would my other friend, the retired civil servant, have made of this? I think he would have approved of what Justice Chelameshwar did that day. For he knows what many other IAS officers do not or will not accept; that the proper functioning of the Supreme Court is far more important to the functioning of Indian democracy than the work of babus and even Ministers.
The Supreme Court is currently facing one of the greatest crises in its history. Exceptional times call for exceptional measures. We, sitting outside or far away from the Court, sense this; senior judges, sitting inside, know and feel this. Because of what he has observed from the closest of perches, Justice Chelameshwar must have felt compelled to give one interview while still in service. He chose his interviewer carefully; and his words more carefully still. In what he said (and did not say) to Karan Thapar at the Constitutional Club on the 7th of April, Justice Chelameshwar fulfilled the twin obligations placed upon his (very broad) shoulders; of rectitude (to his office), which demanded that he reveal no secrets and eschew personal remarks or aspersions; and of responsibility (to his country), which required that he inform his fellow citizens that something was not quite right with the Supreme Court of India.
BETWEEN RECTITUDE AND RESPONSIBILITY
(first published in The Telegraph, 14th April 2018)