Judges were like celebrities. Every intonation they uttered was of consequence – it had to be studied, deciphered. Everything they did was perfect, wise and oh so sharp.
I remember the first time I visited the Supreme Court ten years ago. I was fresh out of law school and all I wanted was a piece of court action. I started out in the Delhi High Court, where my only task was to buy time for my senior if a Judge took up our case before he made it to court and seek an adjournment if there was no chance of him showing up at all. It sounds boring, but I cannot tell you how much fun it was just sitting in a courtroom for hours and watching the drama unfold case after case. At lunch-time, I would head to the canteen and catch up with other juniors, all of whom had the same job-description as me. We would spend our entire lunch gossiping about this judge and that: how she scolded this lawyer, how he cracked that joke, how she always came prepared, how he never read a brief. Judges were like celebrities. Every intonation they uttered was of consequence – it had to be studied and deciphered. Everything they did was perfect, wise and oh so sharp. Even when they were wrong, they could not be too wrong. One always found excuses like ‘he wasn’t in the mood to listen today’ or ‘he just got stuck on that issue’ or ‘he doesn’t have much experience on this roster’ because how could s/he actually just be wrong or biased or ignorant?
At the helm of this celebrity-hood were judges of the Supreme Court, and I was just one in their billion fans both inside and outside of the legal fraternity. That first day when I had to assist my senior in the Supreme Court, I sacrificed my daily dose of gossip and snuck into Court 1 – where the Chief Justice of India sits – at lunch. It stands right under the cupola that characterises the Supreme Court building, on the first major landing of a wide, endless, staircase leading up to the court complex from sprawling lawns. Nobody was there in court, not even the Court master. I sat in the front row facing the Judges’ pedestal and looked around, overwhelmed. The ornate dark wooden interiors, the towering straight-backed empty chairs in front of me, the image of Ashoka’s lions on the walls behind them with the words Yato Dharmastato Jayah – ‘whence justice, thence victory’ – inscribed beneath them, the portraits of two famous Justices adorning the walls. Grand, so grand. I remember saying a silent prayer: God, let me argue a case here one day.
We, the 20, 30 and 40-somethings who are arguably the future of the legal profession are blissfully ignorant of the questionable ways in which this very court compromised the constitutional rights of ordinary citizens in the mid-70s…
In the ten years of practice that followed, I put my legal skills to profitable use and travelled the world thanks to work. But my dream to argue a case in the Chief’s Court persisted, undiminished by other successes. For me and for uncountable other lawyers of my generation the Chief’s Court has always been the physical manifestation of the one thing we all hold dear: the Indian Constitution. That supreme law which binds our vast and unwieldy country together into one prosperous, secular, democratic, civilization. We, the 20, 30 and 40-somethings who are arguably the future of the legal profession are blissfully ignorant of the questionable ways in which this very court compromised the constitutional rights of ordinary citizens in the mid-70s. We were too young to experience the horror of Indira Gandhi’s emergency (1975-1977) or appreciate the many battles our legal fraternity fought to protect the Constitution, only to lose them in the infamous Habeas Corpus case. In that historic decision, the Chief’s Court ruled by a majority of 4 to 1 that Indian citizens did not have the right to approach courts for the protection of their key fundamental rights: equality, life, liberty, and the right against arbitrary arrest and detention. Justice Khanna was the only dissenter and he paid for his dissent dearly when he was subsequently superseded to the office of the Chief Justice of India at the behest of Indira Gandhi. We have read about these things, we know they happened, but we don’t see traces of them anywhere. Our consciousness has only registered the strong Court of the 80’s and thereafter. The Court which preserves the constitution’s inviolable basic structure, protects the man on the street from all political encroachments and brings down governments for corruption scams. The emergency has always been a tiny black blip in the Court’s long and glorious history in our minds.
…someone would have rushed to the Chief the day after masked goons brutally assaulted JNU students as the Delhi Police stood by and watched. But no one did.
Always, up until now. Now the prestige of the Chief’s Court is quickly dissolving in my estimation. I suddenly see the Supreme Court more clearly. I see a Court which found one community guilty of destroying another’s place of worship in ‘egregious violation of the rule of law’, but did not restore the victim’s religious integrity. I see a Court which accepted that the indefinite suspension of internet services by the executive is an impermissible infringement of the right to freedom of expression, but did not strike down the violative executive orders. I see a Court refusing to put a stop to the daily infringement of the fundamental rights of people who just want to tell their own government that they disagree with some of its policies. Evidently, there are others who see the Court the way I do now. Otherwise someone would have rushed to the Chief the day after masked goons brutally assaulted JNU students with the complicity of Delhi’s Police. But no one did.
From wanting to earn my place in the Chief’s Court, I am forced to read the Preamble of India’s Constitution it the court-lawns as a reminder of the principles it is bound to protect.
From wanting to earn my place in the Chief’s Court, I am forced to read the Preamble of India’s Constitution in the lawns outside as a reminder of the principles it is bound to protect. I am reminding myself of a few things too: of the emergency, of the Habeas Corpus case, and of the reason why the sole dissenter in that case, Justice Khanna, is one of the only two Justices whose portraits hang in Court 1 today. The other being Justice Kania, the first Chief Justice of India.
I want to believe that the Court I have admired all my lawyer life has learnt from its past experiences. That it will never again be a handmaiden for political gimmicks, that it will never again damage the fabric of India’s Constitution, that it will never again let Indian citizens out to dry. The moment of reckoning is not far. On 22 January 2020, the Chief’s Court will commence its hearing of the petitions challenging the constitutional validity of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019. I will know soon enough if I am just an optimistic fangirl who needs to accept that her favourite movie star is nothing but another sad guy in a bar. I know it will break my heart, and mine will be one in a billion.
(This series is not associated with the NDTV programme, ‘We The People’, or the NDTV channel, reporters, employees, or any person / entity related or affiliated to NDTV. All opinions are personal to the author.)