Law must be tempered by justice: CJI Ramana’s observations will restore Indians’ faith in higher judiciary

The Chief Justice of India (CJI), N.V. Ramana, struck a resounding note about the interpretation of the understanding of law per se, when he observed that “It can be used not only to render justice, it can also be used to justify oppression.”

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Chief Justice of India N V Ramana

The Chief Justice of India (CJI), N.V. Ramana, struck a resounding note about the interpretation of the understanding of law per se, when he observed that “It can be used not only to render justice, it can also be used to justify oppression.”

Delivering the 17th P.D. Desai Memorial Lecture on June 30, Justice Ramana made several seminal observations on the democratic ethos, the rule of law and the normative, constitutional responsibilities that devolve on the legislature, judiciary and the executive.

The import of such a clear articulation by the CJI is significant, and will cheer the citizens, when in recent years there has been a visible and distressing pattern of the law being (mis)used by the state to justify oppression – especially in dealing with dissent and criticism of the government.

While democracy and the electoral cycle allow the voter to choose their leaders, the CJI cautioned that “the mere right to change the ruler (sic), once every few years, by itself need not be a guarantee against tyranny.”  

Quoting the British-born legal scholar Justice Julius Stone (1907-1985) who declared that  “elections, day-to-day political discourses, criticisms and voicing of protests are integral to the democratic process” –  CJI Ramana provided a beacon of hope to many beleaguered citizens who have been subjected to such ‘tyranny’  by the state machinery for ‘daring’ to exercise this right.

As an aside, one would have preferred if the word ‘ruler’ had been eschewed, for in a democracy the citizen/voter elects the representative for a given period to ‘govern’ – and not rule. However in most democracies, barring a few exceptions, this distinction is blurred and alas, those elected to govern accord unto themselves the halo and trappings of medieval rulers! India is no exception.

CJI Ramana is to be commended for his clarity of thought when he stated: “The idea that people are the ultimate sovereign is also to be found in notions of human dignity and autonomy. A public discourse, that is both reasoned and reasonable, is to be seen as an inherent aspect of human dignity and hence essential to a properly functioning democracy.”

Furthermore, Justice Ramana drew attention to the 1955 ‘Act of Athens’, wherein the International Commission of Jurists explicitly stated that the “state” has to be subject to the law.

He further illuminated the role of Delhi in the heady post-colonial decades apropos global jurisprudence. The CJI recalled that in 1959, under the support of the same Commission, an International Congress of Jurists comprising 185 judges, practicing lawyers and legal academics from 53 countries met in India and issued the “Declaration of Delhi”, which is acknowledged as one of the seminal documents on rule of law. The Declaration reaffirmed  the Act of Athens and emphasized  the need for a "completely independent judiciary."

Reminding his audience that the onus of safeguarding the constitution does not rest with the courts alone, CJI Ramana made a strong case for the independence of the judiciary in the spirit of the 1959 Delhi Declaration. He noted: “For the judiciary to apply checks on governmental power and action, it has to have complete freedom. The judiciary cannot be controlled, directly or indirectly, by the legislature or the executive, or else the Rule of Law would become illusory.”

And being more than cognizant of the dominant role being currently played by social media and a shrill Indian audio-visual media, the CJI opined:  “At the same time, judges should not be swayed by the emotional pitch of public opinion either, which is getting amplified through social media platforms.”

Noting the reverence that should be accorded to the ‘Rule of Law’ – the theme of the Desai Memorial Lecture - CJI Ramana provided a template for India 2021 when he advised sagely: “We primarily need to create a society where Rule of Law is respected and cherished. Only when the citizens believe that they have fair and equal access to justice, can we have sustainable, just, inclusive and peaceful societies.”  

Currently, many aggrieved citizens do not have that belief regarding the sanctity and universality of the rule of law and the responsibility lies on the courts and the executive to irrigate a more empathetic and caring eco-system than what obtains currently, by consistent actions. Today in India there is a cynical acceptance that the law is applied selectively and that there is a different rule book for the rich and powerful.

It was instructive that Justice Ramana recalled Gurajada Appa Rao (1862-1915), the renowned Telugu poet who wrote: “desamamte matti kadoi, desamamte manushuloi” – meaning,    ‘a nation is not merely a territory; a nation is essentially its people;  only when its people progress, the nation progresses’.

The fine-print of the lecture will restore the faith of the citizen in the higher judiciary in a slender manner.  At a time when his immediate predecessors have not quite enthused the citizenry by their personal and professional conduct, both while in high office – and after demitting it – Justice Ramana has set a commendable benchmark.

(The writer is Director, Society for Policy Studies (SPS). The views are personal. He can be contacted at cudaybhaskar@spsindia.in)

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