New Delhi: While it can be argued that many citizens who follow the judiciary closely expected outgoing Chief Justice of India NV Ramana to be much better than his immediate predecessors like SA Bobde and Ranjan Gogoi, history may record that he flattered to deceive.
His actions – and judicial pronouncement – inside the court, it can be argued, seldom matched his words outside.
While his tenure witnessed several politically and socially significant events like the unraveling of the (mis)use of Pegasus software by unnamed agencies to hack and target mobile phones of several citizens, including those holding Constitutional positions, the challenge to sedition law, the controversial release of the 11 convicts involved in the gangrape of Bilkis Bano in Gujarat in 2002, the Supreme Court didn’t show the alacrity that one expected from the country’s top constitutional court.
As CJI, Justice Ramana was never short of strong words, clearly underlining the importance of constitutional values and the need to protect the rights of the citizens. But, these words were seldom followed or preceded by affirmative action on his part.
But, more significantly, as CJI, the biggest failing of Justice Ramana’s 16-month-long tenure was his failure in giving top priority to cases that involve important questions pertaining to the Constitution.
Consider this: as reported by my colleague Riddhima Kedia, between May 1, 2021 – after he had taken over as CJI – and August 1, 2022, the number of pending cases in the Supreme Court rose from 67,898 to 71,411.
More worryingly, there was a sharp upswing in the pendency of constitution bench matters during CJI Ramana’s tenure at the helm. While there were 444 Constitution bench matters that were pending before the Supreme Court on May 1, 2021, the number had risen to 492 by August 1 this year.
Now, in what could be a significant development that happened just two days before Justice UU Lalit assumes charge as the new CJI, the SC registry has notified that from August 29 onwards, 25 five-judge matters will be listed before the appropriate benches.
The country’s top Constitutional court could finally be getting its priorities right.
To better understand the shortcomings of CJI Ramana and the Supreme Court under him, read this well-researched piece by Saurav Das.
Among the important cases that should have been heard and possibly decided by the country’s top court in the last 16 months but were weren’t are the challenge to the constitutionality of the partial abrogation of Article 370 in Jammu and Kashmir, whether reservations must be caste-based or based only on economic criteria, constitutionality of the opaque electoral bonds schemes and the challenge to the Citizenship (Amendment) Act.
However, while he didn’t find time to either heard himself or allocate to another bench – something that was in his remit as master of the roaster, most cases involving serious questions involving the Constitution, CJI Ramana spent a lot of time to hear, along with other members of his bench, the issue of freebies.
Even though by his own admission, the issue of freebies was a “serious issue” but one that was one best left to the legislature , CJI Ramana decided to still intervene. In multiple hearings since the Supreme Court agreed to hear on urgent basis the PIL filed by a BJP leader on the issue, the bench headed by CJI Ramana has made several significant and, often, politically-loaded statements.
As Chief Justice of India (CJI), while he ensured that the collegium cleared over 250 names for various high courts, what wasn’t done was to ensure that the constitutional courts dealt with pending cases on priority.
And that is why history won’t judge his tenure at the helm of India’s judicial system in good light.