The present Chief Justice of India likes sealed covers. In the ongoing National Register of Citizens Case, he has – on multiple occasions – asked the state coordinator of the NRC to submit the details of his work to the Court in a “sealed cover” (including, on one occasion, refusing to share the contents of the “sealed cover” with the Attorney-General for India). In the Rafale Case, he asked the Government to submit pricing details about its purchase of the Rafale aircraft in a “sealed cover”. And in the case involving corruption allegations at the CBI, he directed that the CVC’s report about the CBI Director Alok Varma be given to the latter in a “sealed cover”.
These constant references to “sealed covers” may sound like the stuff of thrilling detective novels, but they also happen to be deeply and profoundly anti-democratic. Let us start with the foundational principle: in India, we are committed to the value of open justice. The Courts are public forums, their work characterised by transparency and openness to public scrutiny. Judgments – and the reasons underlying them – must ordinarily be public. The Indian Supreme Court is not the Court of the Star Chamber, with its opaque and secretive processes. In a democracy, it is of fundamental importance that justice be done in full public view.
Like any principle, the principle of open justice, of course, has its exceptions. The concept of an “in-camera trial” is well-known: there are a handful of cases whose sensitive nature requires that they be closed off to the public, especially when matters of personal privacy are involved. This, however, is meant to be a situation of the last resort, taken only after hearing arguments on the issue, formally enjoined by the judge, and not a decision that she ought to take lightly.
Next, consider the following situation: an election is challenged on the ground of procedural irregularities. The results of the election are due to be announced before the Court can adequately hear and decide the case. To prevent a fait accompli, the Court asks the election authorities to refrain from declaring the results, and – instead – hand them over to the Court in a “sealed cover”, pending the adjudication of the dispute. Here, the issue is purely procedural: the material submitted to the Court has nothing to do with the Court’s final decision, and it therefore raises no concerns of open justice.
There is a third category of cases: those involving State secrets. Consider, the famous example provided by the Supreme Court of the United States in The Pentagon Papers Case: that of troop movements in wartime. Nobody would suggest that details of this kind ought to be made public. But then again, nobody would suggest that this is a matter that is justiciable in the first place: issues involving State secrets fall within the domain of Executive prerogative, a domain where courts cannot tread. Of course, there can be – and often is – a dispute over whether something qualifies as a State secret or not – that, indeed, was the whole dispute in the Pentagon Papers Case, and that is certainly a matter for the courts to decide. However, once the courts have decided (with due deference to the Executive), then there can be no halfway house: if the question involves a State secret, then it is the absolute prerogative of the Executive to deal with the information as it sees fit. If it does not, then the traditional principles of open justice and open democracy apply: if it can be shared with the Court, then it must be shared with the public.
The problem with the Chief Justice’s evolving jurisprudence of the sealed cover is that in its arbitrary and ad-hoc character, it has become a matter of personal fiat, rather than a careful consideration of balancing the core principles of open justice with the narrow exceptions that may occasionally apply. Consider, for instance, the Rafale issue, where the challenge is to the government’s decision-making process as part of public procurement in a defence deal. Now, the government argues that the price at which it obtained the fighter jets cannot be revealed, as that would compromise the deal itself: in short, the determination of pricing is a core executive function when it is striking defence deals, and not something for the Court to go into. If you agree with the government’s argument, then there ends the matter: the question of pricing has to be excluded from the proceedings altogether. If you don’t agree with the government’s argument – if you believe that the corruption allegation cannot be decided without looking into the question of pricing – then that logic has to be carried through to its conclusion: the pricing details, along with the rest of the decision-making process, has to be subjected to judicial review, and ipso facto be public. What the Chief Justice has done, instead, is to take the pricing details in a “sealed cover”, with some stray observations about how, at this time, he does not consider it relevant to the case. Fair enough – however, why ask for the pricing to be made available only to him and his brother judges, if he does not consider it relevant? And what if he changes his mind later on? Will we get an affirmative judicial finding on whether or not there was corruption in the Rafale deal – a crucial public issue – on the basis of three judges’ reading of what is contained in a “sealed envelop”?
While the fate of the “sealed envelop” in the Rafale case lays bear some of the contradictions of the Chief Justice’s approach, in the NRC case, that approach has far more sinister results. Unlike Rafale, NRC is about core fundamental rights, including the right of citizenship. As I have argued before, the Chief Justice with his “sealed covers” (and “confidential reports”) has essentially set up a regime of secret justice, where individuals are faced with life-changing (and life-destroying) decisions about their rights, without any chance to challenge or interrogate them.
What explains this? The Chief Justice’s thought process – I suggest – was laid bare yesterday, in a throwaway remark that he made during the proceedings concerning the third of my examples – the CBI case. The Chief Justice’s rationale for handing over the CVC Report to Alok Verma in a “sealed cover” was that “public confidence in the CBI” must be maintained. Now consider the facts: the two topmost officials of the CBI accuse each other of graft, the government (long-accused of treating the CBI like a “caged parrot) intervenes in a manner that is questioned by many, and the CVC is brought in to investigate the CBI Chief. All this, we are expected to believe, would not affect “public confidence” in the institution, but making the CVC Report public would somehow achieve that.
But this is nothing better than a complete infantilisation of the public: the Chief Justice is essentially telling us, in his best Colonel Jessup impression, “You want the truth? You can’t handle the truth.” The truth will stay between the high officials involved, and then a second set of high officials – the judges – will render judgment on the basis of that cloistered truth – all of which is in keeping with the sanctity of the CBI. The only threat, apparently, is of the public getting to know what the CVC has to say about the CBI Chief. This is an approach that treats people as passive subjects of justice instead of active citizens, and makes of judges that “bevy of Platonic guardians” that Judge Learned Hand was so terrified of: “sit back, relax, and let the grown-ups handle it.“
A judicial regime in which the first recourse is to the “sealed cover” – thus setting up a secret dialogue between the Court and the State, to the exclusion of the citizen – has no place in a democratic set-up. Rather, it resembles a petty autocracy, where the citizens are viewed as irritants, who have no stake in the process of justice, and just need to let the guardians “get on with it.” It was a regime that our constitutional framers explicitly rejected when they made India the first country in the world to initiate universal adult franchise in a single stroke, notwithstanding the poverty and the illiteracy. In 1947, there were those who resisted this, echoing the colonial logic that Indian could not be trusted to think and decide for themselves, and would have to be led and guided until they became mature enough to do so. The constitutional framers, however, took a leap of faith, and chose the path of democracy and openness. The “jurisprudence of the sealed cover” makes a mockery of that faith.