[Editorial Note: Justice is an indivisible concept. We cannot, therefore, discuss contemporary Supreme Court judgments without also acknowledging the Court’s failure – at an institutional level – to do justice in the case involving sexual harassment allegations against a former Chief Justice. This editorial caveat will remain in place for all future posts on this blog dealing with the Supreme Court, until there is a material change in circumstances.]
Last month, I had written that the Supreme Court’s “review” order in the Sabarimala Case was a strange one. The Court passed an order in flagrant disregard of the parametres of review jurisdiction (errors apparent on the face of the record, or an equivalent injustice), and referred some “questions” to a future seven-judge bench on the basis that they “may” arise in some other cases involving civil rights and religion, presently pending before the Court. I ended by noting that the order neither referred the correctness of the Sabarimala judgment itself, and nor did it stay the judgment. In law, therefore, the judgment continued to hold the field undisturbed.
In the aftermath of this “review” order, certain women attempted to pray at the Sabarimala shrine, but were advised by the police to turn back from the base of the hill, as no protection would be provided to them. This came on the heels of an opinion by the Advocate-General of Kerala, who cited the “review” order to argue that there was no obligation upon the State to enforce the judgment. In response, the women in question filed a petition before the Supreme Court for enforcement of its own judgment.
Now, the law on this should be clear. There exists a judgment of the Supreme Court. That judgment has not been stayed. The “review” order found no error in the judgment, and indeed, did not even refer the correctness of the judgment to a larger bench. There can be little doubt, then, that the judgment holds the field, and must be enforced by all parties.
An account of yesterday’s hearing before the Chief Justice’s bench reveals, however, that – not for the first time – the basic law we thought we learnt in the first year of Law School was a fiction. The Chief Justice refused to pass any order on the petition, and provided the following reasons for (not) doing so: first, that “this is an age old practice going on for thousands of years. Balance of conveniences requires that order should not be passed in your favour now. The matter is under reference and if it is ultimately decided in your favour, we will protect you“; secondly, that “it’s an emotive issue. Please be patient. We are not saying don’t allow her to go in, but we are not looking to pass any order right now”; and thirdly, “we know that the law is in your favour … however we’re using our discretion and will not be passing any order.”
Let us take each of these three justifications in turn. The first is utterly bewildering, as the Chief Justice appears to have conflated the beginning of the legal process (application for injunction) with its end (application for enforcement). The question of “balance of convenience” arises when a suit has been filed, and the plaintiff asks for interim relief pending a final decision. At that point, the Court asks which way the “balance of convenience” would lie – and on that basis, passes an order that holds the field until it finally decides the case. “Balance of convenience”, however, has nothing – nothing – to do with a case when it has already been decided after a detailed hearing, and the petitioner is only asking for its enforcement! At that point, the question of “convenience” doesn’t even arise, as the rights of the parties have already been settled according to law.
Of course, the Court’s reasoning on “balance of convenience” is equally troubling – not only does it appear to have arrived at this “balance” without a proper hearing on the subject, but also seems to have given no weight to the contrary rights at issue (apart from saying “be patient.”) The situation is starkly reminiscent of an incident recounted by Anupama Rao, in her book, Caste Question. In a 1927 case involving access to a village water-tank (which was placed off limits to Dalits), an injunction was granted to the upper castes on the basis that “if the injunction had not been granted and the suit decided in favour of the ‘touchables’ they will be put to considerable expense and inconvenience for ‘purifying’ the tank; while in the existing circumstances, if the untouchables win the suit the only effect will be to prolong by a year or so the oppression that has lasted centuries.” Readers will notice that even this atrocious order passed by a colonial judge seems to have more reasoning than the oral observations of the Bench in yesterday’s proceeding – not to mention that this was actually a case for an injunction where “balance of convenience” actually had some application, instead of a case for an enforcement. It is an open question whether we have progressed from 1927 – or indeed, whether we have regressed.
And lastly, what is even more problematic about this observation is that the question of whether the practice of excluding women from the Sabarimala temple did have the sanction of antiquity is itself a contested question; there was evidence both for and against the provenance of the practice, and the original judgment(s) in Sabarimala acknowledge this divergence of views. For the Chief Justice, therefore, to blithely state that the practice has been going on for “thousands of years” comes dangerous close to pre-judging the merits of that case, if indeed the case is going to be re-opened.
The second justification offered by the Chief Justice is, of course, both bewildering and alarming. What does the “emotiveness” of the issue have to do with anything at all? Since when do emotions operate as injunctions upon decided judgments? And more importantly, whose emotions count? Just a few months ago, when there were protests against the Supreme Court’s decision on the demolition of the Ravidasa Temple in Delhi, the Court responded thus: “Everything cannot be political. Our orders can’t be given a political colour by anybody on earth” and “don’t speak a word and don’t aggravate the issue. You are in for contempt. We will haul up your entire management. We will see what has to be done.” Where was the Court’s touching solicitude for emotions back then? And how many times has the Court otherwise told aggrieved parties that, like it or not, they need to lump it when it comes to obeying judgments? Is it the case that emotions acquire a particular force when they are backed up by organised and systematic violence? The Chief Justice’s reference to avoiding violence during the hearing suggests that; but if that was the case, then it is nothing more than the heckler’s veto replacing the rule of law: your emotions will be given sanctity by the Court if you are strong enough to express them violently. But if you’re too weak to be violent, or just law-abiding, then, well, you do indeed have to lump it. This is a strange stance to take for the “most powerful Court in the world” and the “last refuge of the oppressed and the bewildered.”
And it is the third justification that really puts a seal on things: because the Chief Justice admits – he actually admits – that the law is indeed in the applicant’s favour (there is a judgment, and no stay). Despite that, he says that the Court will use its “discretion”, and pass no orders. But what sort of discretion is this, exactly? The discretion to refuse to one’s own judgments? The discretion to say that the judgments of the Supreme Court are binding on all courts in the territory of India under Article 141 of the Constitution – but that Supreme Court benches themselves need not be bound to enforce them? It is very clear that there is no legal or judicial basis for this peculiar exercise of discretion: the only justifications that there are go back to the first two points discussed above.
Consequently, yesterday’s proceedings and order heap yet another irregularity upon the original sin that was the “review” order. To an external observer, it seems rather obvious that the Supreme Court now regards the original Sabarimala judgment as a millstone around its neck, and would evidently be rid of it. But to get there, it is undermining its own authority as well as the rule of law to a remarkable – and alarming – degree: reopening judgments in review jurisdiction without finding any “error” and then invoking “discretion” to decline to enforce judgments that hold the field. The question is no longer really about whether the original judgment was right or wrong, or whether the Court will now find a way to reverse it (it appears apparent that it will); the question is whether the damage that has been caused along the way will have been worth it – and whether this is now a Court that can regularly be held hostage to the heckler’s veto.