Democracy in danger, warn 4 Indian SC judges

NEW DELHI: Four justices of India’s top court on Friday criticised its distribution of cases to judges and raised concerns about judicial appointments, in an unprecedented public airing of problems at one of the country’s most respected institutions.

The move spells far-reaching implications for jurists and politicians in the chaotic South Asian democracy where the Supreme Court often sets the agenda on matters of policy and orders measures taken in the public interest.

Exposing a rift with Chief Justice Dipak Misra, some of the Supreme Court’s most senior judges told a news conference the issues involving its administration were serious enough to prompt them to go public.

"The four of us are convinced that unless this institution is preserved and it maintains its equanimity, democracy will not survive in this country," Justice Jasti Chelameswar said on the lawns of his residence in the Indian capital.

The justices gave a few details of the incidents they were referring to, but released a letter they had written to Misra.

In the letter, they mentioned instances of cases with “far-reaching consequences for the nation and the institution” that were selectively assigned to judges by the chief justice without any rational “basis for such assignment”.

All Supreme Court judges should be involved in setting the procedures used to hire and promote judges in various courts in the country, including the high courts, they added. The chief justice did not immediately respond to telephone calls from Reuters to seek comment. Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad declined to comment.

Two close aides of Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was looking into the matter and had summoned top law ministry officials for consultations. Pressed by reporters, one of the four judges, Ranjan Gogoi, acknowledged that the concerns about assignments were related to the case of a lower court judge, B Loya, who died in December 2014 while hearing a high-profile trial.

The trial involved Amit Shah, the president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, and several police officials from Modi’s western home state of Gujarat. The BJP declined to comment.

Indian media have also speculated that the judges were unhappy with the way a case of alleged corruption by a retired high court judge was handled late last year. In that case, Chief Justice Misra overturned an order made by Justice Chelameswar referring the case to the court’s top judges.