75 years of ‘supreme’ journey in pursuits of socio-economic and political justice!
Despite the Supreme Court’s commendable 75-year journey, India's legal system faces critical challenges
The colossal pendency of cases, disproportionate incarceration of underprivileged groups, and lack of inclusivity within the judiciary itself threaten the ideals of justice and equality
In a country like India where socio-economic and political disparities are so deep and wide, the judiciary has a bigger role to play in building an inclusive society. Judiciary is also considered to be a pillar of our democracy, which represents the aspirations of 140 crore people. The malaise of socio-economic discrimination has been significantly checked over the years thanks to our judiciary. It was, therefore, so satisfying to see the Supreme Court of India on January 28, 2024 commemorating 75 years of its inaugural sitting by six judges led by then Chief Justice Harilal J Kania at the Prince’s Chamber of the Parliament. These 75 years of the supreme journey of the apex court in pursuits of socio-economic and political justice has really been laudable.
Ups and downs, bouquets and criticism, hope and despair, optimism or cynicism, the Supreme Court has played an important role in building a nation where there is no caste-religion or region-based discrimination and exclusion against our own people and is firmly founded on the preamble pillars of equality, justice, fraternity and liberty. Chief Justice Kania in his address at the inaugural sitting stressed three principles or mantras for the Supreme Court’s functioning in sync with the constitutional mandate – the top court “must be independent of the legislature and executive; it must interpret the Constitution not as a rigid body of rules but as a living organism; it must secure the respect of citizens for it to establish itself as a legitimate institution. The confidence of our citizens is determinative of our own legitimacy.”
The observation that ‘the confidence of our citizens is determinative of our own legitimacy’ is very important. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, while inaugurating the diamond jubilee celebration of the Supreme Court, said that the makers of our Constitution saw the dream of a free India based on freedom, equality and justice and the Supreme Court has continuously tried to preserve these principles. He also underscored the crucial role of a robust justice system as the cornerstone of Viksit Bharat and highlighted his government's continuous efforts to create a reliable legal framework, while citing the enactment of the Jan Vishwas Bill as a step in the right direction while also reducing the number of pending cases thereby alleviating unnecessary pressure from the judiciary.
As we move towards being one of the top five economies of the world, there is a serious alert for the policy makers and conscience keepers in the form of huge pendency of cases in our courts. On December 15, 2023, Union Law Minister Arjun Ram Meghwal in a written reply informed the Lok Sabha that as of December 1, 2023 out of the 5,08,85,856 pending cases, over 61 lakh cases were at the level of the 25 high courts. As we all tend to believe in the age-old dictum that justice delayed is justice denied, pendency of a colossal number of cases in courts is debilitating. It is nothing less than a monstrous question mark on our tall claims and their relevance.
I would like to revisit what President Droupadi Murmu said on September 27, 2023 while laying the foundation stone of the new building of Madhya Pradesh High Court in Jabalpur. She said, as was widely reported in media and news agencies, “Due to the abundance of cases pending in the courts, a large number of undertrial prisoners are forced to stay in the jail. I have said on many occasions that the judiciary, government and police administration should think about undertrial prisoners who are lodged in jails for minor crimes, and find a solution.” “Every person associated with the judiciary should make efforts to provide simple, accessible and speedy justice to the general public…About 4.5 crore cases are pending in lower courts across the country and many of these cases are pending for 20 to 30 years,” she noted.
What is agonizing is the fact that the majority of undertrials in our country belong to poor strata of society categorized as SCs, OBCs and STs. President Murmu, in her maiden Constitution Day address on November 26, 2022 at the Supreme Court, herself highlighted the plight of poor tribals of her home state Odisha besides Jharkhand, saying they remain incarcerated despite getting bail for lack of money to furnish the bail amount or arrange sureties. She urged the judiciary to do something for the poor tribals, noting that those accused of serious offences walk out free but these poor inmates, who may have gone to jail for slapping someone, have to spend years on end before they are released.
On August 21, 2022, then Chief Justice of India-designate Uday Umesh Lalit said the problem of litigation and its repercussions, while formally launching the Legal Aid Defence Counsel (LADC) system in 365 District Legal Services Authorities at an event held at Vigyan Bhawan, New Delhi. According to media reports, he said that over 70 per cent of the population is below the poverty line and only 12 per cent opt for the free legal aid provided by legal services authorities. "What does the population between 12 per cent to 70 per cent do?" he said, adding, "That means the difference between 12 per cent and 70 per cent is not with us. They have solicited the engagement of private counsel...They must have sold their assets; they must have sold their jewellery; they must have mortgaged their properties. That is what the litigation brings in. Litigation is like a bleeding wound. The more you let it bleed, the more will the man suffer,” he said. An unfortunate situation indeed but who cares.
Now let us see the status of inclusivity in our judiciary! The Union Government on March 17, 2023 informed the Parliament that a total of 569 judges were appointed to the High Courts from 2018. Of the 569 judges, 17 belonged to the Scheduled Castes (SCs), nine to the Scheduled Tribes (STs), 64 to Other Backward Classes (OBCs), and 15 to minority communities. Information on the social background of 20 judges was not available with the government. The then Union Law Minister informed the Lok Sabha that the appointment of judges of the High Courts is made under Articles 217 and 224 of the Constitution, which do not provide for reservation for any caste or class of persons.
However, he said, the Central government is committed to social diversity in the appointment of judges in the higher judiciary and has been requesting the Chief Justices of High Courts due consideration be given to suitable candidates belonging to SCs, STs, OBCs, minorities and women to ensure social diversity in appointment of judges to high courts. Their poor representation in the Supreme Court and High Courts is a matter of serious concern. Let us admit the fact that when the judiciary lacks inclusivity, it undermines the fundamental principles of justice and equality upon which it is built. ‘Exclusionary practices’ within the judiciary can result in biased decision-making, perpetuation of systemic inequalities, and erosion of public trust in the legal system, which hampers our collective efforts aimed at achieving a truly just and equitable society.
(The writer is a senior journalist, author and columnist. The views expressed are strictly his personal)