Chelameswar’s revolt was brewing for at least two months

On 12 January, when personal assistant to Justice J. Chelameswar sent an SMS, around 10.40 am, to select journalists covering the Supreme Court to reach his home for a press conference, the news hit like a time bomb. The sensation was huge because a most unlikely man had decided to speak out. The rest was headline news. But what are the five main takeaways from this “historic rebellion” by the four justices?

1. For the last two months, in off-the-record conversations, Justice Chelameswar had been sharing his concerns with some fellow judges and a handful of journalists. Many people were privy to the tension brewing at the top in the Supreme Court. Whichever side of the political spectrum one belongs to, one will agree that the press conference by Justices Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, Madan Lokur and Kurien Joseph has taken the sheen off the Indian judiciary. The irony is that the damage has been done by the same judges who were genuinely concerned about the institution’s credibility. Most senior lawyers practising in the Supreme Court, barring those with extreme left ideology, think that the “press conference was avoidable and unnecessary”. However, there are many young lawyers who have supported the “mutiny”.

2. What compelled them to do what they did? The answer is: the complex situation of the judiciary. The leader of the event was Justice Chelameswar. As the four judges’ letter to the Chief Justice of India said, they had serious issues with the assignment of work to various benches by the CJI. However, the letter doesn’t give enough ammunition in form of evidences to form any strong opinion against CJI Dipak Misra. The letter said, “There have been instances where cases having far-reaching consequences for the nation and the institution had been assigned by the Chief Justice of this Court selectively to the benches ‘of their preferences’ without any rational basis for such assignment.” But when the four judges go to the “people’s court”, people will ask for specifics because “cases having far-reaching consequences” is a subjective statement. The day after the event the feeling is that if the four judges were trying to “expose” the judiciary, they were not “effective enough” to bring in the desired changes, eventually, because they did not disclose any information that would have helped people take up their cause. The judges’ sympathisers say that the climax came in the opening innings. So what next? Most lawyers think that the judges will “patch up” with CJI Misra, once he invites them to talk. However, nobody knows for sure.

3. In the press conference, Justice Gogoi said “yes” when asked if the case of Justice Loya’s death had resulted in their action. In this case, Justice Arun Mishra’s bench has, already, issued a notice to the Maharashtra government, so the press conference will not have any impact on the course of the matter. Besides, how will bringing Loya’s case to the headlines impact BJP president Amit Shah or even the legal case of Sohrabudin?

4. The Congress was overjoyed after the press conference, because any such infighting in the judiciary is not good for the government of the day. But Rahul Gandhi’s press conference demanding special inquiry into Justice Loya’s death was over-cautious. Congress is wary of giving unconditional support to the four judges for obvious reasons. The government was silent but after the jolt will focus on the opportunity to emerge out of the crisis. The collegium system is on shaky ground now. Efforts will be made to revive the concept of National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC).

5. A Hindi newspaper with huge circulation had a front page report on Saturday, debating whether the four judges should be impeached for crossing the line? Most people were not happy that the judges had gone public with their grievances. However, many “secular” lawyers who are working against the Narendra Modi government were seen explaining to the media how CJI Misra could be impeached. As a senior lawyer critical of the four judges’ action, said, “The event of the press conference is the last hope of the secular-liberal class against the right-wing political class, which is gaining ground inside and outside the judiciary since Modi has come to power.”

On the other hand, a senior lawyer who has spent a lifetime fighting against the BJP, said, “The Modi government got a thumping majority in 2014 but its larger acceptance in old media, judiciary and in the intellectual class is missing due to BJP’s pro-Hindu agenda.” He hoped that the judges’ action will help the fight to resist what he saw as the right-wing slant in law-formation.

In the end, the government is likely to try to capitalise from the rebellion, which had multiple targets.