“It has always been well recognised that the mere right to change the ruler, once every few years, by itself need not be a guarantee against tyranny.”
These were the words spoken by Chief Justice of India (CJI) NV Ramana on Wednesday, 30 June, as he delivered the 17th Justice PD Desai Memorial Trust lecture. Further, CJI Ramana went on to quote legal scholar Julius Stone as he pointed out that “elections, day-to-day political discourses, criticisms and voicing of protests” are “integral to the democratic process”.
The ‘Rule of Law’
Justice Ramana also, in his lecture, opined that to define law as “a tool of social control which is backed by the sovereign” is “a double edged sword”.
“ It can be used not only to render justice, it can also be used to justify oppression.”
CJI Ramana shared that he thinks “any law backed by a sovereign, must be tempered by certain ideals or tenets of justice.”
Alleging that the British colonists used law as a tool of political repression, the present Chief Justice of India said:
“The move from a colonial past to the present required a shift from the colonial idea of laws imposed by foreign rulers for their benefit, to laws given by our people to govern themselves, laws which are not merely commands but are also embodied by a sense of justice.”
Four Principles of the ‘Rule of Law’
CJI Ramana, in his virtual address, went on emphasise the principles of the ‘rule of law.’
Laws must be clear and accessible: There cannot, therefore, be secretive laws, and laws must be worded in simple, unambiguous language, said the CJI.
Equality before the law: This entails “access to justice” and “gender equality”. Further, as per CJI Ramana: “Bias and prejudice necessarily lead to injustice, particularly when it relates to the minorities.”
Right to participate in the creation and refinement of laws: “The idea that people are the ultimate sovereign is also to be found in notions of human dignity and autonomy,” Ramana pointed out.
Strong independent judiciary: ‘For the judiciary to apply checks on governmental power and action, it has to have complete freedom,’ said CJI Ramana. He also added, however, that while “there is a lot discussion about the pressure from the executive, it is also imperative to start a discourse as to how social media trends can affect the institutions.”
On Independence of Judiciary, From Executive, Legislature & From the Noise on Social Media
The Chief Justice lauded Justice Desai’s judicial career, spanning over two decades, as one in which he established himself to be a fiercely independent judge and an exceptional administrator.
He also emphasised the importance of the independence of judiciary for maintaining the rule of law, saying:
“The judiciary cannot be controlled, directly or indirectly, by the legislature or the executive, or else the rule of law would become illusory. At the same time, judges should not be swayed by the emotional pitch of public opinion either, which is getting amplified through social media platforms.”
He stated that judges cannot live in “ivory castles” and must be mindful of the fact that the noise on social media “is not necessarily reflective of what is right and what the majority believes in.”
Discussing the “unprecedented” COVID-19 crisis, Justice Ramana said that at this point “we necessarily have to pause and ask ourselves, as to what extent we have used the rule of law to ensure protection to and welfare of all of our people.”
“I do not intend to provide an evaluation of the same. Both my office and my temperament prevent me from doing so. But I began to feel that this pandemic might yet be a mere curtain raiser to much larger crises in the decades to come. Surely we must at least begin the process of analysing what we did right and where we went wrong.”
On Independent India’s 17 General Elections
Further, Ramana credited the people of India with having “proved themselves to be intelligent and up to the task” and having performed their duties “reasonably well” in the 17 general elections that have been conducted in Independent India so far, but also said:
“Now, it is the turn of those who are manning the key organs of the State to ponder if they are living up to the Constitutional mandate.”
CJI Ramana ended his speech with a narration of Rabindranath Tagore’s iconic poem: ‘Where the Mind is Without Fear’.