Nothing greater than people

Published : Mar 28, 2008 00:00 IST

Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee.-V.V. KRISHNAN

Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee.-V.V. KRISHNAN

Interview with Somnath Chatterjee, Lok Sabha Speaker.

LOK SABHA Speaker Somnath Chatterjee was among the distinguished persons who reacted to Supreme Court Chief Justice K.G. Balakrishnans reported statement that he would not hear social activist Teesta Setalvad or anybody associated with her.

Talking to Frontline on the eve of the Budget session of Parliament, the Speaker wondered whether anybody in this country could be denied hearing in a court of law. The question about the Chief Justices reported comments had come up in the context of a discussion on the Judges (Inquiry) Bill, 2006, which is expected to be taken up during the current session of Parliament.

The Speaker pointed out that the issues relating to judicial accountability were of utmost importance in strengthening democratic institutions and had to be addressed in that spirit. He was also of the view that it was time that the various institutions of democracy in the country rediscovered the spirit of united and harmonious functioning without resorting to showmanship. Excerpts from an interview he gave Frontline:

There are a number of important pieces of legislations lined up during the current session of Parliament. But, in the recent past, sessions have been disrupted over trivial issues, leading to delay in the legislative process or the hurried passage of laws without proper discussion. What do you expect this time round?

Irresponsible behaviour has time and again erupted in Parliament. Valuable time and money from the exchequer are wasted away on account of unnecessary disruptions. But significant legislation is also happening from time to time.

But how many people in this country know what laws are being passed, what their types are and what their provisions are? How would they come to know unless the media helps them by informing them? Coverage of Parliament is a crucial component in spreading this awareness. But are the media doing a conscientious job of covering Parliament?

Dont you think that the elected representatives are also responsible for this situation?

See, it has become very fashionable to abuse the legislature. Out of 545 members, some 50 have some question marks over their character and credibility. But when you talk about them, you say even the remaining 499 are bad. The majority of the media are more interested in covering disruptions, commotions and fracas. Do the newspapers and television channels cover serious discussions, debates and interventions seriously? In my view, most of the media have no space for serious issues concerning the people.

One important piece of legislation scheduled for the current session is the Judges (Inquiry) Bill, 2006. Do you think that it would be sufficient to give statutory basis to the existing in-house procedures of inquiry, as visualised in the present Bill, or are you of the view that outside elements should be involved in the scrutiny of various segments of the judiciary?

I cannot really comment on the merits of the Bill since my job at present entails only pronouncing whether a Bill has been passed or not. But, as a citizen of this country and as a lawyer, who had practised for many decades, it is a matter of agony if there is even a whisper of an allegation against a judicial officer. But the fact is that allegations against judicial officers are becoming a reality.

One Chief Justice has said that only 20 per cent of the judges are corrupt. Another Judge has lamented that there are no internal procedures to look into the allegations. Therefore, the necessity of a mechanism is being emphasised by Judges themselves. Then the question arises as to how this mechanism would be brought about and as to who would bring it. Similar questions had come up in the past too. In this context, one of the most unfortunate things was the dismissal of the impeachment petition against Justice V. Ramaswamy, who was found guilty by his peers after following all the provisions of the Constitution. It was done for reasons other than merit and today the country is paying for it.

Now the judiciary has taken upon itself the right to choose and nominate Judges. Earlier, there were at least consultations with the executive, which is accountable to the legislature, but now even that is being done away with.

The judiciary seems to be reserving the right to choose plaintiffs too. The Chief Justice of India was recently on record saying that he would not hear social activist Teesta Setalvad or anybody associated with her.

I doubt whether the Chief Justice has been recorded properly or not. Can anybody in this country be denied being heard in a court of law? I do not know of any procedure known to law or the Constitution that would allow this [a denial of hearing before a court of law]. You can dismiss something on merit. You can refuse to admit a petition. But you cannot say that you would not hear X or Y.

I am raising the doubt whether the Chief Justice has been recorded properly because there are times when a lot of people mistake a judicial observation for a judgment. For, when you make a judgment you have to give reasons for that. But so many things are said without any rhyme or reason. One former Chief Justice had said that for 30 years the legislature in India had not done anything good.

What do you feel about the proposal to enhance the strength of Judges in the highest court?

With all humility, I must say that my experience of the last 50 years is that the more the Judges, the more the arrears. I would prefer quality over quantity. The Supreme Court started with seven or 10 Judges. Now there are 31 Judges. But how many cases are disposed of?

This would be seen as a provocative statement. Will you please substantiate?

See, I do not have the figures at my fingertips. But you go to any High Court, any subordinate court, and the figures would speak for themselves. If you study that, you would see theres nothing provocative about my statement. It is a mere statement of fact. When the Constitution of India was formulated, one learned Judge of the Calcutta High Court, Justice Bose, used to take writ matters twice a week and that was sufficient. And he delivered very important judgments.

Now, writ petitions have become an attractive if I may say so proposition for both lawyers and Judges. Now, I have seen a few Judges admitting petitions galore. How many of these are scrutinised properly?

The issue of the legislature versus the judiciary has exercised you considerably from time to time.

What is this versus business? Why should it be one institution versus another? The legislature has its own area, the judiciary has its own area, and the executive has its own obligations. I am not going to exercise judicial authority. Can the legislature take upon itself the role of appointing Judges on the grounds that the judiciary is not functioning effectively? Is there any substitute for the Lok Sabha, which is rightly called the House of the People?

There is this oft-repeated opinion that the judiciary has been compelled to take an activist role because the other wings of democracy are not functioning.

Now, if I turn this argument a little bit, can I say that since the judiciary has three crore pending cases, the legislature shall intervene to dispose of them? Why are you looking into only one aspect of non-functioning? How many orders are passed by the State or Central governments every day and how many are quashed? The Supreme Court has changed its own decisions so many times.

What does it mean? It means that people are prone to making errors, whatever position you hold. My only contention is that nobody should assume that he is infallible. You respect each other and allow each institution to carry out its task. This assumption of infallibility is not good for a democratic country. If the legislature is not doing its job, the people will kick us out.

India has shown the peoples alertness to protect democracy in a magnificent manner. Governments have been changed so many times by the people exercising the democratic option.

Coming back to the question of scrutiny, there is a stream of opinion in the judiciary that involvement of outside elements would compromise the institution.

I do not agree with this argument. Why should you insulate any institution from peoples inquiry? In fact, you should make it an open book and ask the people to come and find out whether there is any black sheep in the judiciary. You do not function under the impression that all individuals are inimical to the judiciary or are trying to harm it. After all, certain realities have to be accepted. There is nothing greater than the country and there is nothing more important than the people of this country. And thirdly, we have a first-class Constitution based on parliamentary democracy and one that has stood the test of time.

The fact of the matter is that the judiciary is the only unique institution that has no accountability to the people in a democracy. In this overall context, it is absolutely essential to involve outside elements in the process of judicial accountability. The spirit should be that we would all work together for the benefit of the country. I cannot take the position that I am the Lok Sabha Speaker and I am so and so, and I would not listen to anybody or be subject to any scrutiny by the people. That position cannot be accepted in a democracy. And as I keep saying repeatedly, if you do not have parliamentary democracy you will not have freedom.

When judiciary capitulated during the Emergency, on the basis of its own interpretation of the Constitution, it was the people of the country who brought back democracy. And the draconian Acts implemented during the Emergency were repealed by the new Parliament that was brought by the people of the country. No, I am not imputing motives to anybody in the judiciary for taking that position. It is that they made a genuine error, as we are all prone to from time to time.

So, do not assume infallibility and do not see it as a matter of we or they. And, stay away from showmanship. I would only say that it is time that the various institutions of democracy in the country rediscovered the spirit of united and harmonious functioning without resorting to showmanship.

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