The internet was abuzz with news concerning the autobiography of Justice Ranjan Gogoi, titled ‘Justice for the Judge’. The buzz is understandable given the judge’s polarizing past and the contentious issues the book deals with.
There is significant writing () about the book already, which got me wondering, how can a book be so reviled? Hence, I ordered a copy for myself and was surprised to find out that the reviews don’t do justice to the book as they only cover parts of it.
I believe there is more to the book and some of the issues it raises should be discussed. Therefore, in this post I won’t discuss the mainstream issues like the Ayodhya verdict, the Rafale verdict, the NRC verdict, the sexual harassment complaint against the judge etc. In this post, I shall analyse the book in toto, and attempt to cover:
(a) Its aim and its underlying theme of Justice Gogoi being an independent and upright Judge,
(b) The problems with the Collegium which it raises, and
(c) Other issues pertaining to the judiciary.
At the outset, I wish to state that this post is merely a critique of the book and covers both the good and the bad.
Gogoi as a self-made Iron Man?
Presenting Justice Gogoi as a strong and upright Judge seems to be the underlying theme of the book. This narrative starts from the book’s prologue, where Justice Gogoi speaks about himself in third person, narrating the story of a 15-year-old boy from Dibrugarh who made it to the highest court of the land, as its Chief Justice.
I personally find such an introduction to be slightly conceited (especially in an autobiography) and this belief is strengthened as the book proceeds. The book is replete with sentences like,
"I chose not to shirk what I inherited from my predecessors ,"
"…what cannot be lost sight of is that , the culmination of the matter would not have been possible,"
These reflections aim to portray him as an iron man, a tough Chief Justice and a judge who steered the Supreme Court through tough times.
Another narrative in the book shows Justice Gogoi as a self-made man despite coming from a privileged family. His father was a Senior Advocate at the Gauhati High Court and later became Chief Minister of Assam. His mother also came from a politician’s family. To his credit, he admits this privilege, but in my opinion, does it poorly. He highlights incidents like taking public transport during his days as an advocate, being an adjusting judge during his time in Gauhati etc. to drive home the point that despite being privileged, he lived within his means and made it on his own.
This narrative takes a hit when he discusses his time at the Bar. For instance, he narrates that on his first day at the Bar, many senior lawyers personally congratulated him on choosing the legal profession. Further, he states that his father had requested Gauhati’s most successful lawyer, JP Bhattacharjee to take his son as a junior.
Being a first-generation lawyer myself and having interacted with many others like me, I can confidently state that such perks don’t come around easily and Justice Gogoi was definitely at an advantage given his privilege.
However, what’s distasteful is that he underplays this privilege (rather unconvincingly) by saying that such gestures were part of the Bar’s convention and had nothing to do with his status.
Collegium: An unavoidable evil?
Justice Gogoi devotes significant space to the Collegium system for appointment of judges in India and his experience being a part of it. The said system has often been attacked for its opaque nature, since its proceedings are conducted behind closed doors and reasons behind its decision to recommend a judge for elevation are not disclosed. The Collegium merely issues a notification with the names of the proposed judge/s sans the reason behind recommending their names. It should be noted that the Collegium system is a creation of the Supreme Court in , and did not find a place in the original text of the Constitution.
Justice Gogoi in the book argues that there is merit in not disclosing detailed reasons behind decisions of the Collegium. He bats for the existing system despite recognizing that it suffers from procedural opacity. To support his claim, he cites several decisions taken by the Collegium. Citing these cases weakens his argument rather than strengthening it.
First, he cites the case of Justice Surya Kant, who was appointed to the Supreme Court over his senior at the Punjab & Haryana High Court, Justice Ajay Kumar Mittal. Justice Gogoi writes that the basis for superseding Justice Mittal was an adverse remark by Collegium member Justice J Chelameshwar to the effect that ‘Mittal to his knowledge was not fit to be Chief Justice’. Later, Mittal was elevated as Chief Justice of the Meghalaya High Court during Gogoi’s tenure.
Second, he cites the case of Justice Akil Kureshi, who was recommended as Chief Justice of the Madhya Pradesh High Court by the Collegium. However, the executive expressed objection against his name based on a negative perception flowing from certain judicial orders passed by him. His name was sent back and later recommended for the Tripura High Court instead.
Third is the case of Justice VK Tahilramani (Chief Justice of the Madras High Court) who was transferred to the Meghalaya High Court. Justice Gogoi writes that the judge was transferred because some adverse information regarding her had come to light, including her irregular and infrequent sittings in Court. The Collegium believed that transferring her to a High Court with less work would solve the problem.
Justice Gogoi cites these instances to show that by withholding reasons behind their transfers, the Collegium protected their future tenures as Chief Justice of Meghalaya and Tripura. He writes, "if views of Justice Chelameswar were made public, it would not have allowed Mittal to become Chief Justice." Regarding Kureshi, he writes, "if this fact was made available to the public it would have done the Judge more harm."
Justice Gogoi’s approach is problematic as it disrespects High Courts like Tripura and Meghalaya, as they may be perceived as punishment postings. Despite defending the Collegium, Justice Gogoi himself highlights instances wherein the Collegium failed to recommend good judges for elevation. He writes about a judge who refused to clear 15-20 names on the ground that he did not remember the said advocate/s. He writes,
"Many persons considered eligible by three Chief Justices of High Courts get excluded because a consultee judge in the Supreme Court who had worked in the High Court a decade earlier, fails to recognise the names, the next Chief Justice has to fall back on names, which are, naturally not the first choice."
He also writes about the impasse during the tenure of Chief Justice TS Thakur. During three Collegium meetings called by the Chief Justice, any name proposed was opposed by Justices JS Khehar and Dipak Misra, on the ground that they needed more time. At one meeting, Justice Thakur asked the Collegium members if they were interested in conducting any business. The said two judges remained silent and the meeting was called off.
Despite citing these incidents, he ultimately argues that we should repose some trust in the judges. All that they do is not necessarily wrong, as is sought to be projected. Given Justice Gogoi’s own recollections of the Collegium and India’s judicial history, this is a poor argument. Judges have often shown us that they do falter and cannot be trusted with judicial appointments. Even here however, he does not forget to praise himself and says, "from my experience as a member of the collegium and as the CJI presiding over the Collegium meetings, …"
Problems plaguing the judiciary
One must commend the book for raising various problems that are plaguing the Indian judiciary, and particularly the Supreme Court today. He raises three key problems i.e., (i) Delay in Listing of cases, (ii) Overcrowding of Courts, and (iii) Rise in Public Interest Litigation (PIL). Raising these problems is a good thing but it also shows Justice Gogoi’s failure as a Chief Justice to remedy them effectively.
Justice Gogoi writes that listing of cases is delayed not just because of non-availability of Benches, but also because many cases are filed with defects. He argues that defects are the principal reason for the delay. In my opinion, this ignores the practical realities of the Court ,wherein some matters are listed despite defects within days of filing whereas some are not listed despite being filed without defects. Case in point here is the famous bail case of journalist Arnab Goswami, which was listed expeditiously despite defects. In fact, Senior Advocate Dushyant Dave to the Chief Justice highlighting this preferential treatment. Therefore, defects are clearly not the reason for delay in listing of cases, something else is.
Justice Gogoi further writes about overcrowding of courts by citing an instance where Solicitor General Tushar Mehta could not enter a courtroom due to overcrowding. The , had agreed for live streaming its proceedings, a move that would have significantly reduced overcrowding in courts. Justice Gogoi during his tenure as the Chief Justice of India could have implemented the said judgment and reduced the Court’s footfall, but he was unable to do so.
He further writes that PIL jurisprudence has been lost and that today, many PILs are filed under the guise of challenging matters of governance, and some are frivolous. He cites the example of PILs seeking banning of Sardar jokes, bringing back Kohinoor to India, banning wearing of red dress all over the country etc. To his credit, Justice Gogoi did seem to adopt a towards frivolous PILs when he initially assumed office. But later, he was generous in admitting PILs despite their shoddy drafting and non-compliance with the law governing PILs.
In this post, I have tried to be fair to the author while reviewing his book. I must applaud the judge for remembering and thanking the people who helped him in his journey. For instance, he mentions and thanks his friend R Balakrishnan, who gave him notes during his BA examinations and his Protocol Assistant Rajbir Singh, who helped him immensely during his time at the Supreme Court.
At places, I felt the book only presented a one-sided view (that’s probably justified given it’s an autobiography) but I had hoped for a more engaging discussion. This was especially true when the judge discussed the circumstances concerning his elevation to the Gauhati High Court over his senior colleague and childhood friend Justice Amitava Roy.
The names of Roy and Gogoi were recommended together for elevation to the Gauhati High Court. In fact, Justice Roy was Justice Gogoi’s senior at the Bar and hence, was fourth in the list while Justice Gogoi was the fifth name. Interestingly, Justice Gogoi was elevated over Roy. Gogoi writes that Chief Justice SN Phukan took this decision because Gogoi had exposure to "all round work," had a wider practice and more income than Roy. It should be noted that this version is based Senior Advocate KN Choudhary.
Choudhary, on the other hand, believes, that before elevation, Gogoi did not have a great practice. Further, he believes that Justice Gogoi used his connections to ensure his appointment over Roy. I had hoped Justice Gogoi would either counter these allegations or provide more information regarding the circumstances surrounding his elevation.
To conclude, I had hoped for the book to deal with some contentious issues in a greater detail than it did. It also omits certain details, which made it incoherent and difficult to follow. Being an advocate for free speech, I believe one should read it without blinders to understand a polarizing figure like Justice Gogoi.
Swapnil Tripathi is an advocate. An unedited version of this column was first published here.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Bar & Bench.