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In the year 1985, the Medellin Cartel attacked the Palace of Justice - which housed the Supreme Court of Colombia - through the M-19 Guerrilla Group, to destroy court documents to stall the investigation into the cartel.
Over the years, we have witnessed less overt methods used to intimidate the judiciary. There are umpteen examples in India, wherein certain elements have tried to browbeat judges to a state of genuflection. Such incidents are nothing but attempts to destroy the independence of judiciary.
Attempts to destroy the independence of the judiciary are nothing new; century after century, they have manifested in different forms. Perhaps the first instance is of Dr. Bonham’s Case, wherein Lord Coke took the King and the Parliament head-on.
Judicial independence is not a cliche conjured up by those who seek to prevent encroachments by the other branches of government. The term is broad, tailored to achieve the essential objective of the separation of powers that justice be rendered without fear or bias, and free of prejudice.
A fresh attempt to breach independence is seeming to blow from down south. In the year 2016, a PIL was filed before the Supreme Court for decriminalizing politics in India. It is shocking to note that more than 4,442 criminal cases are pending against Members of Parliament and Legislative Assemblies. There are even cases pending before trial courts since 1983, due to pressure by public representatives.
In view of the same, a PIL was filed to rationalize the trial process so that the antecedents of those who enter Parliament/Legislative Assemblies are clear, and we do not have hardened criminal representing our democracy.
When this matter was listed before the Bench of Justice NV Ramana in the month of March 2020, the Court ordered the states to submit a list of criminal cases against MPs and MLAs so as to gain a broad perspective of the trend in India. Accordingly, most of the states produced their records of all criminal trials pending under various legislations before the respective states.
Strangely, the states of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh did not produce any records pertaining to prosecutions under special legislations such as the Prevention of Corruption Act or the Prevention of Money Laundering Act.
On September 10, the Court took a stern view that the states were to require to comply with its orders in letter and sprit and were required to submit all pending criminal cases including those under special enactments. Further, It was indicated in the order dated September 10 that the Amicus had suggested that the Court direct all pending criminal trials to be taken up within the next two months and completed within a year after being heard on a day-to-day basis.
Thereafter, the aforesaid states submitted their report, wherein it was observed that there were 17 pending cases against Chief Minister YS Jagan Mohan Reddy. These cases have been kept in cold storage since 2011, without any substantial progress. Many of these cases are still at the stage of framing charges.
Before the matter could be heard again, in a very strange turn of events, an FIR was filed against the relatives of the judge before the Anti-Corruption Bureau, Guntur. Within minutes of the FIR being lodged, social media and news outlets were replete with the contents of the FIR. The ACB then issued a press release which led to the news becoming sensational and leading to unnecessary and malicious speculation against a sitting judge of the Supreme Court.
There appears to be a possible link between the Supreme Court taking up the matter and the FIR lodged, which needs to be examined for the sake of survival of our democracy. I ask myself and leave the question to readers, whether such attempts to breach independence of the judiciary amounts to holding the Court at ransom.
Such attempts foretell a disastrous future wherein courts will be rendered fragile by certain elements who are bent upon destroying democracy for their personal vendetta. As Justice O'Connor has warned, "[i]n these challenging and difficult times, we must recommit ourselves to maintaining the independent judiciary that the Framers sought to establish."
Because of the inextricable link between independent judges, the rule of law, and democracy, threats to judicial independence necessarily threaten our democratic system. If we do not allow judges to function independently, then we are digging the grave for our beloved democracy!
Sughosh Subramanyam is an Advocate.