Law Minister Kiren Rijiju: A tumultuous tenure of contradictions

A significant factor that contributed to Rijiju's reassignment is perhaps his tumultuous and arguably inconsistent relationship with the Indian judiciary, at least in the public eye.
Kiren Rijiju
Kiren Rijiju

Just a couple of months short of completing two years as Union Law Minister, Kiren Rijiju's tenure ended as it began - amidst unanswered questions.

Rijiju was named Law Minister on July 8, 2021, after Ravi Shankar Prasad tendered his resignation from the cabinet close on the heels of a bitter war of words with Twitter.

When Rijiju was first assigned the portfolio of the Law Ministry, the news was met with surprise from most quarters. He was not an obvious candidate to say the least, especially because his last assignments saw him as Minister of Youth Affairs and Sports and Minister of Minority Affairs.

Rijiju does have a law degree from the University of Delhi. But with little to no practical experience in the legal arena, doubts over whether he was the right man to head the Ministry of Law and Justice arose.

Almost two years later, there have been no official statements regarding the reason for his ouster from the portfolio. A significant factor that contributed to Rijiju's reassignment is perhaps his tumultuous and arguably inconsistent relationship with the Indian judiciary, at least in the public eye.

When Rijiu took office in 2021, the world was still in the throes of the COVID-19 pandemic. So it was not surprising that Rijiju's public appearances were limited at the time, confined to relatively non-controversial remarks on virtual hearings, judicial infrastructure, alternative dispute redressal methods and online dispute resolution.

At this time, Justice NV Ramana, ever an eager orator, was Chief Justice of India (CJI). On August 28, 2022, Justice UU Lalit took over as CJI for a short tenure of only 74 days. The last CJI that Rijiju interacted with in his capacity as Law Minister is the current CJI DY Chandrachud.

Rijiju's public interactions with each of these three CJIs were arguably disparate. The one common thread, however, was that there were numerous accusations hurled back and forth between judiciary and executive, of crossing the proverbial "Lakshman Rekha".

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This disconnect visible in the relationships between Rijiju and each of the last three CJIs is perhaps emblematic of his tenure as Law Minister.

The main issue over which Rijiju locked horns with the judiciary is all but obvious.

Since 2021, a large number of vacancies in High Courts and the Supreme Court were filled up with more momentum than previous years had seen.

However, what emerged as contentious was the manner in which it was done, with the Supreme Court Collegium - comprising the five senior-most judges of the Supreme Court including the CJI - being responsible for recommending candidates for elevation as judges.

Rijiju made no effort to hide his disdain for the system calling it, on different occasions, an opaquealien system and one that is mired by intense politics.

This drew the ire of several former judges as well as the Supreme Court on the judicial side.

But Rijiju did not back down. He said on several occasions that the National Judicial Appointments (NJAC) Commission Bill, an alternative to the Collegium system, ought not to have been struck down by the top court. This seemed to get the stamp of approval from Vice-President Jagdeep Dhankhar.

Interestingly, Rijiju, while answering questions in Parliament, said that there is no current proposal to reintroduce the NJAC.

Rijiju's remarks (and the President's) on the judiciary and the Collegium system even became the subject of a PIL that was filed before the Bombay High Court seeking their disqualification. However, the High Court dismissed the petition and the Supreme Court later upheld the dismissal.

More recently, while speaking at the India Today Conclave, Rijiju also seemed to shift the goalposts by blaming the Congress party for its misadventures and judicial overreach, which in his opinion, was the reason why the Collegium system came into being.

This tussle over judicial appointments, ever brewing beneath the surface, was brought to the forefront only a month before CJI Chandrachud was about to take office.

In his two years as CJI, he will also head the Collegium and will have a hand in appointing 19 judges to the top court.

The months leading up to CJI Chandrachud's tenure as CJI were marked by a spike in the frequency and viciousness of social media attacks on judges and the judiciary as a whole.

In November 2021, just a few months after he had assumed the post of Law Minister, Rijiju had taken a sympathetic stance towards the social media attacks that judges routinely face and said that many people do not understand a judge’s responsibilities.

In the Court, we know what judges do and what is their primary responsibility. Many people do not understand. I’ve stated on many occasions the life of a judge. You may have heard many comments these days, especially on social media, there are some unpalatable remarks also being made. But when you see closely how much judges have to perform, the hard work, the homework, the studies - it is very difficult for people like us to comprehend.

Less than a year later, however, Rijiju expressed a strong and contradictory view soon after the Nupur Sharma controversy.

"I don't want judges to be abused on social media or public forum as it is my duty to ensure judiciary is respected. But if a judge is involved in some conduct or commentary, which wrongly touches the sentiments of the people, we have to think if the judge or his judgment has crossed the lakshman rekha, if he has entered some unchartered territory inviting criticism. Thus, we all need to be careful," he said.

Echoing this sentiment in January this year, Rijiju opined that social media comments on judges is a form of public scrutiny that holds them accountable.

Rijiju's views against court vacations and his remarks suggesting that the Supreme Court should not hear bail applications and frivolous PILs, have also caused friction between him and the judiciary.

His remarks were met with indirect but unambiguous disagreement from the CJI, expressed in open court. In March this year, however, Rijiju remarked that judges' jobs are not easy and that they do require vacations.

It is not a stretch to surmise that what lies beneath all of these conflicts is the mutual feeling on the part of both the judiciary and the executive that the other is encroaching on their territory.

Throughout his term as Law Minister, it was common to witness Rijiju emphatically stating that there was no conflict between the judiciary and the government while simultaneously firing volleys at the former.

On some days, Rijiju would say that there was an "excellent" relationship and that there was no Mahabharata war between the two pillars.

Just a few weeks ago, he said,

"The government did not undertake any activity to take away the independence of the judiciary or undermine the authority since the time Prime Minister Narendra Modi was elected."

However, he quickly pointed to the interference of the judiciary in the work of the executive. 

One cannot look at independence of judiciary in isolation. It is independence of judiciary, executive and legislature. The Constitution has demarcated powers of all the three organs and it is important that the organs stay within the ‘lakshman rekha’

This barely temperate stance came just a month after he raked up controversy when he said that there are a few (retired) judges who are activists and are part of the "anti-India gang" which is trying to turn the judiciary against the government, and that those who turn against the nation will have to pay.

While answering questions at the India Today Conclave, he said,

"There are few judges who are activists and are part of anti-India gang which is trying to turn judiciary against government like the opposition parties. Judges are not part of any political affiliation and how can these people say that executive needs to be reigned in. How can they say this? No one will escape and those who turn against the nation will have to pay," he had said.

He received a lot of flak for the statement and more than 300 lawyers including 62 Senior Advocates practicing before the Supreme Court and various High Courts across the country issued a statement deprecating the Law Minister's comments.

The disassociation in his statements were best showcased on Constitution Day of 2022.

During an address at the Supreme Court premises to mark Constitution Day celebrations, on the mounting tension between the judiciary and the executive, Rijiju said,

Apas me ladke koi fayda nahi hai.[There is no point in fighting with each other]

On the same day, at the Times Now Summit, while referring to the judiciary’s complaints on delays in judicial appointments, he was a lot more adversarial. He said,

Don't say we (government) are sitting on the files but if you (judiciary) want to say so, then appoint judges on your own and run the show then”.

This happened in a span of less than 12 hours.

These instances betray a lack of clarity on where Kiren Rijiju stood on these myriad issues.

Did his public interactions with the judiciary come out of the responsibility handed to him by the Modi government or from the heart of a former law student?

Which comments can be attributed to Rijiju acting solely as the Minister of Law & Justice?

After a tenure of 679 days in office, it remains to this day, anybody’s guess.

Bar and Bench - Indian Legal news