Justice NV Ramana has completed eight months as Chief Justice of India, a post he will hold for another eight months out of his sixteen months tenure until his retirement on August 26, 2022.
What has stood out is his frequent willingness to speak publicly on topics of political and social importance as well as the readiness of his office to address the media.
That CJI Ramana had himself started out as a journalist (with Eenadu newspaper) and was also active in student politics, might perhaps be contributing factors to his acknowledgement of the role and importance of the fourth estate and his penchant for social awareness.
That said, critics have also pointed out how the CJI has not passed any judicial orders on any such issues, and has only been commenting on them through speeches and oral remarks.
In this context, this piece attempts to succinctly capture the highlights of CJI Ramana's tenure at the helm so far.
Virtual hearing app for journalists
One of the first initiatives by CJI Ramana was to launch a mobile application for journalists in May 2021, enabling them to cover virtual court proceedings of the Supreme Court.
Earlier, scribes had to rely on lawyers to gain access to virtual courts via web links. During the launch, he said that the media faces great challenges and also reminisced his brief stint as a journalist when he too encountered difficulties.
"Media faces great challenges in reporting. I was a journalist for a brief time. That time we did not have car or bikes...Thus I too encountered difficulties as a journalist," said the CJI.
The best judge is one who is less known and seen in the media
A month later in June 2021, the CJI attended the book launch ceremony of a retired Supreme Court judge, Justice RV Raveendran.
At a speech delivered on the occasion, he quoted Lord Denning to state “the best judge is one who is less known and seen in the media.”
Collegium news reporting
However, CJI Ramana did not shy away from expressing displeasure with “collegium information” being speculated in the media, though such reports have been a norm for years.
The remarks were made in open court, triggered by news reports on August 18 about the Collegium having recommended 9 names for elevation to Supreme Court.
“You are all aware we need to appoint judges to this court. The process is ongoing. Meetings will be held and decisions will be taken. The process of appointment of judges is sacrosanct and has certain dignity attached to it. My media friends must understand and recognise the sanctity of this process,” he said.
The CJI also lauded the “tremendous amount of maturity and responsibility” displayed by the majority of senior journalists and media houses in showing restraint and not speculating on such a serious matter.
This was not the last time he criticised the media.
Media communalises everything
In September, the CJI deprecated the trend of fake news being spread through web portals and social media platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Twitter, while also expressing concerns that such social media giants do not even respond to judges. The CJI further said that many a time, communal colour is given to news disseminated on such platforms, bringing a bad name to the country.
“The problem is, everything in this country is shown with a communal angle by a section of media. … The country is going to get a bad name ultimately,” CJI Ramana said while heading a three-judge bench.
The remarks were made while hearing petitions seeking directions to stop media outlets from spreading fake news by linking the spread of COVID-19 with the Tablighi Jamaat congregation that took place at Nizamuddin in Delhi in March 2020.
"I have not come across any public channel, Twitter, Facebook or YouTube.. They never respond to us and there is no accountability, about the institutions they have written badly about and they don't respond and say this is their right. They consider only people who are powerful. Institutions, common man, judges, they do not... This is the reality," the CJI remarked.
Interestingly, in the Lakhimpur Kheri case, the CJI chose to overlook a tweet put out by news channel Times Now about him, though the other judges on the Bench remarked that it was a fit case for contempt of court.
"We are sorry to see how the media is exceeding freedom of speech and expression. CJI is gracious enough to let this go else proceedings could take place," said Justice Surya Kant, who was on the Bench in that matter.
Investigative journalism disappearing
From time to time, the CJI also broached the subjects of synchronised attacks against the judiciary on social media, the negative atmosphere created by TV debates, and the disappearance of investigative journalism.
He also attended the Red Ink awards 2021 (awards instituted for excellence in journalism) where he emphasised on the importance of having a fearless press to ensure that democracy works efficiently.
One of the stark differences in CJI Ramana's tenure as compared to that of his predecessor is with respect to the functioning of the Supreme Court Collegium, which has been much more pro-active in making recommendations for appointments to the Supreme Court and High Courts.
Up until September 4, 2021, the Collegium headed by CJI Ramana recommended the appointment of 68 new judges to 12 High Courts across the country. More appointment and transfer recommendations were made after the said date as well.
Besides, the Collegium also recommended 9 judges for appointment to the Supreme Court, three of whom were women. These appointments were cleared by the Union Law Ministry swiftly, ensuring that the Supreme Court functions close to its sanctioned strength of 34 judges.
Interestingly, the CJI also defended the Collegium system of appointment of judges, stating that 'judges appointing judges' is a myth and there are many players involved in the process of appointment of judges to the Constitutional courts including the Union Law Ministry, State governments, Governors of States, High Court Collegiums, Intelligence Bureau, and lastly, the topmost executive.
CJI Ramana has also been vocal during hearings of cases before the top court. Time and again, he has made scathing remarks against ruling governments while also lamenting at how court orders are often ignored and not implemented.
One of the most important observations came during the hearing of the challenge to Section 124A of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalises sedition.
"It is a colonial law and was used by British and suppress freedoms and used against Mahatma Gandhi Bal Gangadhar Tilak. Is this law still needed after 75 years of independence? Our concern is misuse of the law and no accountability of the executive," the CJI said during the hearing.
The CJI was not impressed by the Central government's failure to file an affidavit making complete disclosures on the allegations raised against the executive about use of the Pegasus software to spy on citizens.
The Centre had cited national security as a reason to refrain from divulging details. In a judgment authored by a Bench headed by CJI Ramana, the Court said that national security cannot be used to secure a free pass whenever a matter comes up for judicial review before the Supreme Court.
A Bench headed by CJI Ramana granted protection from arrest to two advocates and one journalist who were booked under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (UAPA) in connection with their social media posts and work related to the recent communal violence in Tripura.
A Bench headed by the CJI consistently pulled up the Central and State governments as well as the bureaucracy for their inaction in taking steps to contain air pollution.
"Bureaucracy has gone into inertia and they don't want to do anything. For using sprinklers or water buckets, we have to say. This is the attitude of the executive," CJI Ramana said during one of the hearings.
A Bench headed by the CJI also took a firm stance in the case relating to Lakhimpur Kheri violence in which eight persons were killed by a four-wheeler of Union Minister Ajay Mishra Teni's son, Ashish Mishra.
The Court during one of the hearings remarked that it had no confidence in the judicial commission appointed by the Uttar Pradesh government to to monitor the probe being conducted by a Special Investigation Team (SIT). It, therefore, proceeded to appoint former judge of the Punjab & Haryana High Court Justice Rakesh Kumar Jain to oversee the investigation.
Siddique Kappan case
A Bench headed by CJI Ramana ordered that Kerala journalist Siddique Kappan accused under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, be shifted to a hospital in Delhi for better medical treatment.
"Fundamental right to life unconditionally embraces even an undertrial," the Court said.
The Bench also brushed aside the argument by the Uttar Pradesh government that giving special treatment to Kappan will be unfair to the other prisoners.
"We state that the most precious fundamental ‘right to life’ unconditionally embraces even an undertrial. The consideration made herein is keeping in view the peculiar facts and circumstances of this case," the Court held.
The CJI also repeatedly spoken about topics touching upon the role of the executive in the Indian polity. At the fifth late Sri Lavu Venkateswarlu Endowment Lecture on the topic, 'Indian Judiciary - Challenges of future,' he said that a government enjoying popular majority in Parliament is not a defence for its arbitrary actions.
Every action by the government and Parliament will have to pass the Constitutional muster and the judiciary has been entrusted with the task of ensuring the same by its power of judicial review, he stated.
On Constitution Day, he chose to highlight how the legislature does not conduct studies or assess the impact of the laws it passes. A good example of such lack of post-legislative assessment is Section 138 of the Negotiable Instruments Act, which deals with cheque bouncing cases, he said. This provision has only increased the workload of already over-burdened magistrates, he opined.
The CJI's penchant for advocating alternate dispute resolutions mechanism stood out through his tenure. At the India-Singapore Mediation Summit, he said that mediation is deeply embedded in Indian ethos and was prevalent in India much before the arrival of British.
"The great Indian epic, the Mahabharata, actually provides an example of an early attempt at mediation as a conflict resolution tool, where Lord Krishna attempted to mediate the dispute between the Pandavas and Kauravas. Mediation, as a concept, is deeply embedded into the Indian ethos. Long before British arrived, disputes were often resolved by Chieftains or elders," he said.
He opined that prescribing mediation as a mandatory first step for resolution of disputes will go a long way in reducing pendency of cases before courts in the country. To this end, he suggested that there should be an omnibus law for the same.
Later in the year, he proceeded to inaugurate The International Arbitration and Mediation Centre (IAMC) at Hyderabad. During a curtain raiser event for the IAMC, he also advised disputing parties to treat litigation as a last resort, and to approach courts only after exploring alternate dispute resolution (ADR) methods such as arbitration, mediation and conciliation.
However, he also maintained that people, especially the common man, should not hesitate to approach courts since "people’s faith in judiciary is biggest strength of democracy."
The CJI has also been quite vocal about the need for law students to cultivate social awareness and to use law as a tool to combat social oppression.
"Legal profession is not about profit maximization, but about service to the society,” he said on Legal Services Day, while commending law students who involve themselves in the legal aid movement.
At the 40th convocation of the Sri Sathya Sai Institute of Higher Learning, he said that modern education is utilitarian in nature and might not help build a student's character or nurture moral values.
Interestingly, at the 8th Convocation of National Law University, Delhi, he lamented how no big leaders have emerged from the student community after liberalisation. He attributed the blame to diminished participation of students in social causes after liberalisation, and continued to emphasise that student participation in modern democracies was essential.
He went on to remind young lawyers that they cannot be strangers to socio-economic and political realities of the country, and urged them to choose a life of service for the future of the nation, over a life of convenience.
The CJI frequently advocated reservation for women in higher judiciary. At an event organised by women lawyers of the Supreme Court to felicitate the judges of the apex court, the CJI called for 50 percent representation of women in the judiciary and stated that it was not a "matter of charity" but the "right of women."
At another event organised by the Bar Council of India, the CJI said that while women ought to have had 50 per cent representation by now, they remain woefully underrepresented even in the Supreme Court, where only 11 percent of judges are women.
This has been a topic of considerable controversy, with the CJI's call for "indianisation" of the judiciary evoking mixed reactions.
At an event organised by the Karnataka State Bar Council to pay tribute to late Supreme Court judge Justice MM Shantanagoudar, the CJI opined that the legal system presently in place in India is colonial and not suited to the Indian population.
He went on to emphasise that the need of the hour is to Indianise justice delivery.
"Our legal system is colonial, not suited for the Indian population. The need of the hour is the Indianisation of the justice delivery system," he reiterated at an event organised by the Orissa High Court to mark the inauguration of a new building for the Odisha State Legal Services Authority.