People’s faith in the judiciary has suffered a bad hit in the new year, with judicial activism giving way to street activism; the press conference was not about court verdicts intervening in the lives of citizens but about prejudicing the functioning of courts through external pressure

Four judges of the Supreme Court — Justice J Chelameswar, Justice Ranjan Gogoi, Justice MB Lokur and Justice Kurian Joseph — have embarrassed the country with their act of convening a press conference to cast aspersions on Chief Justice Dipak Misra. It sounds incredible that the quartet met with the CJI in the morning and then headed straight to journalists, when Justice Misra allegedly made light of their concerns, without the sequence of events being orchestrated. A press conference, especially a well-attended one, takes a humongous effort of mobilisation and a zealous activation of network on the part of the organisers; a hurriedly called meeting with scribes cannot turn the sensation that it did on 12 January. Making it look more choreographed was the fact that lawyer Indira Jaising, whose firm is a Ford Foundation beneficiary, was cheerleading the group of judges. She has long been associated with ‘causes’, several of which are anarchic. One is not convinced this was not an occasion to pre-empt important procedures in the pipeline ranging from the pending judgment on the Ayodhya dispute to the court-monitored re-opening of investigations into the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom. Outside the legal fraternity, few are in a position to decide whether the four judges have a genuine room for grouse and whether the CJI is working as per the mandate for his job. One can only take seriously the strong exception Justice (retired) RS Sodhi has taken to what is apparently an intemperate move. He found behind the press meet a disgruntled judge who, despite all his efforts, could not see his promotion to the top post. The office of the Chief Justice of India is quite administrative in nature whereas the other apex court judges are free of that responsibility. Ergo, they should not have, the former high court judge holds, meddled in what was none of their business.

The issue today is distinct from that of the National Judicial Appointments Commission. This is not about nepotism, the worst kept secret in the profession, or political connections of judges. It is not about appointments. It is of the public conduct of judges. It is difficult not to see the act of a few of them addressing reporters as a contravention of the service code that governs the judiciary. Work ethics dictate that one of the judges — who would, under normal circumstances, be the next CJI — should have waited for his turn to cleanse the system of the wrongs of his perception. Or, he should have resigned before participating in the kind of activism witnessed on Friday. It was so embarrassing that Indian National Congress member Salman Khurshid and pro-Congress KTS Tulsi — who might have otherwise relished the insinuation that democracy was imperilled under the present regime — had to say they were shocked or concerned or, at the least, this was unprecedented. Perhaps Justice Chelameswar & Co realised it in the course of the interaction with media persons; when questioned, they could not elaborate on the specifics of their complaint, thus making the event a case of much ado about nothing. Quite frivolously, some of the correspondents back from the venue posed on television whether reprimanding the four judges would not be akin to denying them their democratic right of opinion. These superficial commentators must be asked whether they also encourage the washing of their offices’ dirty linen in the public. And the Supreme Court, unlike the media companies they work for, is not a private enterprise. It’s a pillar of the state that cannot afford to appear all aquiver.

The people of the country, with the knowledge of the lay but commonsense in ample measure, have been watching with dismay many instances of judicial overreach of late. Their faith in the judiciary has suffered a bad hit in the new year, with judicial activism giving way to street activism, as the act was not about court verdicts intervening in routine or cultural activities of citizens but about prejudicing the functioning of courts by exerting external pressure on the highest office bearer. This editorial reproach is rather a plea for measured behaviour to the guardians of the Constitution. There are murmurs of derision for the profession already in the air. A further loss of respect for the judges will bring chaos in the country; a place where the people no longer feel there is an institution that protects them hurtles towards a civil war. Notice the elation in the communist camp today; one will know the political motivation behind the press conference.