Chief Justice of India N V Ramana, who retired on August 26, took over the reins of the Supreme Court in difficult times when the fundamental rights and civil liberties of the citizens were under threat as never before.
His predecessors, former CJIs Ranjan Gogoi and SA Bobde, had left behind disappointing legacies, with one adjudicating a case that was against his own self, among other disappointing decisions, and the other refusing to take the Centre to task for its many failures in handling the COVID-19 pandemic.
But Justice Ramana – with his order against the Internet ban in Kashmir, vocal defense of fundamental rights and civil liberties and the very fact that he was part of the five judge bench that held that the office of the Chief Justice of India comes under the purview of the Right to Information Act – was going to be different.
Speaking against the government or its policies was treated as equivalent to speaking against the Indian state. People of all hues, including political opponents of the present dispensation, journalists, social activists, artists, and comedians, irrespective of their age or standing in life, were booked under the sedition law or the draconian Unlawful Activities and Prevention Act (UAPA), making it difficult — almost impossible — for them to obtain bail.
From putting the sedition law on hold to reviewing the money laundering verdict, and ordering probes into Pegasus snooping and Lakhimpur Kheri cases to ensuring appointments of record 11 judges in the top court and over 220 in high courts, Chief Justice of India N V Ramana took significant judicial and administrative decisions in his 16-month tenure.
On his last day in the office, the 48th CJI ensured live-streaming of SC proceedings of the ceremonial bench headed by him, a first in the history of the apex court. In 2018, the top court had allowed such webcasts, but it was not implemented until Friday.
Tears and tributes
Senior advocate Dushyant Dave broke into tears while bidding adieu to the outgoing CJI, saying he maintained checks and balances between the judiciary, executive and the parliament and did so “with a spine”.
While Dave described Ramana as citizens’ judge, his colleague, senior advocate Kapil Sibal, said the court will remember him for “maintaining balance even in turbulent times”.
Attorney General K K Venugopal termed as “remarkable” the efforts of CJI Ramana in filling up vacancies in higher judiciary and tribunals, saying that for the first time, the Supreme Court worked at full strength of 34 judges during his tenure as head of the institution.
CJI Ramana said the only way out was to reform the functioning of the system. “We need to deploy modern technology tools and artificial intelligence to find a lasting solution,” he said.
“Unfortunately, during the past 16 months, my tenure as CJI, full-fledged hearing was possible only about 50 days,” said CJI Ramana.
He said he was demitting office after being part of the judiciary for 22 years “with utmost content” and added that he had done his bit for the judiciary to the best of his ability.
“People may come and go, but the institution remains forever. Of course, each one has to make our own contribution. I have done my bit to the best of my ability”, said CJI Ramana.
However, criticism has mounted against the Court after he and his colleagues let go free the 11 convicts in the 2002 Gujarat riots case on India’s 75th Independence day. Bilkis Bano was gang-raped in 2002 during post-Godhra riots in Gujarat. Her three-year-old daughter was among the 14 members of her family who were killed. The accused were found guilty of gang rape and murders, and sentenced to life sentence.
The Supreme Court, however, has said on it did not order release of the people convicted for gang rape and murder during the 2002 Gujarat riots.
Hearing a bunch of petitions challenging the remission granted to the 11 convicts a week after they were released from a Gujarat jail, Chief Justice of India NV Ramana’s bench said, “We have to see whether there was an application of mind or not. This court didn’t order for their release but only asked the state to consider remission as per the policy.”
In spite the failings, Raanna has been praised by most for his adept handling of the situation, especially with the pressure on the Judiciary by the executive branches of the government to bend law in factor of the ruling party.
Former Delhi High Court Judge Rekha Sharma writes on NV Ramana’s tenure as Chief Justice of India: “Justice Ramana faced the onerous task of restoring the people’s faith in the judiciary. To his credit, by and large, he lived up to what was expected of him — though he could have done much more.”