What’s Frivolous About Investigating Justice Loya’s Death?

POV

What’s Frivolous About Investigating Justice Loya’s Death?

Illustration: Akshita Monga

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id we really think this week wasn’t going to get any worse? In a week where our elected representatives have either remained silent over a slew of heinous crimes against women and children, or have opened their mouths to let out a stream of utter garbage, we thought we were done. That we would be able to enjoy our weekend in peace, curled up in bed with our copy of the Constitution of India, and bide the days until the Avengers: Infinity War release by thinking about our superheroes over at the judiciary.

Except…

The Supreme Court on April 19 dismissed PILs seeking an investigation into the death of one its own justices, describing them as “scurrilous” and “frivolous”. The death of Justice BH Loya has been the subject of national debate since last year, ever since an in-depth investigation by the The Caravan magazine revealed the murky circumstances surrounding the judge’s demise. At the time of his suspicious death – concerns about which were raised by his own family – the judge was presiding over the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case involving BJP president Amit Shah. Following the magazine’s reports, activists as well as Opposition politicians filed petitions seeking an independent investigation into the death, only to have them all summarily rejected yesterday by the Supreme Court.

Despite the unresolved questions raised by the magazine’s 24 reports, the Supreme Court chose to go ahead with its ruling: Instead of ordering an independent probe, the court chose to give primacy to the statements provided by the four judges who were present with Loya when he was taken to the hospital where he was declared dead. And therein lies the rub. The bench set up to hear the petitions, headed by Chief Justice Dipak Misra (whose impeachment Opposition parties have been calling for), saw the petitions for an independent probe to verify the judges’ claims “scandalous” and tantamount to “a frontal attack on the judiciary”.

Excuse us, my lords, stepping out of line here, but how? How is a request for investigation into the death of a judge, an attack on the judiciary? If Amit Shah, or the ruling party, or anyone who stands to lose through an independent investigation had objected to it and called it an “attack”, we’d have said, “Oh ok, makes complete sense,” and moved on to the next meme on our timelines. But this from India’s highest judicial forum and final court of appeal?

But to imply that wanting to know how a judge died is frivolous, is a bit much even for the Supreme Court, who we look up to, to protect the interests of democracy. In pursuit of this mission, it has devoted time to hearing PILs concerning the banning of Santa-Banta jokes and even spent almost a year before deciding to reject a petition to make yoga mandatory in schools. One of the most popular PILs people like to file is the ban on pornography, which the Supreme Court patiently hears every time before responding with the example of Khajuraho. In 2016, acting on another PIL, the Supreme Court made standing up in theatres for the National Anthem, with Chief Justice Misra worryingly stating, “people must feel they live in a nation and this individually perceived notion of freedom must go.” Surely these are more frivolous than the suspicious death of a judge?

We have so many questions, our brains are exploding.

We can almost predict how the next few days are going to unfold: People on all sides of the political spectrum are going to bicker, nitpick, and “whatabout” their way around.

Nobody is refuting the Supreme Court’s status as the apex judiciary institution in the country, but is it not answerable to the public? After all, a public interest litigation is filed in public interest. Rather than a move to undermine the judiciary, wouldn’t ensuring that a Supreme Court judge’s death is properly investigated be a sign of respect for the post? And if the judges who were with Loya provided statements as witnesses, why are those statements now being afforded the weight of a judge’s reading?

By dismissing those seeking a fair investigation as using the court to settle “business and political rivalries”, it is overlooking the fact that Justice Loya’s death might have grave implications on the independence of the judiciary.

Once again, as the apex judicial body in the country, the finality of the Supreme Court’s decisions has to be respected. But to state that the four judges cannot be questioned due to lack of substantial contradictory evidence hints at hubris. Even if in theory the SC is impartial and bipartisan, it is still run by human beings, subject to the same pressures that Justice Loya’s family alleges he was.

Maybe it is unwise to link a series of events that have occured in our courts and slap on a conclusion to them, but it has to be said, all has not been well recently in the state of the judiciary.

At the start of the year, when the Loya case began making news, four Supreme Court judges made the unprecedented move of holding a press conference to talk about a widening rift in the institution. They alleged the administration of the Supreme Court was not in order and cast aspersions on the conduct of Chief Justice Dipak Misra. Such an act was completely unheard of before it happened, and it shook the public’s faith in the Supreme Court’s health. While this was the most shocking development, other scandals have also contributed to tarnishing the court’s stellar reputation.

Former Arunachal Pradesh CM Kalikho Pul committed suicide at his residence, leaving behind a suicide note alleging corruption in the judiciary. The ongoing Medical Council of India bribery scandal has seen allegations of judges taking bribes to overrule MCI’s decisions pertaining to India’s medical colleges. And this afternoon, a coalition of Opposition MPs submitted a motion for the impeachment of Chief Justice Misra to Vice President Venkaiah Naidu. Should the motion be moved, like January’s presser, it would be another unwanted first in the history of the Indian judiciary.

The saddest bit is, that now that the Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has termed the Opposition’s impeachment motion as an act of revenge against the Loya ruling, the issue is now irrevocably politicised. We can almost predict how the next few days are going to unfold: People on all sides of the political spectrum are going to bicker, nitpick, and “whatabout” their way around. The ruling party will not fail to remind the Opposition of everything it has done and vice versa.

What will be forgotten, is the death of an upstanding judge. And that, will be an act of “frivolity”. That, is the real attack on the judiciary.

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