From Supreme Court to Rajya Sabha: The Complicated Legacy of Ranjan Gogoi

Politics

From Supreme Court to Rajya Sabha: The Complicated Legacy of Ranjan Gogoi

Illustration: Arati Gujar

On Monday, in an unprecedented move, former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi was nominated to the Rajya Sabha by President Ram Nath Kovind. No chief justice has been nominated to the Upper House before – a RS seat is usually given to celebrities and artistes. It was especially surprising, as some journalists pointed out, considering Gogoi had only last year labelled post-retirement positions for former judges, a “scar on independence of judiciary”.

The move has created quite a stir in political and media circles, especially since Gogoi is not a man without his share of controversy. It is only about four months ago that Justice Gogoi retired after delivering the Ayodhya case, a property dispute that has lasted for over 500 years, and had left the country divided after the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. The verdict made way for Ram Mandir, which has been a constant in the BJP’s poll agenda from 1996. It prompted TV anchor and editor Rajdeep Sardesai to say this:

And while the Ayodhya verdict is probably the most important case that Gogoi presided over, he has also handled other crucial matters – the Rafale jet deal and the ouster of CBI chief director Alok Verma. In 2018, the government got a clean chit in the controversial Rafale deal; the bench comprised Gogoi and Justices SK Kaul and KM Joseph. The apex court in December that year rejected petitions seeking a review of the decision. During his tenure as CJI, Gogoi has been criticised for giving verdicts which favour the establishment. 

The other big controversy that tainted his legacy was the sexual harassment charge against him by a staffer. “I have lost my job, I have lost everything,” the former Supreme Court staffer told journalists. Not only did she lose her job, but her husband and brother-in-law – who were serving as head constables in the Delhi Police – lost theirs too, she alleged. She claimed that she and her family in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh, had been stalked and threatened.

Gogoi came out of this unscathed. The SC’s committee on the “in-house procedure” probing the allegations – consisting of justices SA Bobde, Indu Malhotra, and Indira Banerjee – ruled that there was “no substance” to her complaint. The case was closed but this story raises familiar questions about imbalances of power

Even before he took over as CJI, Gogoi was seen as the driving force behind updating the controversial National Registry of Citizens in Assam, having pushed the state government to finalise the list by 2016. He followed this up with a number of interviews calling out critics of the NRC as “armchair commentators” who were “far removed from reality” attempting to create a “highly distorted picture”.

Critics of the CJI, of course, have wasted no time in joining the dots now that he has been nominated to the Rajya Sabha. His appointment has raised questions about the independence of the judiciary. Eminent lawyer Karuna Nandy tweeted, “It’s just so sad. The brazenness of it. Destroying constitutional property just for a measly Rajya Sabha seat.” 

Lashing out against the appointment of Gogoi, Congress spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala questioned the government’s move: “Justice Lokur rightly summarises it. Has the last bastion fallen?” 

But is the Grand Old Party in any position to point fingers at the establishment? In 1998, the Congress nominated former Chief Justice Ranganath Misra to the Rajya Sabha, eight years after he retired. This was considered a pat on the back for his handling of the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom cases. Misra headed a one-man committee that probed into the pogrom, and gave the party a clean chit even as it implicated its leaders. 

Even before he took over as CJI, Gogoi was seen as the driving force behind updating the controversial National Registry of Citizens in Assam.

And though Gogoi’s appointment is shocking, he is not the only judge to have made a foray into politics. Former Chief Justice of India, P Sathasivam became a Governor of Kerala appointed by the Narendra Modi government. Former Justice Baharul Islam was a Rajya Sabha MP before being nominated as Judge of the Gauhati High Court. He was appointed as the judge of the Supreme Court in 1980, NDTV reports, and went on to absolve the then Bihar CM Jagannath Mishra in an “urban cooperative bank scandal”. 

Gogoi, of course, remains the most high-profile judge who has made it to the Upper House. And he was known as a man to take tough calls. 

In January 2018, Gogoi along with three other senior judges of the SC mounted a revolt of sorts against the then CJI Dipak Misra, the first of its kind in the history of the apex court. In an unprecedented move, the four judges held a press conference to talk about issues plaguing our justice system – the handling of the Justice Loya death case and the roster of justices of the SC. “We are discharging our duty to the nation by telling you what’s what,” Gogoi had said at the press conference after telling the media that the issues surrounding the death of special CBI Judge Loya.

He has also presided over the hugely publicised Aarushi Talwar murder case, and has even managed to include a suprise celebrity cameo in his career — after having once allowed tax authorities to investigate actor Amitabh Bachchan’s alleged income discrepancies. It is clear that Justice Gogoi always had the ability to grab eyeballs. And when he retired last November, we should have known there was more to come. 

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