CJI Misra: 13 months of Controversy and Charisma
The 45th Chief Justice of India (CJI), Dipak Misra, on October 2, retired after his 13-month tenure holding the post. His time as the CJI was different from many of his predecessors, as it invited an unusually huge span of attention on the Supreme Court. While some of his judgements touched the personal, political, religious, and economic life of the nation, it also courted some of the most gruesome controversies ever witnessed.
Dipak Misra was born on October 3, 1953 to an eminent political family of Odisha. He is the son of Raghunath Misra, Congress MLA from the yesteryears in the Odisha legislative assembly. Justice Misra started his judicial career as an additional judge at the Orissa High Court in 1996. He became a permanent judge on December 19, 1997. He later became the Chief Justice of Patna High Court on December 23, 2009 and then became Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court on May 24, 2010. He acquired the office of the Chief Justice on August 28, 2017.
There is no doubt that Misra has led the Court during some of the toughest and the most unstable phases in the history of Indian judiciary. Allegations of corruption surfaced over him in November 2017 for ‘bench-fixing’ or his procedure to allot benches he favoured with pre-determined results. This was indulged by many senior lawyers in most of the 24 High Courts in India and occasionally the Supreme Court as well. These lawyers would deliberately delay the filing of petition until a more favourable bench on a certain subject was assigned by him.
The allegations later unfolded either through media statements or by leaking confidential letters meant to be circulated within the collegium, as many lawyers including Prashant Bhushan and Dushyant Dave, and four rebelling SC judges led by Justice Chelameshwar criticised him. All of this consequently led to a situation which was viewed as “unprecedented” by many. Nevertheless, this was enough to fuel the fire of escalation, as he also enjoyed the ignominy of facing an impeachment motion by the Congress-led opposition in the Rajya Sabha, which was later rejected by Chairperson Venkiah Naidu.
Misra maintained a stoic silence throughout the controversy, breaking it after nine months, at the lush green lawns of the SC, in his Independence Day speech, quoting British poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, that his motto is “strong in will, strive, seek, fight and not yield”.
“When a lot of noise is being made, one must work hard in silence with utmost sincerity and let the work make the noise,” he said.
Apart from the tumult in the Court that has happened in his tenure, CJI Misra also made his way on to the front pages and hit headlines often with his judgements that created new milestones in the history of Indian judiciary. Be it him with Justice PC Pant and Amitava Roy sitting through the night to hear a last-minute appeal by 1993 Bombay Bomb Blasts accused Yaqub Menon against his death sentence to upholding the death sentence of those accused in the 2012 Nirbhaya Rape and Murder Case. In this judgement, Misra, who is known for his wordplay, classified the accused as those who “found an object for enjoyment in her… for their gross, sadistic and beastly pleasures… for the devilish manner in which they played with her dignity and identity is humanly inconceivable.”
377: Rewriting History
Perhaps the biggest and the most historic judgement passed in his tenure was to struck down a part of Section 377 of Indian Penal Code (IPC), a 150-year-old law which criminalised homosexuality, on September 6, 2018. It was an unanimous decision by a bench led by CJI Misra, it was immediately embraced by the minority and marginalised LGBTQ+ community. In his judgement speech, he said, “Section 377 is irrational, arbitrary and incomprehensible as it fetters the right to equality for LGBT community. LGBT community possesses the same equality as other citizens.” In the judgement, Justice Misra underlined that sexual autonomy is an important pillar and an insegregable facet of individuality. “Sexual orientation, as a concept, fundamentally implies a pattern of sexual attraction. It is as natural a phenomenon as other natural biological phenomena,” said the CJI in the judgement authored by him.
Adultery: Man is Not the Master of Woman
On September 27, 2018, CJI Dipak Misra along with Justice AM Khanwilkar again struck down a British-era penal provision, Section 497, which made adultery a crime. The section said that it was a crime for a man to have sexual intercourse with the wife of another man without the other man’s consent. But this law did not make the woman either the victim or the perpetrator of adultery, it was man against man. “It is time to say that a husband is not the master of the wife. A woman cannot be asked to think as a man or how the society wants her to,” said CJI Misra and Justice Khanwilkar in their joint opinion. “Any system treating a woman with indignity, inequity, and inequality or discrimination invites the wrath of the Constitution,” he added. However, the bench also held that adultery should nevertheless treated as a civil wrong, and can be treated as grounds for the dissolution of marriage or divorce. “There can’t be any social licence which destroys a home,” Justice Misra said.
Aadhar: Constitutionally Valid
In a 4-1 verdict, the Supreme Court had declared Aadhar, the Centre’s project of a biometric identity of over 122 crore Indians, constitutionally valid. There has been a lot of controversy surrounding Aadhar, mainly on its tendencies to create a “surveillance state”, infringing on individual’s Right to Privacy. Though the verdict quashed some debatable provisions of the Aadhaar Act, namely Section 57 of the Aadhaar (Targeted Delivery of Financial and other Subsidies, Benefits and Services) Act, 2016, which gave private establishments the luxury to avail biometric Aadhar data. The new judgement dictates that it will not be required to open bank accounts, availing mobile services and for admissions in schools and colleges. “Aadhar gives dignity to the marginalised. Dignity to the marginalised outweighs privacy,” said a constitution bench headed by Misra in its 1,448-page judgement. Aadhar would still be required for filing Income Tax Returns and getting a Permanent Account Number (PAN) Card and for availing facilities of welfare schemes and government subsidies.
Sabarimala: Devotion Now Stands Irrespective of Gender
On September 28, 2018, in yet again a 4-1 judgement, the Supreme Court removed a ban which prevented women of ages 10 to 50 to enter Kerala’s Sabarimala temple. The shrine, which is located north-east of Pathanamthitta in a tiger reserve, is dedicated to Lord Ayyappan – a Hindu deity, who is considered by the devotees as an eternal celibate. Striking down Rule 3(b) of the Kerala Hindu Places of Public Worship (Authorisation of Entry) Rules, 1965, the judgement declared the preceding law as unconstitutional. “In the theatre of life, it seems, man has put the autograph and there is no space for a woman even to put her signature. Devotion cannot be subject to gender discrimination,” said Justice Misra as he announced the judgement. “To treat women as lesser children of God is blinking at the Constitution,” he added.
A soft-spoken and erudite person, he is known as the “champion” of liberal ideas, women’s rights, freedom of expression. Former CJI Misra is also known for quoting from law books, the Constitution of India, history, and literature during court hearings, along with introducing the facility to live stream the proceedings of the Supreme Court. With these set of judgements, Justice Misra has set a new bar in Indian judiciary and it will be up to Justice Ranjan Gogoi, who will take over as the CJI on October 3, as to whether he will be able to judiciously fill in his predecessor’s shoes or not.
Featured Image Courtesy: Google Images/Wikipedia
Edited by: Mehul Malpani