Modi, Five Star Activism and the JudiciaryIs the Prime Minister right in ticking off what he called Ã¢â¬Åfive star activismÃ¢â¬Â? Was he right in alluding that the judiciary was under pressure from such activists and the media? Do judges decide cases on the basis of the celebrity status of the petitioner or the column centimeters or airtime garnered in the media, on Ã¢â¬Åperception,Ã¢â¬Â as the Prime Minister called it? But Modi was right in suggesting that the judiciary must evolve ways for self assessment and introspection. There have been some decisions that had raised eyebrows, to put it politely, in the recent past. There is no doubt that there is a need for having standards by which to judge judicial performance, prevent corruption in the judiciary and to punish the guilty among them, but for that the executive has to enact laws. A beginning was made when the Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill, 2010 was introduced. It should be reviewed and revived. Still, casting veiled aspersions on judicial decisions is an attempt to undermine the judiciary.
By Sunil Garodia
Let us take the first question first. What is activism and who is an activist? Activism has been defined as advocating a political or social cause directly, actively and vigoruously, sometimes using militant means. An activist is a person who espouses such causes. Now, causes may be of many types but can be broadly classified as those that might cause a legal grievance to a section of the population and those that are in demand for some right or relief. A person who petitions the local panchayat or the district administration for installing a tubewell in his village and pursues the same with vigour is an activist. A person who keeps writing to the state police alleging that policemen take bribes from truckers on highways, provides photographic evidence or witnesses and pressurizes the department to act against the culprits is an activist. A person filing a PIL against a government decision is an activist. Even a person who writes a letter to the editor of a newspaper highlighting a local problem can be said to be an activist.
But the prime minister is not bothered about them. He is bothered about Anna Hazare, Common Cause, Prashant Bhushan, Shreya Singhal, Narmada Bachao Andolan and the thousands of others Ã¢â¬" individuals and NGOs - who have made it a habit of taking up causes that affect the lives of thousands Ã¢â¬" sometimes millions - of Indians. These problems would not be otherwise addressed as most of them involve fighting the administration which had caused the problem in the first place. The fight for these causes often ends up in the courts as points of law are raised by both sides. As the protest gathers steam, the media reports turn these activists into celebrities. If they are successful in getting relief in one case, people from all over India start approaching them with their problems and their involvement in high profile causes keeps multiplying, ensuring them regular coverage in the media, a place on the panel of any discussion related to the topic on national television and a five star status.
But activists, Ã¢â¬Åfive starÃ¢â¬Â or otherwise, are fast becoming the main opposition to the government of the day in these times when most political parties are following double standards Ã¢â¬" castigating the government for some decisions when in the opposition and enforcing the same (or similar) decisions when in power. Civil society and social activism are the reason why the administration cannot get away with high-handed and arbitrary decisions. Otherwise, the propensity of politicians (often advised by a pliant and collusive bureaucracy) in trying to trample upon the rights of common people is insatiable. Most governments worldwide cannot tolerate these activists. They try every trick in the book to stop them. Successive governments in India have also done this. Water cannons, lathicharges, digging up supposed skeletons from the past to discredit them, probing how they get funds, planting unflattering stories in Ã¢â¬ËfriendlyÃ¢â¬â¢ publications or channels and finally arrest are some of the common methods employed in trying to silence these activist critics. But these are old methods not conducive to the activism that is now taking the social media route. Hence, the government feels the need for the likes of sec 66A and 69A of the I T Act.
The prime minister was probably stressed due to the vehement (and as he thought unreasonable) opposition to the Land and other bills in parliament and several judgments of the Supreme Court and High Courts that went against the government, like the ones on Jat reservation and Sec 66A in the apex court and the Vodafone case in the Bombay High Court. But courts decide on points of law and can never be said to be won over by these so called Ã¢â¬Åfive star activists.Ã¢â¬Â This is one more veiled attack on the judiciary after the accusation of Ã¢â¬Åjudicial activism.Ã¢â¬Â In fact, the judges have often been accused of sticking too closely to the law book and not espousing the philosophy that goes on to make judgments historical. If a statute is bad in law and a judgment strikes it down, how can the judges be accused of judicial activism or being under pressure from five star activism?
In the absence of any law, it is upon the judiciary to decide upon a mechanism to monitor performance and make and honest appraisal of people on the bench so that the judiciary is not only honest and perfect but is also seen to be so. Pressure of piling cases and low pay are real stumbling blocks, but the judiciary has to make an attempt to improve the speed and quality of justice being imparted, especially in the trial courts, where often unprepared lawyers and unsuitable and under-performing judges combine to drag cases and cause immense hardships to litigants. That is the point where all of IndiaÃ¢â¬â¢s problems with its judicial process start. Reform and make the lower courts perform and there will be an immediate upswing in the speed and quality of justice in India.