News Analysis | A paradigm shift in Supreme Court after Justice N.V. Ramana takes over as CJI
The decisions regarding journalist Siddique Kappan, the second COVID-19 wave and sedition law show a rejuvenation is happening within the court.
A series of decisions within a week since Justice N.V. Ramana took over as the 48th Chief Justice of India shows a rejuvenation happening within the Supreme Court in its role as the guardian of rights of ordinary people.
The court has not flinched while ordering a reluctant Uttar Pradesh government to shift journalist Siddique Kappan to Delhi for medical treatment. It has talked straight and true to the Centre about the lapses in managing a devastating second COVID-19 wave which has cost precious lives, especially in the National Capital.
The court has also decided to re-visit the legality of the law of sedition. The intervention would bring into spotlight the use of sedition as a tool to incarcerate activists, lawyers, students and journalists who voice their dissent against the government. The court’s decision to re-look the Section comes hardly three months after it had rejected a similar plea filed by some lawyers.
In Mr. Kappan’s case, a three-judge Bench led by Chief Justice Ramana brushed aside Uttar Pradesh government’s submission that he did not require any special treatment. The Bench held that “the most precious fundamental ‘right to life’ unconditionally embraces even an undertrial”. The court reminded the government that it could not deny Mr. Kappan “adequate and effective medical assistance” and it should “allay all apprehensions relating to his health”.
The Bench went on to author a detailed order and put on record how the earlier medical reports on Mr. Kappan submitted by the Uttar Pradesh government revealed that he had “multiple health issues like diabetes, heart ailment, blood pressure and bodily injury”. “However, the next set of medical reports and additional affidavit circulated by the State this morning show that he has tested COVID-19 negative…” the CJI Bench laid bare the facts.
Protecting vulnerable sections
Chief Justice Ramana, days before his swearing in on April 24, had sent a clear message in a public address that the legal community was obliged to protect the vulnerable sections of society from human rights atrocities perpetrated by the State or any anti-social elements.
The suo motu hearings in ‘In re: distribution of essential supplies and services during COVID-19’ before Justice Sharad A. Bobde had begun by drawing criticism. Senior lawyers went public to say that the Supreme Court’s intervention may interfere with the efforts of various High Courts to monitor COVID-19 management lapses in distribution of drugs, oxygen supply and medical treatment. The lawyers had wondered why the Supreme Court suddenly wanted to pass “uniform orders” on the supply of oxygen, essential drugs, method and manner of vaccination and declaration of lockdown.
Following Justice Bobde’s exit, the suo motu case went to a new Bench led by Justice D.Y. Chandrachud. The court immediately set the record straight by saying that it did not want to interfere with the High Courts’ work, but only wanted to supplement it. Justice Chandrachud said the Supreme Court could not be expected to remain a “mute spectator” in the face of a national calamity.
The following days saw the court put the Centre on a clock. It ordered the Centre to formulate a national policy on admissions to hospitals within two weeks. It directed the Centre to act “in collaboration” with States to “prepare a buffer stock of oxygen for emergency purposes and decentralise the location of the emergency stocks” within four days. More importantly, the Bench warned States of contempt if they tried to punish people for airing grievances on the government’s lapses in COVID-19 management through social media. Information should flow free.
In its most recent case, the Supreme Court has made it clear to a “hurt” Election Commission that it would not stop the media from reporting judges’ oral remarks. The Commission wanted a restraint on the media from reporting the “murder charges” remarks made by Madras High Court judges against poll body officials.
The past few days have also seen the Supreme Court administration react positively to suggestions from the Bar. On May 1, Chief Justice Ramana, after discussions with the Bar and taking into consideration the alarming surge in infections, advanced the court’s summer holidays. The Supreme Court administration has also agreed ‘in-principle’ to a proposal from the Supreme Court Bar Association to set up a temporary in-patient COVID-19 facility in the new chamber building for lawyers.
Now, with Chief Justice Bobde having retired without making single appointment to the Supreme Court, it is the turn of Chief Justice Ramana’s Collegium — which has a new entrant in Justice Chandrachud — to fill up the judicial vacancies in the Supreme Court, the last one being the result of the unexpected demise of Justice Mohan M. Shantanagoudar. It is also to be seen if the Ramana Collegium would pave the way for the nation to get its first woman Chief Justice of India.
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