Book review by Abhay Vaidya, Director, PIC
The Judiciary is one of the four pillars of the great Indian Democracy along with the Executive, Legislature and the Press. It is a moot questions whether India can meet her destiny without these four pillars functioning diligently and delivering on their promised roles and responsibilities.
Conscientious citizens who contribute to nation building in their own ways need to understand these four pillars well to safeguard democracy. Understanding the intricacies of the judiciary is not easy for the lay person and it is in this respect that writers like Dr Chintan Chandrachud come to our rescue.
Hailing from a family of prominent judges such as the former Chief Justice of India Y.V. Chandrachud, Dr. Chintan has been writing in mainstream media to engage with people outside his profession of law. This slim volume of 229 pages is an effort in the same direction.
As he explains in the preface, the book deviates from the dominant narrative about the role of the courts by not dwelling “on the well-trodden path of nostaligia and optimism about the role of the Supreme Court and the high courts in protecting fundamental rights and protecting Indian democracy.” On this, there exists a large body of work already, he says.
The book he has written focuses on “many examples of circumstances in which courts have abdicated or misused their responsibility…” The book also “seeks to dispel the myth that courts have the ‘final word’ on all the questions that arise for their determination.”
The book discusses 10 ‘forgotten’ cases which grabbed the headlines in the last 70 years. It not only brings to life the dramatic nature of these cases but also why we ought not to forget them ever to understand the imperfections that need to be addressed in our key institutions.
The book opens with the extraordinary Keshav Singh case of Uttar Pradesh, 1964, towards the end of the Nehru era in which a fierce conflict arose between the judiciary and the legislature.
It all started with a pamphlet entitled ‘Exposing the Misdeeds of Narsingh Narain Pandey’ by an ordinary Socialist Party worker (Keshav Singh) and two others exposing the alleged corruption of a Congress MLA. An infuriated Pandey and the Congress Party MLAs complained that the pamphlet was a breach of privilege (rights and immunities) enjoyed by the State Assembly and Keshav Singh was soon arrested and produced in the assembly. When he was reprimanded by the Speaker, he stood silently with his back to the chair and after further reprimand, Chief Minister Sucheta Kriplani ordered his imprisonment for 7 days.
A day before his sentence was to end, a petition was filed in the Allahabad High Court on behalf of Singh arguing that his arrest was illegal. When the high court ordered Singh’s release on bail, the Speaker of the UP Assembly held that the high court had undermined the assembly’s exclusive authority. The Speaker not only over-ruled the bail order but the Assembly even passed a resolution ordering that Singh’s lawyer, B.Solomon and the two high court judges “be brought in custody before the assembly to answer for their own indiscretions.”
The matter went on escalating from here on, with the CM apprising Prime Minister Nehru of the case; matter being referred to the Supreme Court with a request for a ‘Presidential Reference’ on the case and the Supreme Court issuing notices to all the high courts and state assemblies for a hearing. The apex court also sought to examine the Constitutional provisions and British cases on parliamentary privilege from the years 1704, 1750 and 1839.
A 28-member bench of the Supreme Court delivered the majority judgement upholding the decision of the high court to grant bail to Keshav Singh and stating that it was not within the authority of the state assembly to issue a warrant for the arrest of the high court judges and Singh’s lawyer, or even summon the judges for an explanation.
There were further twists and turns in the case and the high court held that the assembly’s decision “was not in bad faith” and Keshav Singh was sent back to prison to serve his last day in jail.
As things stand, the Codification of Parliamentary Privileges has never taken place, says Dr Chandrachud. He concludes by saying: “This case is worth remembering—if for nothing else, to demonstrate how easily constitutional institutions can turn against one another, and equally how difficult problems are best solved through statesmanship rather than brinkmanship.”
The other nine cases which grab our attention in this book include: Minerva Mills v Union of India Rameshwar Prasad v Union of India; Tukaram v State of Maharashtra; R.D. Bajaj v K.P.S. Gill; State of Madras v Champakam Dorairajan; State of Bombay v Narasu Appa Mali; Kartar Singh v State of Punjab; Naga People’s Movement of Human Rights v Union of India and Nandini Sundar v State of Chhatisgarh.
Justice Fali Nariman has said about this book: “Stories well-told, are more readable than judgements of courts. And this is a book about select cases, written in a style that would have pleased the great master of law and language, Lord Denning. It is a must-read. Once you read them, you will never forget them.”