When reading Ranjan Gogoi’s Justice for the Judge: An Autobiography, there is a sense of familiarity – similar events seem to have been written about before.
In Supreme Whispers: Conversations with Judges of the Supreme Court, for instance, lawyer Abhinav Chandrachud writes about the inner workings of the court and the lives of the judges based on extensive interviews conducted by an American legal researcher George Gadbois. One profile that stands out is of AN Ray, the controversial chief justice of India from April 1973 to January 1977.
As a Supreme Court judge, Ray was noted for decisions that favoured the Indira Gandhi government. He was rewarded with the post of chief justice ahead of three judges who were his senior. The three judges resigned in protest.
Chandrachud says that Ray came off as “bitter and sarcastic and self-righteous”. He constantly defended his judgments in the Supreme Court and had very “unflattering things to say about other members of his court”. He claimed that some of his critics “didn’t have the standing of a school leaving certificate”.
The interviewer, Gadbois, seriously doubted whether Ray had told him the truth. Chandrachud also argues that Ray actually sat for the interview to clear his image and to attempt to gain some control over the history that would be written about him.
This script is playing out again with the autobiography of former Chief Justice of India and current Rajya Sabha member Ranjan Gogoi. Frequently accused of favouring the executive, Gogoi constantly defends himself in the book and questions the integrity of his critics, who included judges of the Supreme Court. By the end of the book, one is left wondering how many claims in the book are true since Gogoi often distorts facts in order to present his side of the case. All this is done while sounding “bitter and sarcastic and self righteous”.
In spite of this, the book is an important one. It isn’t often that you get a book from a former chief justice of India, let alone one that is so controversial. Even the criticism directed at the book has brought to the fore conversations about the state of the judiciary and the people who run it.
The idea behind the book
In Justice for the Judge, Gogoi discusses many of the controversial incidents that occurred during his time at the bench. The book reads like a point-by–point rebuttal of the allegations against him.
Gogoi defends his judgments in those relating to the Rafale fighter jet deal, the National Register of Citizens and the Babri Masjid dispute. In the Rafale case, involving allegations corruption in the purchase of planes from France, a bench led by Gogoi gave the government a clean chit. Gogoi had ordered an update of the National Register of Citizens in Assam, where the court oversaw an exercise to determine the citizenship of residents in the state that ended up disrupting the lives of millions. In the Babri Masjid dispute, a bench headed by Gogoi gave the judgment in favour of building a temple on the plot on which the mosque demolished by Hindutva extremists had stood.
He also writes about the sexual harassment complaint against him, the first against a chief justice, and responds to the allegations that the matter had been handled improperly. Gogoi also defends the controversial transfers and appointments of judges during his involvement in the process. He even discusses his nomination to the Rajya Sabha shortly after his retirement.
However, Gogoi denies that the purpose of the book is to defend himself. Instead, he says, this book is written for the public so that they can understand the workings of the extremely powerful Supreme Court of India. He also wants readers to understand how judgments that affect the lives of more than a billion people are arrived at. To Gogoi’s credit, one does get a sense of the workings of the court, although that is an unintentional by-product of the book.
Ranjan Gogoi, not Justice Gogoi
Gogoi tries to humanise himself in his memoir so that people view him outside of his persona as Justice Ranjan Gogoi. His book describes him as a family man and the book briefly touches on his personal life.
It starts off with a rather self-idolising episode, describing a boy who faced challenges very early, yet “persisted”, “burning the midnight oil” and achieved success to finally become the chief justice of India. However, what Gogoi never tackles head-on is his own background and privilege.
His father, Kesab Chandra Gogoi, was a successful lawyer and politician, who was even the chief minister of Assam for a brief period. Yet Gogoi tries hard to emphasise that he is a self-made man. He talks about his struggles while never fully acknowledging the leg-up his family connections gave him.
Gogoi also tries to come across as a modest person who does not know the ways of the world. He cites an instance where, “to his horror”, he had to pay Rs 16 lakh to get his father’s property registered in his own name in 2015. This incident, his mother said, he should write in his memoir, to show people “how little the former CJI knew about the realities of life”.
In a similar vein, he talks about how he did not comprehend the gravity of the events that were taking place around him. On the sexual harassment complaint against him, he says repeatedly that he did not anticipate how he would be “unfairly targeted” by the media. He did not comprehend, he argues, how the media can do to make or break someone.
Even when he describes the morning of the famous press conference in 2018, where he and three other Supreme Court judges spoke about the irregularities in the Supreme Court, Gogoi writes that he did not expect so many journalists to be present.
However, all through this, it seems like Gogoi is trying to deflect the criticism he has attracted. In trying to paint a picture of how much he has struggled and how he does not understand the ways of the world, he portrays himself as an easy target of his critics. But this image seems difficult to accept since Gogoi has occupied a number of important positions over a long period of time. He became a High Court judge in 2001, was elevated to the Supreme Court in 2012, and became chief justice in 2018. Currently, he is a member of the Rajya Sabha.
He had attempted similar acts of obfuscation earlier too. When the sexual harassment complaint against him was filed, one of his responses that he had a bank balance of only Rs 6.8 lakh: since his detractors could not accuse him of corruption, they came up with sexual harassment complaint.
A bitter judge
Gogoi dedicates several chapters to questioninf his critics – from the media to people in the judiciary and in politics. According to Gogoi, the real threat to the judiciary does not come from the executive but from “self-proclaimed champions of human rights and free speech or such other public causes”. This lays the ground for several ad-hominem attacks.
He complains of a group of people selectively attacking the judiciary and criticising all pro-government judgments. He also justifies various transfers during his time in the Supreme Court often by insinuating corruption or misconduct on part of these judges.
Gogoi has a great deal to say about the Supreme Court. During his interviews after the launch of the book, he was asked about his Rajya Sabha nomination, which attracted allegations of being a reward for his judgments. He asked the interviewers if it would have been better for him to have headed a tribunal or run arbitrations – pointing towards post-retirement work that judges often do and which could also involve a conflict of interest.
In an interview about this book with Zee News, the anchor asked him if there is corruption in the Supreme Court. He responded that corruption has become an “acceptable way of life”, and that “judges do not drop from heaven”. Why was Gogoi trying to lower the reputation of the entire court?
To buttress his point of how the criticism against him has been unfair, there is even a chapter titled “The Many Firsts”, listing what he describes as the good things that resulted from his time at the bench but which were apparently never recognised. Gogoi cites a judgment of his that changed how senior advocates are appointed in the country. This, he contends, “is one of the most important judgments concerning the courts” but has not acquired the status of a “noteworthy judgment”.
Even after devoting much of his book to discussing his tenure and answering his critics, Gogoi writes that whatever he says about his judgments must not be “construed as defence, rather as mere narration of my thoughts and experiences”.
The section where he deals with his judgments contains many half-truths, as others have already pointed about. At times, he is guilty of the same criticism he offers his critics: that they are armchair commentators who have no connection with ground reality. He says the update of the National Register of Citizens is only the first step to identifying undocumented migrants, and those who have been excluded can challenge it before a tribunal. However, such an off-hand statement completely ignores the hardships faced by millions excluded from this list. An analysis of 818 orders of the tribunal which hears National Register of Citizens appeals found that “96% were decided ex parte, without the accused being present. Also, the orders were inconsistent, vague and biased.”
There is also a contradiction in Gogoi’s defence of his actions. He pays heed to procedure only when it is convenient for him.
Gogoi defends the handling of the sexual harassment complaint by arguing that proper procedure was followed. In this case, Gogoi asked his fellow justice, SA Bobde, to form a committee of three Supreme Court judges to investigate the matter. This committee went on to absolve Gogoi of these allegations. However, critics have questioned why the law under the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, was not followed.
NDTV’s Sreenivasan Jain also questioned Gogoi about this, asking if there should have been an attempt to break from the norm, given that this was an unprecedented situation. Besides, the complainant had also withdrawn from the proceedings as she felt “intimated and nervous” in the presence of Supreme Court judges without any lawyer representing her. To this, Gogoi replied that the law must be applied uniformly and it does not change on a case-to-case basis.
However, when Article 370 was revoked, taking away the special status given to Jammu and Kashmir under the Constitution, more than 2,000 people were detained to purportedly maintain law and order. These detentions were challenged, and the challenges were heard by a bench headed by Gogoi. The way the petitions were handled led to criticism that they deviated from the norm, where the government should have been questioned on how these detentions were justified, which was not done. In his defence, Gogoi writes: “Slight deviations from the set procedure in larger public interest and in the pursuit of substantial justice would always be permissible and in fact expected, especially from the top court of the country.”
Justice for the Judge is a recommended read. But it must be read critically, rather than taking the contents at face value. In the end, however, it fails at its primary purpose: to scrub clean the reputation of its author, Ranjan Gogoi.
Justice for the Judge: An Autobiography, Ranjan Gogoi, Rupa Publications.