Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision on Thursday to share on social media an open letter by a group of over 600 lawyers addressed to Chief Justice of India DY Chandrachud alleging that a “vested interest group” is trying to put pressure on the judiciary and undermine public faith in the courts is unprecedented and problematic, several members of the Bar said.

“This makes it seem that the letter had political backing,” said Delhi-based advocate on record Amit Pai. Another Delhi-based advocate who asked to remain unidentified said that the letter would not have attracted much attention had Modi not posted it on social media.

The letter said this claimed attempt to influence the court “on the basis of frivolous logic and stale political agendas" is not just disrespectful and contemptuous to the judiciary but also a threat to democracy.

Most of the prominent signatories to the letter are lawyers associated with the Bharatiya Janata Party. Though the letter does not mention any political parties, when Prime Minister Modi shared the letter on social media, he added a message claiming that “to browbeat and bully others is vintage Congress culture”.

This prompted retorts from Congress leaders Mallikarjun Kharge and Jairam Ramesh. “Modiji, institution after Institution is being 'bullied' by you into submission, so stop pinning the blame on the Congress party for your own sins!” Kharge said.

It is quite common for groups of lawyers to write open letters to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court drawing attention to particular issues or grievances, lawyers aid. But this open letter is unusual because it was quickly endorsed by the prime minister himself.

Senior advocate Raju Ramachandran said it it was not really concerned with the independence of the judiciary. “Its political endorsement also indicates that it was only meant to oblige the government,” he said.

Some lawyers pointed to the paradox of Modi using the letter to attack the Congress for seeking a “committed judiciary” as Indira Gandhi once did since his BJP government has been accused of undermining judicial independence.

“Why is the government not clearing the transfer of judges from one high court to another or the appointment of certain lawyers as high court judges, as recommended and reiterated on multiple occasions by the Supreme Court collegium?” asked Delhi-based advocate on record Paras Nath Singh. “What is the message that the government is sending?”

Singh was referring to the Modi government selectively approving recommendations of the Supreme Court collegium in spite of the government being legally bound to give effect to all such proposals. The collegium consists of the senior-most judges of the Supreme Court and recommends appointments and transfers to the Bench at the Supreme Court and High Courts. By acting selectively, the Modi government has exercised effective control over judicial appointments, lawyers said.

Others noted that there have been several instances over the last few years of politically-sensitive cases being pulled from judges critical of the government. The saga in March of a judge resigning from the Calcutta High Court and joining the BJP days later to contest the Lok Sabha election, admitting that he was in touch with the BJP while serving on the High Court, has also led to questions about shrinking judicial independence under Modi.

Political divide

Though the Bar has always had members with diverse political leanings, it has become sharply divided over he last decade, lawyers told Scroll.

“Lawyers have always been actively involved in politics,” said Delhi-based senior advocate Sanjoy Ghose. “However, they have never let politics into Bar matters.”

But the polarisation of the last decade has caused a split in the Bar, he said: “Its unity has gone.”

A Delhi-based advocate agreed the Bar has become “very divided”.

“Earlier, the Bar used to speak in one voice and the Advocate General used to speak for the Bar,” he said on condition of anonymity.

Another Delhi-based advocate pointed out that a crucial factor behind this polarisation is the BJP’s mobilisation of the Akhil Bharatiya Adhivakta Parishad, a right-wing organisation of lawyers associated with the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh’s, the BJP’s ideological parent.

“Earlier, the Parishad didn’t have much presence or significance in the Bar,” they said. “Now, it holds events regularly throughout the year”.

Pointed attacks

A lawyer who asked to remain unidentified said that there is a distinction between letters challenging administrative decisions and highlighting certain issues and advocating for reforms and this letter that castigates a class of lawyers.

“It doesn’t behoove the bar to attack anyone,” he said.

He noted that the letter “attacks the wisdom of the Supreme Court” and “questions its stature”. “One is left to wonder whether the Supreme Court is so gullible as to be influenced by a few lawyers here and there,” he said.

Ghose asked why the letter had attacked those questioning the judiciary. “Why is the judiciary beyond criticism?” he asked. “The Bar is the guardian of the judiciary. It is the duty of the Bar to criticise the bench.”

Amit Pai, on the other hand, said that it is not worth making too much of the letter. “It just expresses a viewpoint,” he said. “I personally don’t support it, but it’s a form of protest.”