The Big Story: Wrong turn

The Supreme Court on Thursday dismissed all the petitions demanding an inquiry into the death of Special Judge BH Loya, who, when he passed away in 2014, had been hearing the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encounter case in which Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah was accused. In a series of reports beginning in November 2017, Caravan magazine reported on concerns raised by Loya’s family about the circumstances that surrounded the judge’s death and the pressure he allegedly faced to deliver a favourable decision in the case. Despite a number of serious discrepancies in the official record regarding his death, the Supreme Court dismissed the requests for an investigation, claiming that those asking for one had political motives.

The Supreme Court’s order attempts to deal with a number of the questions that had been raised over the course of the hearings, and in the reportage about the case over the last year. But it is unable to conclusively answer all of them. The order itself makes some confusing decisions, such as privileging the evidence of one judge over another, ignoring potentially contradictory pieces of evidence and casting doubts over some of Caravan’s reportage, even though the judges did not attempt to access all of the material that the magazine had.

The most prickly portion of the order comes at points where the petitioners ask questions about the statements of four judges who had accompanied Loya on a trip to Nagpur for a wedding, and were with him when he complained of chest pain. Where doubts are raised about the nature of these statements as well as contradictions they contain, the Supreme Court chose to see an attack on the judiciary itself. “By casting unfounded aspersions on the judicial officers who had accompanied Judge Loya, the petitioners have revealed the real motive of these proceedings which is to bring the judiciary into disrepute on the basis of scurrilous allegation,” the court said.

Indeed, one of the main conclusions of the judgment is that this was a misuse of public interest litigation. The court spoke about “frivolous or motivated petitions” coming in the way of the long list of pending cases where the personal liberty of citizens is involved. “Worse still,” the order says, “such petitions pose a grave danger to the credibility of the judicial process. This has the propensity of endangering the credibility of other institutions and undermining public faith in democracy and the rule of law.”

There was some irony to this. After all, this is the same court, that has taken years to listen to the Aadhaar case, even though a question of fundamental rights is at stake. The decision also misjudges the question of what actually poses a “danger to the credibility of the judicial process”.

At a time when Indians are discussing matters like the Kalikho Pul diary and the Medical Council of India bribery scam, both of which include serious allegations about the senior judiciary, and just months after four senior Supreme Court judges held an unprecedented press conference questioning the conduct of the Chief Justice of India – with one of those four affirming that the Loya case was a trigger – the credibility of the judicial process is already under question.

Moreover, the court misses the wood for the trees to claim that the judiciary is being attacked by petitioners questioning the statements of the four judges who were with Loya in Nagpur. After all, the reason for raising doubts is the suspicious death of a senior judge, certainly a more disturbing situation than simply asking questions of other judges. Above all, one cannot look at the Loya case without considering the matter that led to all of this: the Sohrabuddin Sheikh fake encouter case, where just this week the number of witnesses turning hostile has reached 50.

Even if there was nothing underhand about Judge Loya’s death, an investigation would have settled the doubts of the family, who said after the verdict on Thursday that “there is no hope left”. It would have helped resolve a number of discrepancies that remain in the official record. It would have quelled the doubts raised by Justice J Chelameshwar and his three brother judges about the actions of the Chief Justice. It would have reassured district judges that one among their fraternity cannot die in suspicious circumstances without the matter being looked into with utmost seriousness.

The Supreme Court judges who ruled on the Loya matter are being optimistic if they believe their decision will settle doubts, both about the case as well as the judicial process.

The Big Scroll


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