Last week marked a flurry of controversial statements by Bharatiya Janata Party leaders – both in government and out of it – that have targeted the judiciary quite openly.
These statements follow the tumultuous events in Kerala’s Sabarimala, where despite a strong judgement from the Supreme Court, mobs backed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the BJP ensured that women of menstrual age could not worship at the renowned Ayyappa temple earlier this month.
On Saturday, BJP president Amit Shah, while warning the Left government in Kerala against arresting “devotees” of Ayyappa, said courts should give orders that are enforceable. This implied that the Sabarimala verdict was unimplementable. Though Shah is not part of the government, as the president of the ruling party, it is clear that he has reflected the attitude of the Centre. It has chosen to ignore the Supreme Court judgment even as the BJP machinery has mobilised people on the ground to arm-twist the state machinery. The BJP is one of the reasons why the Supreme Court order could not be implemented in Sabarimala between October 17-22 when the temple was opened to the public.
Also on Saturday, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath said that like Sabarimala, the Supreme Court should deliver the verdict in the Ayodhya-Ram mandir case. The Ayodhya title suit is expected to come up for hearing on Monday before a Supreme Court bench led by Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi. Adityanath’s comments, which link the two issues, show that the BJP is readying to use the Ram mandir controversy for its political campaign for the General Elections next year. It is clear that whatever be the Ayodhya verdict, the BJP is looking at the issue as a big vote catcher, especially at a time it is being criticised for India’s poor economic performance. Read along with Shah’s statement that courts should issue orders that can be practically enforced, these are ominous signs for what is in store in the Ayodhya matter.
On Saturday again, Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley joined the chorus, albeit in a more nuanced attack on the judiciary. Pointing to judicial overreach, Jaitley said orders encroaching upon the domain of the executive are being issued by misinterpreting the extraordinary powers of the Supreme Court under Article 142 of the Constitution.
While Jaitley has a point on the separation of powers in the Constitution, the example of the National Judicial Appointments Commission case – in which the Supreme Court struck down the law seeking to bring in a new system of appointing judges – is not the best example to showcase the Union government’s commitment to the cause. In 2015, the Supreme Court pointed to several clauses in the law and said these were against independence of the judiciary, a basic element of the Constitutional structure. However, the government has done nothing after this verdict. If the Narendra Modi government is indeed committed to the cause of judicial reforms, it should have attempted to push these reforms again. Instead, the Centre has taken a confrontational non-legislative route as was evident in the delay in the elevation of Justice KM Joseph to the Supreme Court earlier this year.
Taken together, these statements show the BJP’s adversarial attitude towards a judiciary that will not toe its line. While on one hand the BJP has engaged in street protests against Supreme Court judgments, it is on the other hand trying to pressurise the judiciary for favourable orders timed to its electoral needs.
It is important that the Supreme Court takes note of these attempts to undermine the image of the judiciary in public.