In What the Congress and Gandhi Have Done to the Untouchables published in 1945, BR Ambedkar noted that Brahmins and Baniyas were India’s governing class since they exerted a stranglehold both on culture and administration. As he guided the framing of India’s Constitution as the chairman of the drafting committee of the Constituent Assembly, Ambedkar argued that the one of the central purposes of the document – which emphasised liberty, equality and fraternity – was to break this hegemony.
Just over 70 years later, it seems that this message of egalitarianism has not been absorbed even by some of the people whose primary responsibility it is to uphold the values of the Constitution.
That was obvious from a speech steeped in caste supremacy made by Kerala High Court judge V Chitambaresh at an event organised by an association of Tamil Brahmins in Kochi on July 19.
Explaining his concept of the ideal Brahmin, Justice Chitambaresh said:
“Who is a Brahmin? A Brahmin is twice born, because of his poorva janma sukratham [good deeds of his past life]. He has got certain distinct characteristics, clean habits, lofty thinking, sterling character, mostly vegetarian, a love of Carnatic music. All good qualities rolled into one is a Brahmin… It may be noted that a Brahmin is never communal. He loves people, he is always considerate, he is an ahimsa vadi [proponent of non-violence]. He is one who liberally donates for any laudable cause. Such a person should always be at the helm of affairs.”
The judge went one step further to claim that Brahmins as a group had been put at a disadvantage by India’s affirmative action policies for members of marginal groups. Claiming several times that he was not expressing an opinion on a subject that impinged on his constitutional position as a judge, Chitambaresh
went on to do just that: he implicitly urged Brahmins to agitate against reservations. “Only a crying child will get milk,” the judge said, quoting another participant.
The contradiction in the high court judge’s views is glaring. The country’s reservation guidelines do not apply to the higher judiciary, despite political parties and activists urging for decades that this policy be revisited. The judiciary has resisted reservations in the High Courts and the Supreme Court, claiming that its independence rests on its ability to make its own appointments. But reformists say that the judiciary’s idea of merit as the lone determinant for appointments is misplaced in the Indian context, where caste plays a pivotal role in every aspect of life. Even if Chitambaresh does not acknowledge it, he has benefitted from the reservation policy being subverted.
Since Independence, the judiciary been dominated by upper-caste judges in numbers that far outstrip their proportion in the population. In May, the Supreme Court got its first Dalit judge in nine years, a situation that would be unthinkable had the reservation policy been implemented in the higher judiciary.
Of course, there is also an ethical problem in Justice Chitambaresh’s speech. As someone in a position that requires him to uphold constitutional values, the judge has succumbed to specious notions of caste superiority. While it is true that the speech was delivered outside the court, it raises doubts about whether a person holding such opinions could truly be objective if matters related to caste and reservations come up before him in his capacity as a High Court judge.
Given that there is a possibility of bias, a judge who maintains such notions about caste superiority could well be accused of impropriety. However, there is only one possible remedy against such a transgression: High Court judges have such strong immunity from any action that the only possible intervention is impeachment. It is, of course, impossible to expect the judiciary and the political class to initiate such drastic action for a speech made outside the courts.
It is therefore important for the higher judiciary to put into place remedies on the administrative side to ensure that judges who falter in their duty to uphold constitutional values at all times are at the least made aware of the consequences of their actions. Judicial independence cannot be an argument to condone such behaviour.