When Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi launched a book titled Post Colonial Assam by Assamese journalist Mrinal Talukdar in New Delhi on November 3, he used the occasion to mount a defence of the National Register of Citizens. It did not matter whether 19 lakh were left out of the citizens’ list or 40 lakh, Gogoi said, because the NRC was a “base document for the future”. He also criticised “armchair commentators” who had launched what he claimed were “baseless and motivated tirades against democratic functionalities”.

Gogoi presides over the Supreme Court bench hearing pleas for and against Assam’s National Register of Citizens, which is intended to be a list of genuine Indians living in the state. Under the terms of the exercise, anyone who cannot prove that they or their ancestors entered the country before midnight on March 24, 1971, will be considered a non-citizen. If they failed to prove their citizenship in Assam’s foreigners tribunals, the quasi-judicial bodies tasked with deciding on matters of disputed nationality, they will be declared foreigners and face deportation.

The terms of the exercise flow from the Assam Accord of 1985, the culmination of a six-year agitation by Assamese nationalists who feared that “outsiders” were encroaching on increasingly scarce land and changing electoral outcomes. Over the last few years, the Supreme Court has monitored the updating of the NRC, enforcing the publication of a final list that excluded 19 lakh applicants.

The chief justice’s attendance at the Sunday book launch sparked a discussion online: was it in keeping with the code of conduct meant to ensure the impartiality and accountability of the judiciary?

In 1999, the judiciary adopted 16 principles restating the “values of judicial life”. According to the first principle, “the behaviour and conduct of members of the higher judiciary must reaffirm the people’s faith in the impartiality of the judiciary”. As judge, Gogoi has had to hear pleas from both sides on the hotly debated NRC. He has had to weigh the concerns of Assamese nationalist groups who wanted the rules tightened with those of thousands who stand to lose the basic rights of citizenship, often for bureaucratic reasons out of their control. He has also heard pleas on the predicament of declared foreigners in Assam, many of whom have been incarcerated for years in detention centres. Gogoi’s speech on Sunday, some observers noted, featured a glowing endorsement of the Assam Accord and glossed over the plight of those excluded from the NRC.

The code also says a judge should maintain “aloofness consistent with the dignity of his office” and “shall not enter into public debate or express his views in the public domain on political matters or matters that are pending or are likely to arise for judicial determination”. Legal questions about the NRC and declared foreigners are yet to be settled. Besides, as the Centre proposes to replicate the NRC across states, it has become a political debate with national resonances. The government has made support for the NRC a test of patriotism. But the exercise has also raised concerns about human rights and civil liberties as well as fears that the Centre may reconstitute Indian citizenship to exclude minorities. Gogoi’s remarks at the book event seemed to set the NRC above reproach.

Finally, the code directs a judge to “let his judgments speak for themselves; he shall not give interview to the media”. While Gogoi did not give a direct interview, he certainly spoke about a matter on which he has adjudicated at an event covered by the media. He voiced warm approval of the journalist whose book he was launching and who has been an advocate of the NRC. He even went so far as to lash out at some of the other coverage, suggesting future reportage should cut back on criticism. He remarked: “...It does not take long to tear down an institution but it takes eons to build an effective one.”