It has been a week since Andhra Pradesh government released a letter written by Chief Minister Jagan Mohan Reddy to the Chief Justice of India SA Bobde. The letter, put in the public domain on October 10, made explosive allegations about NV Ramana, the Suprme Court’s second-most senior judge.

In the letter, Reddy accused Justice Ramana of interfering in the functioning of the Andhra Pradesh High Court to favour of former chief minister and Telugu Desam Party leader Chandrababu Naidu and trying to destabilise the current state government.

Last month, the Andhra Pradesh High Court had stayed the investigation into a first information report on a land deal in the construction of the state’s new capital Amaravati during the previous Telugu Desam tenure. Justice Ramana’s daugthers have been accused, as has a former advocate general. The court also issued a gag order on the media from reporting on the FIR or its context, which will follow.

In the week that has gone by, the reaction in the English media has been predictable. It has been pointed out in several news reports quoting lawyers and former judges that Jagan Reddy’s decision to release the letter is in all probability a response to a decision that a bench led by Justice Ramana delivered last month.

The judgement ordered special courts to be set up to expedite cases against MPs and MLAs. Jagan Reddy has more than 30 cases pending against him for charges such as amassing wealth disproportionate to his income.

In the meantime, two petitions have been moved in the Supreme Court seeking action against Jagan Reddy for the letter, which the petitions claim have scandalised the reputation of the court.

What, however, has not been spoken widely is the silence of the Supreme Court in the face of a frontal attack by a sitting chief minister of a large state.

While the controversy is being positioned as a battle between two Telugus holding high constitutional offices, the fact that the letter poses a serious challenge to the Supreme Court’s institutional mechanisms to undertake remedial measures when there are charges against a sitting judge needs much more focus.

Opaque process

Let’s first deal with the information that is available in the public domain.

A letter was written to the chief justice by a sitting chief minister making explosive allegations against a sitting judge. Justice Ramana is not just any judge. He is next in line to become the chief justice of India. He is also a member of the Supreme Court collegium that makes appointments to High Courts and the Supreme Court.

The contents of the letter have been widely reported in the media. Apart from the allegations against Justice Ramana, it also names several High Court judges and orders that Jagan Reddy feels were motivated.

But even after week, there is no word on whether the chief justice has taken cognisance of the matter or if he has formed an in-house committee of judges to go into the allegations. Given that the allegations are against a sitting judge, there is no scope for an outside entity to inquire into the matter. Any such inquiry has to be conducted by the Supreme Court.

In the meantime, petitions have been moved seeking action against Jagan Reddy. One wanted him to be removed the post of chief minister. Another sought to bar him from making public statements on the matter. A former judge of the Andhra Pradesh High Court has also written to the chief justice of India describing the contents of the letter as “orchestrated allegations” and seeking appropriate action.

Several lawyers’ associations have also criticised the letter. The Supreme Court Advocates on Record Association said it was deeply anguished at the letter, whle the Delhi High Court Bar Association called it an attempt to overawe the judiciary.

Institutional response

Merely making allegations, whether by an ordinary citizen or a chief minister, does not mean that that they are true. But in order to decide whether there is truth to the allegations, an impartial inquiry is essential.

When the person making the allegation holds a high constitutional office, it becomes even more essential that the matter is dealt seriously and swiftly. This is because the moment the letter was released to the public, questions have already been seeded in the minds of the people. Doubts about the functioning of sitting judges of the highest court of the land do not bode well for the reputation of the judiciary and its independence.

But there has been silence from the Supreme Court, even as many outside are using this as an opportunity to sling mud.

It is to be noted that the court’s reputation as far as dealing with allegations against sitting judges is already at a low. In April last year, when an employee of the court wrote letters to judges accusing the then chief justice Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment, an in-house committee of judges was formed. But it dismissed the allegations even without allowing the complainant to exercise her right of representation.

In January, the woman was reninstated as an employee of the court.

In the meantime, the court is yet to open the report of Justice Patnaik committee, formed to look into accusations of the registry of the court being gamed by powerful elements. Arun Mishra, the judge who presided over the bench that ordered the formation of the committee, retired last month.

Given this recent context, it becomes even more important for the Supreme Court to transparently deal with Jagan Reddy’s letter.

The immediate reaction cannot be to initiate contempt of court proceedings, for that would only lead to a bitter confrontation between Redddy and the court, which would further hurt the image of the institution. Even otherwise, contempt can come into picture only if it is established beyond doubt that the contents of the letter were false.

And silence is certainly not a good strategy. At stake is public trust in the judiciary. As the court has often said, justice should not only be done but should also be seen to be done.