The new Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi is a man of integrity with impeccable reputation who never tolerates any kind of wrong or injustice! Also, he does not like sycophancy in any manner and is a man of few words who yet conveys everything in that brief interaction. This alone explains why when a lawyer in court tested his luck by striking a congratulatory note, CJI Ranjan Gogoi curtly said that, “This is courtroom and let us get back to work.”
To be sure, the change of guard in the Supreme Court with outgoing CJI Dipak Mishra passing the baton of CJI to Ranjan Gogoi might lead to a discernible change in the court proceedings as was evident right from the first day as the CJI made it clear that he will continue to be “strict and perfectionist” in dealing with cases and judicial administration. He has made it amply clear on more occasions than one that he will not tolerate indiscipline and breaking of rules under any circumstances! He is known all over for his strictness and penchant to always abide by the rule-book and he made it clear while speaking recently at a function organised in his honour by Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA). The newly designated CJI Ranjan Gogoi who took oath on October 3 candidly said that, “I am what I am and I cannot change myself. Take me as I am – I cannot change,” while referring to SCBA President Vikas Singh’s remarks that Justice Gogoi is “strict and perfectionist” and urging him to be lenient with junior lawyers and those unprepared for any reason! What CJI Gogoi said is quite palpable and even if he had not said this, it is well known to all which he always demonstrates by his exemplary and elegant conduct while hearing cases and even otherwise if he meets someone anywhere!
Needless to say, soon after taking over as the 46th Chief Justice of India, Justice Ranjan Gogoi on October 3 began his 410-day stint which means he will have a tenure of a little over 13 months. He will retire on November 17, 2019. He has achieved a great personal milestone by not just becoming the Chief Justice of India but also by becoming the first person from the Northeast to reach the top position of the judiciary for which he certainly deserves accolades!
As things stand, President Ram Nath Kovind administered the oath to Justice Ranjan Gogoi at a brief ceremony in Rashtrapati Bhavan’s historic Darbar Hall. Justice Gogoi took the oath in English in the name of God. He succeeded outgoing CJI Justice Dipak Mishra who retired on October 2 on attaining the age of 65 years. CJI Gogoi promptly has also tweaked the Judges roster that decides subjectwise allotment of work, assigning public interest litigation to himself and Justice Madan B Lokur would hear those directed to his court by the Chief Justice.
Of course, Justice Gogoi took oath for the highest post in the judiciary that is of CJI in the presence of PM Narendra Modi and his cabinet colleagues, former PMs Manmohan Singh, HD Deve Gowda, ex-CJIs and Judges of the Supreme Court besides other political personalities. After the oath, he shook hands with the President before rushing to his mother sitting in the front row of dignitaries to touch her feet and then greet others with folded hands. This itself is the biggest testimony that how much regards he holds for his mother and very rightly so!
It is most reassuring to see that the newly designated CJI Ranjan Gogoi has promptly unveiled his plan to bring in reforms in the judicial system and fill up the vacancies, particularly in the lower courts. He assured that he will make all-out effort to fill up the posts in next 3-4 months. He minced no words in making his intentions known loud and clear by stating unambiguously that, “Time is short. We are making efforts for best results in the shortest time.”
Truth be told, the huge vacancies in the lower courts and High Courts are a stumbling block in the way of speedy justice and quick disposal of cases. There are 5,925 vacant posts of judicial officers in district and subordinate courts as of now and vacancies in High Courts have jumped to 40% on August 31 with 427 posts falling vacant and the working strength of Judges coming down to 652 against a total approved strength of 1,079. Going by the current rate of appointments of Judges in High Courts, and considering that 75-85 Judges retire on an average every year, it will take at least 15 years to fill up the existing 427 vacancies in all the 24 High Courts. CJI Ranjan Gogoi knows the daunting challenges that he is going to face ahead in days to come but he seems fully determined to task them head on and address them root and branch so that it is completely addressed!
Be it noted, the CJI Ranjan Gogoi also emphasized vocally the need to maintain the “aura and dignity” of office of Judgeship. Referring to the suggestion of Attorney General KK Venugopal who said salary of Judges be hiked at least 3-4 times to attract competent persons for Judgeship, the CJI Gogoi was absolutely right in stating it upfront that, “There will not be many takers (for judgeship) and it will not work if only salary is increased or retirement age is increased unless the dignity of the office is maintained.” Who can deny or dispute it?
While outlining his priorities as CJI, Justice Ranjan Gogoi said that he was working with his “colleagues” to put in place a mechanism to ensure quick listing of cases and to reduce the time period before filing and hearing of a case. Justice Gogoi had on October 1 disclosed that the twin issues – huge pendency of cases and justice not being accessible to the poor and marginalised sections of society – troubled him and hinted that his priorities as head of the judiciary would be to deal with these issues.” He is very rightly troubled because these are in fact the twin major issues that have been afflicting the nation since quite a long time! Who can deny this?
It goes without saying that these twin problems of huge pendency of cases and justice not being accessible to the poor and marginalised sections of society can be addressed by recruiting more Judges, setting up more high court benches especially in big states like UP which has just one high court bench at Lucknow just about 200 km away from Allahabad where high court itself is located and the other parts like Western UP which accounts for more than half of pending cases has not even a single bench of high court even though the distance from most of the 26 districts of West UP to Allahabad ranges approximately from 600 to 750 km on an average and the more than 9 crore people living here are compelled to travel so far whole night all the way to Allahabad just because there is no bench here even though Justice Jaswant Singh Commission headed by Justice Jaswant Singh who is a former Supreme Court Judge set up by Centre in latte 1970s had categorically recommended a high court bench to be set up here yet no action was taken! Allahabad High Court is the biggest court not just in India but in whole of Asia and is also the oldest court which completed 150 years in 2016 yet it has least benches in India whereas smaller states like Assam has 4 benches, Maharashtra too has 4 benches the latest set up recently at Kolhapur for just 6 districts, Karnataka has 3 benches with 2 set up in 2012 for just 4 and 8 districts at Dharad and Gulbarga, Madhya Pradesh has two and so is the case with many other states!
Not just this, Allahabad High Court tops the states list for maximum pending cases and has more pending cases than the pending cases of 10 states put together yet no bench set up in last 70 years even though the 230th report of Law Commission of India recommended creation of more benches in big states like UP where only one bench exists created in 1948 on July 1! One fervently hopes that Justice Gogoi will take prompt steps to correct this and also create more benches in other lawless states like Bihar which has not even a single bench of high court and also ensure that all vacancies in lower courts are filled promptly so that the pending cases can be disposed of promptly!
Very few know that Justice Gogoi had qualified for the prestigious Civil Services exam which his father – late Keshab Chandra Gogoi who was the former Chief Minister of Assam had asked him to appear but he was not keen and instead preferred to become a lawyer. His father wished him best and predicted that he would one day become the Chief Justice of India and not just the Chief Minister of a State like him! His father may be no more alive but he has proved right what his father had predicted about him by his relentless dedication, discipline and determination! He joined the Bar in 1978 and practiced in Gauhati High Court. He was mentored by senior advocate JP Bhattacharjee and soon he acquired mastery in constitutional, tax and company law and was appointed a Permanent Judge of Gauhati High Court at the age of 47 in February 2001. He was transferred to the Punjab and Haryana High Court where he became Judge on 9 September 2010 and appointed Chief Justice on 12 February 2011 at 57 and was appointed Judge of the Supreme Court in April 2012 at 58.
It cannot be lost on us that Justice Ranjan Gogoi along with three other Supreme Court Judges – Justice J Chelameswar (since retired), Justice Madan B Lokur and Justice Kurian Joseph grabbed news headlines all over when they staged an unprecedented press conference which is perhaps the first in the history of the Indian judiciary to protest the arbitrary manner in which crucial cases were allotted by the then CJI Dipak Mishra to Judges who were comparatively much junior to them! Justice Gogoi had dared to risk his entire bright future because Centre which was not too happy with this could have easily sabotaged his appointment as CJI just like former PM late Mrs Indira Gandhi did while she was CJI when she superseded 3 Judges and made her own favourite as CJI but all credit to this Modi government that it did not stoop so low! PM Narendra Modi also rejected any move to increase immediately the retirement age of Supreme Court Judges from 65 to 67 as this would have directly impacted Justice Ranjan Gogoi’s prospects to become CJI and he would have retired just as Justice and not as CJI for which PM Modi certainly deserves full marks! PM Modi tweeted that, “I congratulate Justice Ranjan Gogoi ji on taking oath as the Chief Justice of India. His experience, wisdom, insight and legal knowledge will benefit the country greatly. My best wishes for a fruitful tenure.”
Truly speaking, the new CJI Gogoi began the day at the Apex Court by telling the lawyers that fresh parameters would be worked out for mentioning the matters for hearing those cases which required hearing on priority and urgent mentioning. Justice Gogoi said that, “no urgent mentioning of cases will be allowed till certain parameters are fixed for it”. Dispensing with the routine of mentioning that usually takes 20 minutes of judicial time daily, the Justice Gogoi-led Bench also indicated it will narrow the entry of PILs. Despite the no to mentioning, senior advocate Prashant Bhushan sought urgent listing of a petition claiming it involved imminent deportation of seven illegal Rohingya immigrants by India to Myanmar but the CJI stuck to his stand and told Bhushan that he would not entertain any mentioning for urgent listing and all petitions that are filed, would be listed in two or three days! CJI Gogoi added that, “If somebody is going to be hanged or evicted tomorrow, then we can understand urgency”.
Not stopping here, the CJI-led Bench also said that, “We are here to correct and monitor all ills that are there in this country. Can the court do that? Aggrieved parties must give representation to the government and follow it up.” This will certainly now deter many advocates from immediately rushing to the Supreme Court with a PIL merely on the basis of newspaper reports on social, economic and financial matters or even defence deals!
It would be worth mentioning here that CJI Ranjan Gogoi sitting alongside Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and KM Joseph said that, “Pass-overs will also not be allowed.” These are short adjournments to accommodate lawyers who may be occupied with other cases. The Bench hears pass-over cases after they have dealt with their others. Gogoi also signalled that he would rein in PIL filed on sundry issues rejecting one that urged the court to ask the government to consider a representation to make some changes in election laws. BJP leader Ashwani Upadhyay had urged the court to direct the government to act as per the Election Commission’s advice and reduce the 30-day period for candidates to file election expenses. Justice Gogoi asked “Are we here to request the government to consider something?” Also, the CJI Gogoi was irked to find that Ashwani Upadhyay dressed in the robes of an advocate was both the petitioner and the lawyer “assisting” his own counsel. The CJI commented on the lack of decorum and the petition was then quickly withdrawn!
It was Justice Ranjan Gogoi who was on the Bench that ruled in 2013 that no one could contest elections without a full and honest disclosure of their assets and also their educational and criminal antecedents. In 2015, a Bench of Apex Court comprising Justice Ranjan Gogoi and NV Ramana had imposed a fine of Rs 5 lakh on two public sector undertaking companies for urging the court to withdraw their appeal. The Bench lashed out saying very sternly that, “If you wanted to withdraw, why did you in first instance file it and persuade us to issue notice? This is not a drawing room where you can walk in and walk out at your own ease.” Justice Ranjan Gogoi was also on the Bench that had restricted the political parties from publishing photographs of leaders and prominent personalities other than the Prime Minister, the President and the CJI in governance-funded advertisements. He also in May had revoked a proposal from the Uttar Pradesh government that arbitrarily allowed all former Chief Ministers to retain their official residences for life long! He also in July had taken strong exception of the Centre’s nonchalant approach in not appointing a Lokpal even after competing more than 4 years in office!
Not stopping here, in November 2016, he dared to even issue contempt notice to a very eminent former Supreme Court Judge Markandey Katju for a blog post on his ruling commuting the death sentence of Govindasamy convicted for raping a girl in Kerala in 2011 saying that, “It (the blog) is an assault on the Judges and not the judgment”. In November 2017, he along with senior colleagues had sentenced Justice CS Karnan for contempt to six months in jail which he did serve! In February 2017 he was part of Bench that refused to grant an extension to Sahara Group owner Subrata Roy to deposit Rs 600 crore saying “We cannot be assembling every month for you to deposit meagre amounts.” It was Justice Gogoi who kept Jats out of the ambit of reservation for OBCs in central services and again it was he who made benefits for the Scheduled Castes state specific and also ordered that upon the death of a Hindu man, his widow would have the right to the joint family property and would not be deprived of it! It was he who as Chief Justice of Punjab and Haryana High Court had ensured that a Judge accused of corruption was made to resign after he complained about him to the Supreme Court!
No doubt, he is facing daunting challenges but he is fully geared to meet them. Vijay Hansaria who is a senior lawyer minces no words in saying that, “The Supreme Court is fragmented. It feels like there are 13 different Supreme Courts. As a captain, he has to bring everyone together.” What is most distinguishing about him making him different from others is that a common man sees him as a no-nonsense, impartial and dead honest Judge who does not believe in nepotism or favouritism of any kind and who places values above everything else and feels relaxed that for next one year at least the command of judiciary in India is in the safe hands on whom the people can pose their complete blind trust and approach whenever the need arises! Even his worst opponents have never at any given point of time dared to ever question his integrity and commitment to the nation, people and justice!
It would be worth mentioning here that the CJI Ranjan Gogoi has also revealed candidly that he and his colleagues were devising a fool-proof mechanism by which oral mentioning would become redundant. Cases filed would be listed early by default. There would be no unceremonious dropping of cases already scheduled for hearing just because the court had to accommodate a new one mentioned out-of-turn!
His utmost commitment can be gauged from the irrefutable fact that when lawyers appear in his court, he asks them whether their case comes under the 93 percent or the remaining seven percent which at first glance seems cryptic query but delve deeper and you find that it is because only seven percent of the cases which find their way to the Supreme Court are pertaining to constitutional matters and the Apex Court ought to be dealing only with such cases but what happens in reality is just the reverse! But this cannot happen now as long as the command of judiciary is in the firm hands of CJI Ranjan Gogoi!
By Sanjeev Sirohi