Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Making the judiciary accountable

Magsaysay winner Arvind Kejriwal has a hard-hitting piece in today's TOI on the absence of accountability in the Indian judiciary.

It was news to me that the Delhi High Court had initiated contempt proceedings against Mid Day journalists for publishing a story questioning the acts of former chief justice of India (CJI) Y K Sabharwal. Kejriwal is highly critical of this move:

If the inquiry concludes that Mid Day journalists were wrong, they could be proceeded against. But by gagging the media, the Delhi high court is only lending credence to the allegations against Justice Sabharwal. The Delhi high court in its judgment against Mid Day journalists said that they were guilty of lowering the dignity of Supreme Court in the eyes of the public. If the voice of the media were to be gagged, the dignity of the Supreme Court would be lowered for ever.

Exposure of corruption in any institution might seem to lower it in the eyes of the people but in the long run strengthens the institution by allowing it to take corrective action. Suppressing exposure increases suspicion and indeed the people's 'contempt' for such institutions. Complete transparency and honest efforts to bring truth out in the public domain enhance the dignity of individuals and institutions.

Kejriwal makes the point that the Campaign for Judicial Accountability called a press conference in New Delhi and "released more damaging facts against Justice Sabharwal than what appeared in Mid Day." Justices JS Verma and V R Krishna Iyer, both former Supreme Court judges, called for an independent enquiry. Why then single out Mid Day journalists for contempt proceedings, Kejriwal asks.

Kejriwal then makes the case for greater accountability in the judiciary:

The judiciary lacks accountability. One needs the CJI's permission to file an FIR against a judge, which effectively rules out an FIR. One cannot publicly discuss the conduct of judges for fear of contempt. No agency has the powers to enquire into charges against them. Of late, the judiciary has expressed its desire to be kept out of RTI.

Contempt powers of the court should be subject to scrutiny. We have a right to hold the courts accountable. If there is a prima facie case of wrongdoing against any judge, it ought to be inquired into through a fast and effective mechanism. It is time that we asserted our right to discuss the conduct of judges and courts, the way we discuss that of any other democratic institution. Only then would the dignity of the courts rise in the eyes of the people.

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