Suspicions and apprehensions cannot be the basis on which a government can take decisions or make appointments. But with the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, and the Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley, submitting dissenting notes on the proposal to make retired Supreme Court judge Cyriac Joseph a member of the National Human Rights Commission, the United Progressive Alliance government would do well to pause and ponder before proceeding further. The objections raised by the two BJP leaders arise from an adverse report of an intelligence agency on Justice Joseph’s style of functioning as a judge. Apparently, the report touched upon delays in his delivering judgments, but did not question his integrity. An intelligence agency report on these issues cannot be taken at face value and could well be unsubstantiated or erroneous. However, in the light of the Opposition’s dissenting notes, it is only proper that the government looks at the proposal afresh.
There are, broadly speaking, two issues at stake here. First, respect for the sanctity of a selection process which includes the Opposition so as to make these important appointments as consensual as possible, and second, respect for the mandate of the NHRC. It is a fact that successive governments at the Centre have sought to neutralise and undermine the commission by nominating unsuitable candidates as members or by not filling vacancies for long periods of time. The Protection of Human Rights Act states that apart from the chairperson, one member must be a former judge of the Supreme Court, one a former chief justice of a High Court, and two must be “persons having knowledge of, or practical experience in, matters relating to human rights.” In recent years, unfortunately, virtually none of the non-judicial members — former CBI chief P.C. Sharma, former diplomats R.S. Kalha and Satyabrata Pal, or the latest entrant, the former head of the National Investigation Agency, S.C. Sinha — could claim such qualifications, even if some, notably Mr. Pal, have delivered commendably on the commission. Then there is the delay in filling vacancies. Mr Sharma retired from the NHRC last June. But Mr. Sinha was named for his slot only in March 2013. The vacancy Justice Joseph will fill was created in January. If the government had used this time to search out candidates for their commitment to rights, the delay might have been justified. But the manner in which the government selects candidates is opaque, and there is no reason to assume considerations of human rights protection play any role whatsoever in the process. This is the fundamental question the Opposition should focus on.