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A case against supreme immunity

Shailesh Gandhi
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Two separate lawless actions with respect to the Right to Information Act have come to light in the last few weeks. Both reveal the scant respect for the law by the very institutions which should be inspiring us to act by the rule of law.

In the first instance the Central Information Commission (CIC) had given a ruling declaring that six major political parties were substantially funded by the government and hence subject to the Right to Information Law. The CIC had directed them to appoint Public Information Officers (PIO) and get ready to respond to RTI queries from citizens by July 15, 2013. The political parties howled in protest and their spokespersons who are leading lawyers said that the CIC order was bad in law. Though I disagree, they may well be correct. But the parties did not ask for a stay of the CIC order in a Court, nor did they follow the order. They brazenly flouted a statutory order and Government spokesmen threatened to issue an ordinance to change the law. Some people ask me what the legal remedy is. Frankly there is no real practical remedy to make political parties comply. My lawmakers are acting like a powerful criminal who says he will only obey the laws which he likes, and cares two hoots for any statutory authority. Many politicians are known to display these criminal tendencies, but for my major political parties to do this is despicable. Political parties are now threatening to amend the RTI Act in Parliament. Their members are charged with making laws on behalf of people, not changing them at will, if they are inconvenienced. That is a display of crass arrogance.

Detailed order

On April 26, 2013 the CIC gave the following order to the Supreme Court PIO to be implemented in 15 days to furnish the following information to Jagjit Singh:

i) the list of cars in use in the Supreme Court at the time of the RTI application excluding the details of the cars allotted to the judges, the list to mention the make and number of the car;

ii) the total kilometres each car had run in the preceding one year as per the log book of each;

iii) the total maintenance cost of each car, if separately available. If not, the total maintenance cost of the cars during this period;

iv) the attested photocopy of the pollution check certificates for all the cars, separately, duly masking the identity of the judges, if their names appear on the certificates;

v) The details of those cars originally fitted with tinted glasses or in which, the glasses had been coated with film to make it tinted, including the cost incurred on such conversion;

vi) the list of cars from which the tinted glass, if any, or the film, if any, coated on the glass later had been removed and the cost incurred on that, if this information is available in a recorded form;

vii) the list of cars which continue to have tinted glasses or film coating as on the date of the RTI application.

The order only seeks to confirm the level of conformance of the Supreme Court with some of its own orders, and can claim no exemption under the law. If there are any undesirable practices in the Supreme Court, this should have been the opportunity to give the information and correct them. Transparency is a medicine for admitting mistakes and improvement. The PIO of the Supreme Court has chosen to defy the statutory order of the CIC, and has not bothered to get a stay so far from a court even as a figleaf!

In Prithawi Nath Ram v. State of Jharkhand & Ors. Appeal (Civil) No. 5024 of 2000, the Supreme Court, in its judgment dated 24/08/2004 observed as follows:

“If any party concerned is aggrieved by the order which in its opinion is wrong or against rules or its implementation is neither practicable nor feasible, it should always either approach to the Court that passed the order or invoke jurisdiction of the Appellate Court. Rightness or wrongness of the order cannot be urged in contempt proceedings. Right or wrong the order has to be obeyed. Flouting an order of the Court would render the party liable for contempt.”

It appears the PIO is blissfully unaware of this judgment and many others where the apex court has held that all legally valid orders have to obeyed unless a proper stay has been obtained. Defiance of the CIC’s orders by the Supreme Court PIO sets a very poor example for the nation. Such a tendency can be curbed, if courts refuse to stay orders, where the compliance date is over. Unfortunately, this is not done.

The rule of law can prevail only if people and institutions respect and follow laws. Courts must also realise that respect for law requires respect for all laws and statutory authorities; not only courts. Our criminals have realised that the possibility of punishment in our nation is remote, and hence they flout laws and orders. If Institutions which make the law and lay down the law do not pursue this path, it would be difficult to get any reasonable rule of law in the country and the responsibility for this will lie at their doors.

(Shailesh Gandhi is former Central Information Commissioner.)

The non-compliance with two recent orders by the CIC, one on political parties and the other relating to the Supreme Court, have set a poor example for the rule of law


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