As the NJAC debate is revived by the government in 2022, political fault lines have deepened

In August 2014, barely three months after the Narendra Modi government took oath of office, the NJAC law, effected through the 99th Constitutional Amendment, was passed in Parliament by near unanimity.

December 31, 2022 01:53 pm | Updated 06:28 pm IST - NEW DELHI

While the top court pointed that the Collegium system is the ‘law of the land,’ Law Minister Kiren Rijiju informed the Parliament there was a need for a new system of appointments regarding NJAC.

While the top court pointed that the Collegium system is the ‘law of the land,’ Law Minister Kiren Rijiju informed the Parliament there was a need for a new system of appointments regarding NJAC. | Photo Credit: Reuters

A record appointment of 165 judges to High Courts in a single calendar year is one the key highlights of a year-ender prepared by the Law Ministry. Yet, the friction between the Union government and the Supreme Court over delays in judicial appointments is what dominated the headlines in 2022.

While the top court pointed that the Collegium system is the ‘law of the land,’ Law Minister Kiren Rijiju informed the Parliament there was a need for a new system of appointments but stopped short of spelling out the government’s intent on bringing back the National Judicial Appointments Commission (NJAC) that was struck down by the Supreme Court as ‘unconstitutional’.

“Representations from diverse sources on lack of transparency, objectivity and social diversity in the Collegium system of appointment of judges to the constitutional courts (Supreme Court and the High Courts) are received from time to time with the request to improve this system of appointment of judges. Government has sent suggestions for supplementing the Memorandum of Procedure for appointment of Judges to the High Courts and Supreme Court ,” Mr. Rijiju informed the Rajya Sabha on December 22.

A week earlier, the Law Minister had told the Upper House that questions of judicial vacancy will keep arising until a new system is in place. “We are giving our full support to reduce pendency of cases. But questions will keep arising on vacancy of judges and appointments till we create a new system for appointments,” he said told the Rajya Sabha.

Also Read:Explained | Why is the NJAC verdict at the centre of the impasse over appointment of judges?

In August 2014, barely three months after the Narendra Modi government took oath of office, the NJAC law, effected through the 99 th Constitutional Amendment, was passed in Parliament by near unanimity. Only one Rajya Sabha lawmaker, late Ram Jethmalani, had abstained from voting in favour of the bill.

But eight years later, along with the revival of the debate around NJAC, political fault lines have also deepened. Congress Parliamentary Party (CPP) chief Sonia Gandhi, while recently addressing her colleagues in Parliament, accused the Modi government of trying to ‘delegitimise’ the judiciary.

“A troubling new development is the calculated attempt underway to delegitimise the judiciary. Ministers - and even a high constitutional authority - have been enlisted to making speeches attacking the judiciary on various grounds. It is quite clear that this is not an effort to provide reasonable suggestions for improvement. Rather, it is an effort to reduce the standing of the judiciary in the eyes of the public,” Ms. Gandhi alleged.

Opposition leaders argued that though there is a strong case for reforming the ‘opaque’ Collegium system, they cannot ‘empower’ the government in matters of judicial appointments. “Like in a game of cricket, you play by the rules and when there is a dispute, the Third Umpire steps in, the Judiciary is the Third Umpire. But the government wants to capture the third umpire itself, ”Former Law Minister and independent Rajya Sabha member, Kapil Sibal, told  The Hindu.

“The Third Umpire may have shortcomings issues but the government cannot be allowed to be the final arbiter of who is to be a judge or play the role of an umpire,” he added.

Congress member in the Rajya Sabha and Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court, Vivek Tankha added, “Yes, we had supported the NJAc but the behaviour of the executive in the past six-eight years has taught us a lesson. Personally, I would argue for a completely independent body that look at judicial appointments commission”.

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