Justice Nuthalapati Venkata Ramana was the 48th Chief Justice of India (CJI) and only the second judge from Andhra Pradesh to occupy this position after Justice K. Subba Rao in 1966-67. He was appointed to the High Court of Andhra Pradesh in June 2000 while the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance was in power and came to the Supreme Court in February 2014, being among the last judges to be appointed by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance Government. His tenure as CJI for one year, 124 days began with widespread hope that an extremely strong executive would be held accountable and that the most pressing constitutional issues of our times would be heard and adjudicated upon. However, as is evident now, that did not play out and it ended up being a tenure that promised so much and delivered very little on those fronts.
One of the most striking faultlines of Justice Ramana’s leadership came from his own farewell comments. For an outgoing CJI to acknowledge and apologise for the breakdown of the listing and posting of cases speaks to a far deeper institutional malaise. It is curious that he apologised for not paying much attention to the listing process and it is just as curious that Justice U.U. Lalit, the incoming CJI, immediately identified reforming the listing process as an urgent area of concern. The stark contrast in prioritising the listing process for course correction presents a very odd picture for those of us who watch the Court from outside. While this might seem insignificant to laypersons, it is exactly these listing and allocation processes that decide what gets decided in the Supreme Court and who decides it.
To effectively understand Justice Ramana’s legacy, it is important to understand the prevailing situation in the Supreme Court when he took over as the CJI. After the various controversies that plagued the tenures of Justices Dipak Misra, Ranjan Gogoi and S.A. Bobde as CJIs, the Supreme Court was considerably weakened as an institution. The lead up to his CJI tenure in the early parts of 2021 and first few months as CJI were seen as hopeful indicators of a resurgence. Orders on bail under Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA), fixing gaps in dowry death law, medical assistance to Siddique Kappan and powerful speeches on criticism, dissent in a democracy, and the need to guard against tyranny were sources of hope.
However, Justice Ramana’s judicial contribution as CJI was disappointing. His orders keeping the sedition law in abeyance and preventing its further use until its constitutional validity was determined will perhaps be his most lasting judicial legacy as CJI. His judgment striking down provisions of the Benami Transactions (Prohibition) Act for arbitrary and overbroad criminalisation is also significant but it is obvious that Justice Ramana avoided constitutional questions that were political minefields. Cases on electoral bonds, the constitutional validity of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, dilution of Article 370, hijab ban in schools, reservations for Economically Weaker Sections, and Aadhaar amendments raised important constitutional questions that needed urgent resolution but were not listed.
The hearings on Pegasus revealed the extent of the difficulty currently faced by the Court in getting answers from the executive. The manner in which only very limited parts of the Pegasus committee’s report were revealed continues the troubling trend of secrecy and opaqueness in fact finding in such matters. Complicating this approach was the rather inexplicable prioritisation of the ‘freebies’ case in the last few days of his tenure. In an issue where the Court’s jurisdiction and competence are rather doubtful, spending crucial judicial time on it sent rather odd signals.
In many ways, his judicial legacy as a judge of the Supreme Court seems to carry more weight than his legacy as the CJI. Justice Ramana’s orders on Internet restrictions in Kashmir, bringing the office of the CJI under the Right to Information (RTI) Act and his track record on the death penalty all indicated potential for deep constitutional thinking that was not delivered upon ultimately. In particular, his judgment in Accused X pushed the law forward on the manner in which issues of mental illness must be considered during sentencing.
Bright spots in administration
It is perhaps on the administrative side that Justice Ramana leaves his most lasting legacy. Before he took over as CJI, there was a 22-month deadlock on collegium recommendations. As CJI he ensured 11 appointments to the Supreme Court (nine in one go) and over 200 appointments to various High Courts. As part of this, Justice Ramana has also ended up ensuring that India will have its first female CJI in Justice B.V. Nagarathna between September-October 2027. However, on appointment of judges during his tenure, two issues raised significant concerns. The failure to elevate Justice Akil Kureshi to the Supreme Court despite his seniority, performance, and reputation and the decision to transfer Justice Sanjib Banerjee from being the Chief Justice of Madras High Court (with a strength of 75 judges) to the Meghalaya High Court (with four judges) needed answers that never came. Another issue that has received far less attention has been Government’s resistance to appoint Nagendra Ramachandra Naik, Aditya Sondhi (who has since withdrawn himself from consideration) as judges of the Karnataka High Court and Saurabh Kirpal as a Delhi High Court judge. These issues with elevations, transfers, and appointments show the complicated relationship between the Court and the Government. In that light, ensuring over 200 appointments is no easy task and it demonstrates an ability to navigate tricky waters with the Government.
Justice Ramana himself was appointed as a judge of the Andhra Pradesh High Court in June 2000 when he was the Additional Advocate General to the Chandrababu Naidu (Telugu Desam Party)-led Andhra Pradesh government. Ram Jethmalani was the Union Law Minister under the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government at that time and more than a decade later, in February 2013, interesting facts about Justice Ramana’s appointment emerged. The Supreme Court was hearing a petition, argued by Ram Jethmalani, that Justice Ramana could not continue as a High Court judge. The Supreme Court Bench comprising Justices Aftab Alam and Ranjana Desai pointed out to Ram Jethamalani that it was under his leadership that the Law Ministry had pushed for Justice Ramana’s appointment despite it being twice rejected by the Supreme Court collegium (as documented by V. Venkatesan).
Another controversy that marred Justice Ramana’s tenure in the Supreme Court has been the complaint and investigation into the purchase of land at very low prices by his daughters in the Amaravati capital region of divided Andhra Pradesh. The gag orders on the media to prevent reporting on the case by the Andhra Pradesh High Court in September 2020 (through the then Chief Justice J.K. Maheshwari) were wholly inappropriate. Though the Supreme Court stayed the High Court’s gag orders, the situation worsened with the complaints by Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy, Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, against Justice Ramana. This forced the Supreme Court to initiate an in-house inquiry that eventually dismissed the complaints. Through a terse statement released by the Court, the complaints were dismissed and declared that the inquiry report would remain confidential. The fact that Justice Ramana was hearing a matter that sought to hasten hearings in corruption cases involving Members of Parliament/Members of Legislative Assemblies and the potential consequence for corruption cases against Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy only served to make this entire episode murkier.
Justice Ramana has perhaps been the most visible CJI in the history of the Supreme Court. One of the most striking images from his tenure has to be the image of him, in December 2021, riding in a decorated bullock cart with a large number of people around him on a visit to his village in Krishna district after taking over as the CJI. The unprecedented intensity and extent of the reportage involving Justice Ramana’s public engagements, including Op-Ed page contributions in national newspapers, speaks to an effort to redefine the relationship between the CJI, the Supreme Court and the people of this country. However, by virtue of this extended exposure, it did seem that the transformative constitutional vision of the CJI was more evident outside court rather than inside it. Perhaps the most enduring question of Justice Ramana’s legacy will be why he could not bring a transformative constitutional vision into the Chief Justice’s court.
Anup Surendranath is a Professor of Law at National Law University, Delhi. Research assistance by Ayan Gupta