Justice Dalveer Bhandari, a judge of the Supreme Court of India, was elected a fortnight ago by the United Nations General Assembly and Security Council, to serve as a Member of the International Court of Justice (ICJ). He defeated the Filipino nominee, Justice Florentino Feliciano, by a handsome margin and now has a six-year first term at the World Court. Justice Bhandari is undoubtedly a fine judge with considerable expertise in international law. His legal acumen, keen intellect and a sense of justice, especially for the poor and homeless that shines through in his domestic judgments, are qualities that make him an ideal representative of India, itself a beacon of democracy and human rights in the developing world. That India has made a good choice is not in doubt; whether it could have made a better choice, as some have suggested, is contestable though ultimately a moot point. The key issue that arises in this context relates to the fact that Justice Bhandari's nomination by the Government of India and eventual election to the ICJ took place while he continued to serve as a judge of the Supreme Court of India. This raises grave and disturbing issues regarding the independence of the judiciary in India and points to the lowered standards of propriety in the highest echelons of governance.
Judiciary & government
The independence of the judiciary is a significant legal principle in India, ever since it was held to be part of the basic structure of the Constitution. Since then it has been used on several occasions by the Supreme Court most notably to judicially lay down norms regarding the appointment of judges, transfer of judges between High Courts and administratively with regard to claiming exemption for the office of the Chief Justice of India from the purview of the Right to Information Act and formulating an internal code of conduct for appropriate judicial behaviour. The extensive (and sometimes unwarranted) usage of judicial independence as a legal principle has however blighted its primary status as a normative principle of good governance which promotes impartiality, a key facet of fair adjudication. The judiciary must not only be independent of the co-ordinate wings of government as well as the parties before the case, but must also be seen to be so. The slightest doubt in the public mind of excessive proximity between the judiciary and the government, which is the largest litigant before it, may lead to significant apprehensions of a lack of impartiality thereby questioning the legitimacy of the entire adjudicatory setup. As the Supreme Court of India itself likes repeating in its judgments, “Judges, like Caesar's wife, must be above suspicion.”
It is this test of judicial independence as a normative principle that Justice Bhandari's actions fail to satisfy. From available records, Justice Bhandari's candidacy was accepted by the Ministry of External Affairs after a recommendation to this effect in January 2012 by the Indian Chapter of the Permanent Council of Arbitration, whose advice in this matter, the government has traditionally honoured. From that time, up to the election at the United Nations in April, Justice Bhandari continued as a serving Supreme Court judge, hearing cases (from the Supreme Court causelist record, he heard cases till the 9th of April) and being party to delivered judgments (the last recorded judgment thus far being delivered on the 27th of April, authored by Justice Dipak Misra, his brother Judge on the Bench).
Though his resignation is not a matter of public record yet (the website of the Supreme Court continues to show him as a serving judge at the time of writing of this piece), it is believed that it became effective only on his election to the ICJ. During the same time, as the Ministry of External Affairs' response to a RTI petition on 8th February 2012 shows, the government was actively lobbying for his candidature in the United Nations, speaking on his behalf to various member states. Even if it is assumed that Justice Bhandari had little or no contact with the government in this process, the very fact that the government, a regular litigant in Justice Bhandari's courtroom was actively espousing his cause outside it, is gravely problematic in terms of judicial independence conceptualised as a principle of good governance leading to impartiality.
Unheeded lessons from the past
It is not however the case that Justice Bhandari's failure to resign as a judge of the Supreme Court prior to the government making him its official nominee for election to the ICJ is an isolated incident of judicial independence being imperilled at the altar of individual ambition. Justice Subba Rao's acceptance of his candidature for President of India by the opposition parties when he was Chief Justice of India is the most egregious example of the independence of the judiciary being threatened by a single individual. Equally pertinently in the present context, the election of the last Indian to serve on the ICJ, the then Chief Justice of India, R.S. Pathak (who incidentally relinquished office as Chief Justice only subsequent to his election to the ICJ), was marred by strong claims that Justice Pathak's appointment was part of a quid pro quo involving Union Carbide Corporation, the Government of India and the Supreme Court with the Pathak Court endorsing a deeply flawed settlement in the aftermath of the Bhopal gas tragedy. It is disappointing that Justice Bhandari as an upright individual and a learned judge failed to pay adequate heed to these lessons of history and relinquish his judicial office before accepting a nomination by the Government of India.
What is equally disappointing is the lack of public outcry regarding this issue. When Justice Subba Rao accepted the candidature for President made to him by the opposition parties while still in office, a man no less than Motilal Setalvad, India's first Attorney General, issued a statement to the press strongly condemning the Chief Justice's decision, saying that “he has set at naught traditions which have governed the judiciary in our country for over a century.” Justice Pathak's nomination to the ICJ was the subject of several scathing indictments, including by former Supreme Court judge, Justice Krishna Iyer who wrote of “the beholdenness of the candidate [Pathak] to the litigant government for getting the great office for him.” As far as Justice Bhandari's nomination is concerned, except a public interest petition challenging it as a violation of judicial independence, there has been a seemingly all-pervading public silence. Even the petition itself, though well-intentioned, was misguided, seeking redress from the Supreme Court in a matter which was characterised by impropriety rather than illegality of a type a judicial order could rectify. Justifiably, the Court refused to entertain it.
Importance of propriety
In an age of multi-billion rupee scandals, endemic corruption and food shortages caused by governmental apathy and inaction, the impropriety of a judge failing to resign at an appropriate time may intuitively seem trivial. But as with most questions of impropriety, though its effects may not be immediately apparent, they are the portents of an insidious decline in the standards and values that define institutions.
For the Supreme Court of India, judicial independence has been the cornerstone of its functioning from the time of its inception. Despite a few challenging periods, the Court, the Bar and the conscientious members of the political classes have always striven to fiercely guard the independence of the judiciary from any potential threats. The Bhandari episode is however a bellwether of a possibly developing relationship of cosiness between government and the judiciary, accompanied by a general public indifference, bordering on acquiescence, of such a relationship.
The government's decision to nominate a sitting judge before whom it continued to appear as a litigant, Justice Bhandari's decision to not resign when the government was lobbying for him, and most crucially public acceptance of such an unholy nexus are warning signs that ought to be heeded. While the return of an Indian to the World Court after an absence of two decades rightfully gives cause for celebration, it provides an equally significant opportunity for introspection, that the cherished principle of judicial independence, responsible in the first place for the high esteem in which the Indian judiciary and its judges are held on the world stage, does not itself fall into desuetude in the process.
(Arghya Sengupta is a Stipendiary Lecturer in Administrative Law at the University of Oxford and the founder of the think-tank, The Pre-Legislative Briefing Service.)