The Gentleman Doth Protest Too Much

Mr. Ranjan Gogoi, who earlier graced the Supreme Court and now adds gravitas to the Rajya Sabha (when it functions, that is, or when he attends it- both of which are seldom) has come out with his statement for the defence in a book titled JUSTICE FOR THE JUDGE. For the last few days he has also been promoting it aggressively, leveraging his past status to stare down anchors who get under his thick skin. Arguably the most controversial Chief Justice this country has had to endure in 70 years, he has mastered the art of forcing the toothpaste into the tube, the toothpaste being the facts and the tube being his preconceived conclusion. The whole process creates a mess, of course, but nothing that can’t be washed away with a little Ganga Jal and a post-retirement sinecure. The book and the subsequent TV promos only confirm this assessment.

The title of the book exposes his game, which is to play the victim card: that he has been treated unfairly in the court of public opinion for his various acts of commission and omission. Forget the brazen manner in which he has been injected into the Rajya Sabha, a surgical strike on democracy without the benefit of any anesthesia. But the more he protests, both in the book and in the interviews, the more untenable his position becomes.

He is more adept at passing the buck than a croupier at a Vegas casino. That famous press conference of four judges is laid at the door of Justice Chelameswar: Gogoi claims that the former never told him that it was going to be a press conference- merely a cup of tea with a few journalists! The distinction escapes me. The clean chit to him in the sexual harassment case, we are told, was the doing of the Committee headed by Justice Bobde, the author had nothing to do with it, never mind that all members of the Committee were junior to him, never mind that he had already termed the accusations as ” wild and scandalous” in open court and described them as a conspiracy against him. It is again Mr. Bobde, not he, who is responsible for the strange reinstatement of the complainant in the sexual harassment case. On being asked by Srinivasan Jain of NDTV to explain the contradiction in reinstating an employee whose complaint was found to be false, wild and scandalous, Gogoi ascribes it to Bobde’s deep sense of compassion! Does he really expect the reader to swallow this bilge? Mr. Gogoi’s absence from the Rajya Sabha sittings too is the doing of Covid, the failure to observe protocols in Parliament, never mind that hundreds of other members were faithfully discharging their duty by attending the sessions. The Supreme Court’s abject failure to take up the Kashmir habeas corpus petitions and the challenge to the abrogation of Article 370 is also blamed on others. Gogoi says he had passed them on to other benches since he was busy with- what else?- the Ram Mandir case, and it was their responsibility. Never mind that all this was happening under his charge, that he is the Master of the Roster, that he is the administrative head of the Court. He will not accept responsibility for that piece of ” righteous miscarriage of justice “, the Ram Mandir judgment, insisting that it was a unanimous pronouncement by a bench of judges. He shirks questions on the Rafale ” clean chit” to the government by saying that ex-judges should not comment about their judgments. A disingenuous piece of dissembling, if ever there was one, considering that the sole intention of his book is to defend his various judgments and give himself a clean chit too.! He offers no explanation for almost single-handedly driving the disastrous Assam NRC exercise, without first deciding on the constitutionality of Section 6 of the CAA. If anything, he should have recused himself from the case, being an Assamese himself.

Ranjan Gogoi and another former Supreme Court chief justice, SA Bobde, at the launch of Gogoi’s book in Delhi on December 8. | PTI

Mr Gogoi blusters and blunders his way through awkward questions for which he has no answers, digging his hole a bit deeper every time with his frequent displays of righteous indignation. About surrendering to the government on the issue of the appointment of Justice Kureshi to the MP High Court, he says he did so to avoid a confrontation between two constitutional authorities. He forgets that it is the fundamental duty of the Apex Court to confront the executive when it over-reaches; there is no other rationale for its existence.

Gogoi claims, with a straight face, that it was the opportunity to render ” public service” which made him accept the government’s nomination to the Rajya Sabha. Forget for a moment the dubious quality of public service rendered by him as Chief Justice- we will leave that for posterity to judge. But here is the important part: since his nomination, he has attended only 6 of 66 sessions- a mind-blowing 10% participation rate. This places him level with other ” public service” votaries such as Sachin Tendulkar and Rekha- not the appropriate role models as MPs, you will agree. To make matters worse, Gogoi then goes on to say ( with another twist of the shovel) that he attends Parliament ” when he feels like it.” But we’ll leave that little joke for the Privileges Committee of Parliament to chuckle over.

For me, the defining image of his tenure is the photograph in the book of Mr Gogoi and his brother judges ” celebrating the landmark verdict ” ( the Ram mandir judgment ) at a five-star hotel, wine and all. One cannot grudge them a fine dinner after their hard work. But ” celebrating “? Along with, perhaps the Sangh Parivar, the BJP and assorted bhakts? This scene reminds me of nothing more than a cut from THE GODFATHER, down to the fine detail of Don Corleone eschewing a glass of wine, much like Mr Gogoi himself.

The former Chief Justice has much to answer for, in relation to both his judgments and his conduct. But he has only made things worse for himself with this book and the subsequent interviews. There is no introspection, soul searching, humility or regret in the book, and only aggression, hostility and rodomontade in the interviews. If the objective of this book was to redeem his tattered reputation, it has not succeeded by a long shot. Just as a good wine needs no bush, similarly a conscientious judge needs no book to defend himself. His judgments speak louder than any autobiography or press interviews. And Mr. Gogoi’s judgments tell a different story. It would perhaps have been better if he had put this book in a sealed cover, one of his own juridical concoctions. For, as Christopher Hitchins famously said: ” Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases, that’s where it should stay.”

Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains. He divides his time between Delhi and his cottage in a small village above Shimla. He used to play golf at one time but has now run out of balls. He blogs at http://avayshukla.blogspot.in/

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