By guest contributors Anmol Jain and Prannv Dhawan. Jain is a penultimate-year law student at National Law University, Jodhpur, India. He takes an active interest in the study of constitutional law and judicial approaches to human rights. Dhawan is a third-year law student at National Law School of India University, Bangalore, India. He is interested in policy and legal research in the domains of public law, human rights and climate justice.
India’s constitutional democracy is backsliding. Speaking at a rally during the ‘National Register of Citizens (NRC) Seminar’ recently, the Home Minister advocated for the re-introduction of the much contentious Citizenship Amendment Bill, which unconstitutionally aims to provide easier citizenship requirements for non-Muslim refugees. Noted scholars have argued that previously, the National Register of Citizens exercised in Assam and now, the dilution of Article 370 of the Constitution that provides special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir, are arguably unconstitutional attempts to further the political vendetta of the ruling party which has the capability to downgrade the credentials of Indian federal and democratic ideals. Amid global critique of the functioning of the executive branch in India, the latest coming from the Bar Council and Bar Human Rights Committee of England and Wales, United Nations and the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, the attitude of the Supreme Court towards the Executive excesses has also come under the radar (see here, here, here and here). We attempt to analyse it hereunder by specifically focusing on the Jammu and Kashmir issue pertaining to dilution of Article 370.
To briefly comment on this provision, Article 370 prescribed a special status to the state of Jammu and Kashmir by limiting direct application of the Indian Constitution to the State. Provisions of the Indian Constitution could be applied only through Presidential Orders issued upon the concurrence of the State Government. It further provided that the President may cease or modify the operation of Article 370 after taking recommendations from the Constituent Assembly of the State. On August 5, 2019 a Presidential Order was passed which inserted an additional clause in Article 367, a provision that guides the interpretation of the Constitution, to indirectly amend Article 370. It stated that the expression ‘Constituent Assembly of the State’ used in Article 370, must be read as ‘Legislative Assembly of the State’. Given the fact that the state was functioning under President’s rule through the Centre-appointed Governor at the relevant time, indicating the absence of a legislative body, it became a butterwalk for the Central Government then to modify Article 370 to such an extent that it virtually dilutes it.
Many petitions have been filed in the Supreme Court challenging this dilution. This issue involves the determination of limits on the Executive functions in India, which is presently functioning in an ultra-strong manner with a combined strength of the whip. It involves the question of constitutional federalism and the survival of India’s democracy as envisaged by our founding fathers. Understandably, nothing could be more important in the existing backlog of the Supreme Court than securing the identity of our Constitution, which promises to India citizens and the state governments a Government limited by the Rule of Law and ideals of federalism, respectively. However, while hearing the matter on September 30th, the Supreme Court hearing was delayed, with representatives noting: ‘We do not have time to hear so many matters. We have a Constitution bench case (Ayodhya dispute) to hear.’
The issue of backlog in the Supreme Court of India isn’t new – it has been continuing for many years (for a more detailed discussion, see here). Given that the Court today is suffering from a high backlog of cases, an agenda of judicial reforms, as Justice Chandrachud recently articulated, must include the proposal to reduce the high number of appeals of civil or criminal suits and to streamline special leave jurisdiction. Another option for reducing the caseload burden could also be, as is continuously being emphasized by the Vice President, the establishment of multiple benches of the Supreme Court in different regions in India. However, despite the way in which this manifests, under no circumstances can the Supreme Court continue to be excused from efficaciously fulfilling its constitutional responsibility to hear all cases that come before it.
When the Kashmir petitions were placed before a Constitution bench on October 1, the Court again failed to adequately fulfil its role as the protector of liberty by further delaying the hearing. In addition to this, if the bizarre habeas corpus orders, as critically analyzed elsewhere, in September is anything to go by, the Supreme Court has uncritically accepted the Government’s disproportionate claims about national security that seem to have taken precedence over the ideals of civil liberties. The idea of a nation represented by a focus point – dilution of Article 370 to achieve greater unity, as claimed by the Central Government – has overpowered the individual dignity and identity of its constituents, which marks a move from a democratic government set-up towards right-wing populism. Such judicial evasion in the guise of national security in these crucial cases of rights abuses has been criticized by constitutional commentators by juxtaposing it with the United Kingdom Supreme Court’s swift adjudication in R (on the application of Miller) v. The Prime Minister [“Miller (2)”], a case involving breach of constitutional procedures and principles in the prorogation of the Parliament.
The Indian Supreme Court’s core constitutional role is to protect the fundamental rights of citizens. The efficacious hearing and adjudication of the petitions against civil rights restrictions, house arrests, and communications blackouts as well as the constitutionality of the Parliament’s legislation are critical in the current times of constitutional backsliding. Rights’ adjudication ought to be placed on a higher pedestal than smaller, less crucial issues such as a recent case the Court chose to hear: the determination of legal title in a religiously charged land dispute matter. This is especially relevant at a stage in the Indian constitutional process where safeguarding the rights to dignity and life has been understood to be at the pinnacle of public duties. As has been enunciated in multiple golden triangle cases, these rights are interpreted broadly and for the betterment of Indian citizens. Further, just recently, the Kerala High Court held that even the access to internet is a fundamental right to be protected.
Although the Supreme Court’s wide jurisdiction and liberal interpretation of its powers creates significant institutional constraints, this cannot be an alibi for not fulfilling the fundamental constitutional role of the court. If the Court is indeed the most powerful apex judicial body in the world, then it must tirelessly commit itself to secure the civil-political-socio-economic rights in a timely fashion. While the stellar institutional contributions of the Supreme Court to the cause of human rights and citizen’s entitlements cannot be denied, we contend that it is this very expansion of its constitutional role (perhaps self-assumed), that obligates the Court to seriously and appropriately adjudicate on constitutional challenges and petitions that seek its rescue to restore fundamental rights. It is important to acknowledge that delay in justice delivery is an absolute denial of those exact rights. The court’s present cavalier approach to collective punishment of millions of citizens without judicious and comprehensive ascertainment of existence of reasonable grounds based on the doctrine of proportionality is unfortunate and needs to be critiqued, rather than defended. Otherwise, it shall surely create an ironical situation where the ‘most powerful court’ is continuously failing to fulfil its constitutional duties, perhaps under executive influence.
Earlier this year, the UK Supreme Court upheld the ideals of parliamentary deliberation and accountability of the executive to the Parliament by declaring Boris Johnson’s 5-week prorogation of parliament null. This is similar to the current Indian situation. It would not be wrong to argue that diluting Article 370 at a time when the State of Jammu and Kashmir is functioning under the President’s rule and substituting the views of the Governor with the views of the State Assembly is equally ‘unlawful and thus null and of no effect.’ Any further delay in action by the Supreme Court comes with a high possibility of material alteration in the functioning of Jammu and Kashmir under the amended scheme of the Constitution, the reversal of which, if the Court decides so, might bear heavy costs.
Demonstration of the Court’s independent strength is not only lacking in the realm of highly staked political matters, but it also extends to judicial appointments as well, as witnessed in the recent controversies involving Justice Akil Kureshi and Justice Tahilramani. Commenting on the manner in which the Supreme Court has handled the petitions arising out of the recent controversy involving Article 370 of the Constitution, the state of Jammu and Kashmir and its special status, constitutional commentator Gautam Bhatia has argued that an emergency-era weak judiciary has reappeared, though in a different form this time, which has failed the fundamental principles of Indian constitutional democracy.
In a recent judgment in Supreme Court Advocates-on-Record Association v. Union of India (2015), the Supreme Court highlighted the virtues of judicial independence and held that it is a part of the basic structure of the Indian Constitution, again highlighted at another time soon after. Concerns regarding isolating the judicial body from the other organs of the Government have been institutionally studied by the International Commission of Jurists and under multiple international documents. However, the Supreme Court of India seems to have taken a blind eye towards itself even while it advocates internationally for recognized jurisprudence of courts elsewhere.
In the times when the Executive’s imposition of an information blackout and civil rights restrictions in Kashmir have continued for over 60 days and blatantly unconstitutional legislations like the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill are sought to be passed, the judiciary must rise to the desired standards and stand as an independent protector of the Constitution. We believe that the wide jurisdiction and the high number of cases that the Court handles weakens it. It is not impossible to achieve more balance; it has been done in the past. Justice H.R. Khanna, for example, is a judge who stood undaunted and ruled against executive excesses to uphold constitutional promise in their cases. The time has come that the present Court proves it is indeed the Constitution’s sentinel on the qui vive.