Judges on strike: Lessons to learn

Judges on strike: Lessons to learn

The means to attain the legitimate demand of judicial autonomy need to be equally legitimate as well.

The total bedlam in the Telangana judiciary has left an indelible scar in the country’s legal history. Very many judges across Telangana behaved abominably when they called for ‘High Court bandh’ (a new brand indeed) and threatened of availing mass casual leave (which the service rules are unable to tackle). 

The advocates fulsomely supported the judges and they could practically lock the court premises scattered over the 10 districts in Telangana. Altogether 11 judges are suspended by the High Court at Hyderabad.

The effrontery by the bar and the bench reflected a peculiar category of judicial jingoism that refuses to share even a common High Court for the two states which enjoyed geographical and political syncretism till the bifurcation in 2014.

The “Bangalore principles of judicial conduct” is a fine instrument of Indian origin that captured international recognition. It was accepted in its revised form at the Round Table Conference of the Chief Justices held at The Hague in 2002. 

The principles require the judges of all ranks to ‘exhibit and promote high standards of judicial conduct, in order to reinforce public confidence in the judiciary” and to “avoid impropriety and appearance of impropriety” and “accept personal restrictions.” 

The Telangana episode is apparently antithetical to the grandeur of the ‘Bangalore values’. Winston Churchill put it pithily: “A form of life and conduct more severe and restricted than that of ordinary people is required from judges”.

One should not however, underestimate the concerns expressed by the agitators at the grassroot level. The subordinate judiciary is the supreme judiciary for the majority of the people in India. 

In the All India Judges Association case (1991), the Supreme Court emphasised the significance of district judiciary which performs the sovereign functions of the state. In essence, every judge is bound to be an epitome of the Constitution.

The Telangana Judges’ Association seems to have a genuine concern about the provisional allocation of judges between the two states. As against the cadre strength of 335 judges in Telangana, only 190 are ‘natives’ and others are from Andhra Pradesh, it is bemoaned. The protesters demanded the “Andhra Judges” to “quit Telangana.” Also, they demand a separate High Court for Telangana.

Article 3 of the Constitution enables “formation of new States and alteration of areas, boundaries or names of existing State.” The State of Telangana is formed by virtue of the Andhra Pradesh Reorganisation Act, 2014. 

The statute envisaged a clear bifurcation of the state in the executive and the legislative realm. However, Section 30 of the Act in a consolatory gesture, said that for the time being, the High Court at Hyderabad would remain as the common High Court for both the states. 

Section 31, on the other hand, by way of a predictive note, prescribes separate High Courts for both the states. Thus, the political division which the Telangana could attain was not be translated to the judicial level. The judiciary at Telangana, for a variety of reasons, finds itself uncomfortable with the control exercised by the Andhra Pradesh High Court.

Judicial federalism is a constitutional virtue. The High Courts in the country are older than the Supreme Court. Article 214 of the Constitution only says that “there should be a High Court for each State”. It does not make it mandatory that each state has to have a separate High Court. 

Democratic harmony

Democratic harmony in Indian federalism has however materialised common High Courts for a few states.  Gauhati High Court exercises jurisdiction over Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Nagaland and Mizoram. Punjab and Haryana share a single High Court. 

Bombay High Court encompasses Maharashtra, Goa, Dadra, Daman and Diu. Lakshadweep is under the Kerala High Court and the Andaman Nicobar Islands are under the Calcutta High Court. Puducherry, a different terrain, subjects itself to Madras High Court.

However, the story of Telangana is ostensibly different.  People in the new state can have legitimate reasons and justifications to demand judicial autonomy and independence. But the means to attain the end also needs to be equally legitimate. 

The judicial tinderbox in Telangana is the manifestation of the deeper fissure between the two states at political, economic and cultural levels. But the method of agitation by the robed brethren has only exacerbated the situation. 

The suspension orders by the High Court, which refused to strike a code with the political and historical sentiments emanated from the judicial citizenry in Telangana has only aggravated the judicial dismem-berment. Federalism and decentralisation do not halt with the powers accrued on the High Court. It should travel further, down to earth. 

A separate High Court for Telangana would help maintain the quintessential relation between the court and the people.

(The writer is a lawyer practising in the Supreme Court and the Kerala High Court)

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