Justice Chelameswar - the dissident judge's stint in the SC

Last Updated 18 May 2018, 06:37 IST

Justice Jasti Chelameswar, who is retiring today as a senior judge of the Supreme Court of India, has had a long and influential career in his time as both Chief Justice of Guwahati and Kerala High Courts.

Chelameswar's legal career began as a government pleader in the then Andhra Pradesh High Court from where he went on to become an additional judge in the court. He was then elevated to the position of Chief Justice in the Guwahati and Kerala High Courts where he discharged his duties in an exemplary manner. In 2011, he was appointed as a Judge in the Supreme Court of India. The late appointment robbed him of his chance to be Chief Justice of India but he continued nonetheless. Here are some of the landmark events in his career:

2015: Shreya Singhal v Union of India - Freedom of Speech and abolishment of Section 66A

According to the Section 66A of the IT Act, the police had complete authority to arrest and detain anyone who was found to use the internet to spread "misinformation and lies" with the aim of "causing inconvenience or annoyance", with a punishment of three years' imprisonment and/or fine. Established in 2008, it evoked harsh criticism for curbing free speech and dissent on the internet.

In 2012, Shreya Singhal, then a law student, filed a writ petition against the Act following an incident involving the Act in Phalgar, Maharashtra. What followed was a three-year-long litigation against the Act, which was presided over by a two-judge bench which included Chelameswar. The bench struck down the Section stating that it did not fall under the reasonable restrictions clause of Freedom of Speech. The Section was, before being struck down, infamous for abuse by Shiv Sena, TMC and the SP, who had people arrested for speaking out against their leaders.

2013-2018: The Aadhaar debate

Aadhaar has long been an object of contention in India. Introduced during the UPA-II government's rule in 2010, Aadhaar was a new national ID featuring a unique 12-digit number linked to an individual's biometrics. However, privacy advocates saw a potential of surveillance in the programme and filed multiple PILs across the country leading the SC to reaffirm the programme's voluntary nature and limit its scope.

In 2016, the NDA government made Aaadhaar a mandatory ID by way of the Aadhaar Act, which was introduced as a money bill in the Lok Sabha, bypassing the Rajya Sabha entirely. Opposition parties cried foul, saying that the Act was introduced as a money bill to override the RS as the BJP did not have a majority in the House at the time, a charge the party vehemently opposed.

Following a number of reports, citizens' groups filed PILs in the Supreme Court against the Act, during which the apex court, in a landmark judgement, recognised the Right to Privacy, giving the petitioners a huge boost in morale.

Recently, the court concluded hearings from both the petitioners and the UIDAI and the union government. The date of the verdict is not yet decided.

The original case from the early 2010s was heard by a third-judge bench comprising Chelameswar, Sharad Arvind Bobde, and Chokkalingam Nagappan and has been referred to by petitioners in their arguments.

2018: The Judges' dissent

Earlier this year, four SC judges, Jasti Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi, Madan Bhimrao Lokur and Kurian Joseph, openly dissented against the system of assigning judges to cases as handled by the CJI, Dipak Misra, starting by sending a letter to the media and then engaging in a full-fledged press conference where they voiced their concerns about the lack of impartiality in the power of assigning justices.

(Published 18 May 2018, 05:18 IST)

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