Judicial abeyance to secure justice?

Judicial abeyance to secure justice?

“Justice delayed is justice denied” is a maxim that is often invoked to demand settlement of disputes in a time-bound manner to ensure that one’s right is not rendered infructuous. However, can the settlement of dispute be delayed to secure justice, that is, can judgement be delayed to secure justice? This seems to be the case with the Indian Supreme Court in M Siddiq v. Mahant Suresh Das, popularly known as the Ayodhya ‘Ram Mandir’ case.

The ‘Ram Mandir’ case has immense political value in the light of the general elections, so much so that a plea was filed in 2017 before the Indian Supreme Court to defer hearing in the case till after the 2019 elections. The ruling party at the Centre, which seems to benefit from this dispute, has been constantly urging for a resolution of the case before the elections.

The ‘Ram Mandir’ case has its roots in the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992, which had then led to communal riots throughout the country, resulting in large-scale human rights’ violations. It holds a lot of importance even today as it concerns two major religious communities of the country, Hindus and Muslims, whose votes may potentially be swayed if a verdict is delivered before the general elections.

The case presents a conflict between the fundamental rights of the petitioners and the constitutional duty of the Supreme Court to do complete justice: Article 21 of the Constitution guarantees right to quick disposal of cases, while Article 142 empowers the Supreme Court to pass such orders as necessary to do complete justice. It can very well be argued that the quick disposal of cases guaranteed under Article 21 is to secure justice, that is, Article 21 aims at justice and not quick disposal per se.

In one of its decisions, the Supreme Court had refused to provide the reasons for its order to protect the credibility of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI). At first blush, this might seem to be violative of one of the principles of natural justice, that is, to provide reasoned orders. However, principles of natural justice aim at the higher virtue of justice rather than mechanical compliance with its principles.

“To protect and preserve the sanctity and the fair name of the institution, including the reputation of the Office of the Director of CBI, we are not deliberately giving out elaborate reasons. It would suffice for us to observe that the information furnished by the applicants is prima facie credible and therefore requires to be accepted.

Let it not be said by anybody that we have not given any reasons while disposing of the application. We are reiterating this statement only to prevent flak from several quarters of the society. We would like to re-emphasise that elaborate reasons are not necessary, only to protect the reputation of the CBI from being tarnished.”

This is very similar to the present discussion on Article 21. Thus, Article 21 must align with Article 142, which aims at ‘complete justice’.

Ensuring fair election

Despite popular political demands to settle the dispute as quickly as possible, the Supreme Court has delayed fixing dates for hearing of the issue. One could interpret this as an act of judicial abeyance to ensure complete justice under Article 142.

Delay in fixing dates does not mean that the matter has been overlooked but may be said to be a tacit attempt of the judiciary to keep the contentious question of ‘Ram Mandir’ in abeyance to secure the rights of the citizens of the country at large. Further, this is also an effort to ensure free and fair election, devoid of communal influence.

This is not the first instance when the Supreme Court has done this. In a batch of petitions challenging the constitutional validity of Article 35A, which provides for special privileges to the citizens of Jammu & Kashmir, the Supreme Court deferred hearing in the matter. This was because the petition has tremendous ramification on the local polls, which could cause law and order problems. Judicial abeyance is similar to what has been described as ‘Constitutional silences and abeyances.’

As per this theory, the framers of a Constitution deliberately leave certain aspects undefined so that issues are left unresolved through a structure of abeyances for the greater good. This leaves a large scope for constitutional interpretation which, in turn, keeps the law flexible to interpretation suitable to the requirements of the time.

In the present scenario, judicial abeyance can be said to be a case of complete justice which has the effect of securing free and fair election, which is the essence of democracy, and preventing large-scale violation of human rights, which may take place given the potential communal tension this verdict can cause in the run up to the elections.

(The writer is a student at National Law School of India University)