A Striking Chief Justice

By ALBERTINA ALMEIDA

 

India has had 44 Judges as Chief Justices of the Supreme Court including the current one. But not all leave the kind of impression that the recently deceased Chief Justice Altamas Kabir did. During his stint as the Chief Justice for barely a year, and prior to that as Justice of the Supreme Court for about seven-and-a-half years, Justice Altamas Kabir did blaze a trail in terms of understandings of justice and crusading for peace.

 

Not for him the flaunting of Justiceship on the collar, gown and sleeve. Not for him the stiff neck that characterizes many Justices. This Chief Justice was a simple down-to-earth jovial person, who yet was firm beneath his gentleness. I had occasion to meet him on the verge of his elevation as Chief Justice and was struck by this simplicity and also responsiveness. He was prolific with disposing cases with practical judgements that clearly elucidated the rationale: instead of saying the homo sapiens veered from the vertical to the horizontal position to simply say a man fell down.

 

Justice Altamas Kabir’s minority status perhaps gave him the position from which he could understand the conditions of marginalized sections of society. Justice Kabir reemphasized in the famous IR Coelho case judgement delivered in early 2007 (popularly called the Ninth Schedule case) where he held forth on the basic structure of the Constitution and maintained that the Court has preserved its inherent powers to make such orders as may be necessary in the interests of justice as the guardian of the Constitution. “Justice transcends all barriers and neither rules of procedure nor technicalities can stand in its way, particularly if implementation would result in injustice”, he said and emphasized that “It is necessary to cut across technical tapes”.

 

Being the incumbent of the post of Chief Justice when the Nirbhaya case and the protests about it were raging, Justice Kabir, on an occasion a few days after this incident, while inaugurating a Fast Track Court in Delhi, expressed his anguish that he could not be part of the protest given the position he was holding. He was however clear that in the process, one cannot get so carried away that we handle the matter with a knee-jerk response where the solution is worse than the problem.  As a matter of fact, he cautioned against vigilantism. He was speaking in the backdrop of strident demands of castration, death penalty, ‘shoot them’ attitudes that were renting the air in those days.

 

It was perhaps in this spirit that when having to give his considered opinion on reducing the age of a juvenile when it comes to rape murder cases, he did not appreciate the rationale for this and reminded the world that the objective of the Juvenile Justice Act was restorative and not retributive justice. The Juvenile Justice Act, one may recall is meant to ensure that there is justice for a child in need of care and protection as well as a child in conflict with the law so that the child is rehabilitated and does not grow into a destitute or a criminal.

 

The NEET (National Eligibility Entrance Test) case was the last of the cases on which he delivered judgement before his retirement in 2013. The case had the effect of pushing back the proposal for the single all India entrance test for admission to professional medical and dental colleges all over India. It is hugely significant in the context of Goa. It resonated for Goa which has had just an iota of IAS officers precisely for reasons of language and script, when Justice Kabir opined that apart from the right to freedom of religion, is the right of citizens to a distinct language script culture of their own to conserve the same. Difference in language, culture or script has often given those invested in dominant languages, cultures or scripts an edge over students from minority languages, cultures or scripts, in a situation where the standard of the exam is determined by the practices and standards of the dominant.

 

“There can be no controversy that the standard of education all over the country is not the same. Each State has its own systems, pattern of education, including the medium of instruction. It cannot also be disputed that children in metropolitan areas enjoy greater privileges than their counterparts in midst of the rural areas, as far as education is concerned, and the decision of the Central Government to support a single entrance exam would be perpetuate such divide in the name of giving credit to merit”, Justice Kabir opined.  Justice Kabir further remarked in the judgement that in a single window competition, the disparity in the educational standards in different parts of the country cannot ensure a level playing field, thereby highlighting the dangers of a single entrance test.

 

Justice Kabir empathized with marginalized sections of society and is fondly remembered by adivasi groups in Jharkhand where he held the post of Chief Justice of the Jharkhand High Court. His invitation to representatives of marginalized sections of society, including Dalits and adivasis, to attend his oath-taking ceremony as Chief Justice is well remembered.  And so are his efforts to get Supreme Court Judges to engage with their concerns, including the time he got a team of Supreme Court Judges to meet a delegation of sex workers at the National Legal Services Authority, in order to enable them to understand what it means to be in those shoes.

 

It is not as if Justice Kabir did not have his share of allegations of various kinds, and the jury is out on the truth or otherwise of those allegations. But that cannot take away from certain sterling qualities of Justice Altamas Kabir emphasized above, that people in positions of power could do well to emulate.

 

(First published in O Heraldo, dt: 23 February, 2017)

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