The Other View
By Amba Charan Vashishth
A Conference of Chief Justices of High Courts which is also attended by chief ministers of States had been an annual affair. It was only since 2009 that the practice was, for some reason or the other, discontinued. The last one was held on April 5-6, 2013. What makes news is the controversy raised by a Supreme Court judge over these being timed with the Good Friday holiday on April 3 and Easter celebrations on April 5.
Being spiritual and religiously committed to one’s faith is something that should be applauded and appreciated. It is erosion of this religiosity that is the cause of many of our maladies eating into the vitals of the nation and the world. It is not mandatory for all the invitees to attend. Yet, it becomes an administrative obligation to do so. Not all the judges and the CM attend it. To attend or not a meeting or to join a lunch/dinner is a matter between the person inviting and the invited even if a public one. In the instant case, while all Supreme Court judges are invited, the attendance of only the top three apex court judges — the CJI and two senior-most judges, in this case Justice T S Thakur and Justice A R Dave — is mandatory. A judge’s birthday or even a wedding in family could have coincided with the meeting and he may want to be excused. No offence involved. There could be unavoidable reasons and circumstances which compel a person to keep away although he very much yearned to mark his presence. At times, one may avoid as a matter of protest. But making attendance or absence a public issue is something unusual and, in the words of the Chief Justice of India (CJI) HL Dattu, “unfortunate”.
Justice Kurian Joseph had every right to excuse himself from the meeting on Good Friday citing religious reasons. Eyebrows got raised only when he raised hackles against both the meeting and the dinner hosted by the Prime Minister on Easter Day on April 5. How and why did his letters to the CJI and PM go public and viral? Such communications are virtually private and personal. These were certainly meant to convey Justice Joseph’s feelings to both the CJI and PM.
The saving grace is that while regretting his inability to attend PM’s dinner on Easter Day, Justice Joseph recalled the “Indian model of secularism” based on the principle of sarva dharma sambhava (equal respect for all religions)… In India, secularism is not a mere passive attitude of religious tolerance but a positive concept of equal treatment of all religions”, he added. At the same time Justice Joseph was not lost of the apprehension that it may smack of “communalism”. So in his letter to CJI Dattu he was insistent: “Please don’t think that I am striking a communal note.”
“Irrespective of the religion, Diwali, Holi, Dussehra, Eid, Bakrid, Christmas, Easter, etc, are great days of festival celebrations in the neighbourhood,” Justice Joseph wrote to the PM, “Your good self would kindly appreciate that no important programmes are held during (these) sacred and auspicious days…..though we have holidays during that period as well.” He also told CJI that the government had declared April 3 as a holiday because of the spiritual significance of the day. “If the state has declared it a holiday, how can another organ of the state, judiciary, nullify it by making it a working day?” he asked. In reply CJI Dattu on March 30 said,The question I have to ask myself, “perhaps I can’t ask you, is whether it is institutional interest or individual interest one should give preference to…I would give priority to former.” Keeping himself clear of the religious content of the controversy he added, “Work is worship”. Contradicting Justice Joseph the CJI went on: “The conference of chief justices had been organized at least on four occasions when it was Good Friday, Independence Day or Valmiki Jayanti….If I have to schedule the conference on a working day, then the chief justices will have to come a day earlier, attend the conference for two days, and then take another day to reach their respective high courts. Four working days of 24 chief justices would be wasted” He and his predecessors, he explained, always preferred to call the conference on an April Friday, whenever it was a holiday.
The CJ conference provides a rare interface between judiciary and executive when former met chief ministers face to face and explained the need for adequate infrastructure and space for creating more courts to tackle the huge backlog of cases and provide speedy justice to litigants.
A public holiday on a day devoted to any religion is as much a holiday for the person of that very faith as to others. Therefore a meeting or a public function organized on that particular day as much pinches the follower of that faith as others because it is an off day for him/her too.
When a person joins a public office/service, it enjoins upon him certain obligations whether he is a prime minister, a judge, a police or fire officer or even a clerk or a peon. A public holiday on Ram Navmi, Dussehra, Diwali, Guru Nanak Birthday, Prophet Mohammad birthday, Christmas, Guru Ravidas birthday is, therefore, a holiday for all. Yet no public servant can refuse the call of duty even on a holiday. If a heinous crime of murder or rape, arson, looting and violence, a serious accident and the like takes place, can the area police officer refuse to rush to the scene claiming it is a public holiday connected with his faith? Can a fire officer refuse to budge on the same excuse when a wild fire is engulfing more and more areas? Even judges are on duty on Sundays and public holidays to attend to urgent matters which cannot wait for the next day.
No denying the fact that Easter is a day of celebrations, festivities and feasting. But a dinner by a high dignitary like a prime minister is no less than a feast. Therefore, joining the PM dinner would have meant enjoying the festivities in the august company of a wider family of dignitaries of judiciary and the executive. ***
The writer is a Delhi-based political analyst.