Book review ‘Justice for the Judge’ : A cocktail of bluff and bluster

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Book : Justice for the Judge: An Autobiography
Author :  Ranjan Gogoi
Published by: Rupa Publications
Pages 249, Rs 595

Reviewed  by A.J. Philip

One quality of Justice Ranjan Gogoi’s autobiography, Justice for the Judge, is that it is eminently readable. That is not because his language is superb or his views are extraordinary. He is the most controversial judge ever to become the Chief Justice of India and this book is a whitewashed grave, to use a Biblical expression.

In the end, he comes across as a privileged puny, who uses his family connections at every stage of his growth and, then, cleverly manipulates the system and fellow judges to achieve, finally, a sinecure as a member of the Rajya Sabha.

In the beginning, he hints that politics was his natural cup of tea given the fact that his father was a former Chief Minister of Assam and his mother had her own political connections. In the end, he proves that he never rose above a petty politician, even when he dealt with momentous issues in his capacity as the CJI.

A product of Don Bosco at Dibrugarh in Assam, where he was junior to former Speaker PA Sangma, he was underage when he descended on the Capital to take admission to St. Stephen’s College. Yet, it was a cakewalk for him at the Alexandria of the East, as the college is known.

When he had a little problem getting admission to a hostel for his law studies, the person he went to was Dev Kant Barooah, President of the Indian National Congress, who instantly made a call to the Vice-Chancellor of Delhi University. To be fair to him, he candidly admits that he relied on the notebook of a senior student, R Balakrishnan, for his BA (History) examination.

Law was not his first choice. Civil service was. He could not make it to the IAS, as he failed at the interview stage. Anybody who has a modicum of knowledge about the selection process at the UPSC would refute his assertion that he was not selected because he did not answer a particular question asked by a particular member, whom he names.

He made another attempt, vaguely mentioning that he could have become an IPS officer. He did not say clearly whether his name figured in the final list. It is called selective amnesia.

It was a red carpet that awaited him in Gauhati when he returned with an MA from St. Stephen’s and a law degree. His father gave him Rs 50,000 to build a house in the Capital, which he built with Rs 65,000. He also referred him to senior advocate JP Bhattacharjee, who had a roaring practice and who kept the young Gogoi under his wings.

On the first day as a lawyer, he was treated as if he was a VIP with senior advocates coming forward to wish him. Yet, he chose to mention that he did not enjoy any privilege, for he used public transport to move about in the city, the abode of mother goddess Kamakhya.

It is difficult to believe that it was merit alone that prompted the Chief Justice of Gauhati High Court to invite him to the Bench, when there were more senior lawyers, one of whom Justice Amitava Roy made it to the Bench as his junior. Gogoi claims to have more practice and all-round experience, a claim Justice Ray hotly contested.

Whatever might have been Justice Gogoi’s drawbacks, he was single-minded, when it came to getting a berth in the Supreme Court. He is like a good chess player, who can visualise how his opponent would make the next five moves and make his own moves accordingly. This helped him at every stage of his life, though some would say he was too clever by half.

It seems that he wrote the book mainly to settle scores and project himself as a chief justice par excellence. I found it curious that Justice Gogoi quotes the case of the three Jehovah Witness children who refused to sing the National Anthem, which Fali S. Nariman quoted with greater clarity and conviction in his autobiography ‘Before Memory Fades’.

No other incident in the history of the Supreme Court was far more cataclysmic than the Press conference four sitting judges addressed. A friend and senior advocate of the Supreme Court shared with me his apprehension that it was engineered wholly by Gogoi who led the three others up the garden path.

I found it curious that he did not publish a picture of the Press conference while he published several with his wife in the book. What’s worse, he gave the impression that he was against going to the Press and it was the handiwork of his former chief justice, Justice Jasti Chelameswar.

My friend who recalls watching the Press conference half a dozen times repeatedly found it curious that while the three others were reticent except for the written statement, it was Gogoi who said the “revolt” was linked to the then CJI allotting the case of Justice Loya, who was “murdered”, to the Bench of Justice Arun Mishra, a relatively junior judge.

Many like me thought that Justice Gogoi had forfeited his chance of succeeding Dipak Mishra as Chief Justice. No, he managed to become the 46th CJI. He has cleverly used the book to cast aspersions on Justice Madan B Lokur and Justice Chelameswar, the two judges with whom he addressed the Press conference. It is tantamount to hitting below the belt. Justice Kurian Joseph, fortunately, escaped his attack.

The same cannot be said about a fellow Malayali, Justice Rajendra Menon, who was the Chief Justice of the Patna and Delhi High Courts. He has found ingenious ways to justify Justice Menon’s non-promotion despite the Collegium recommending it. He found that three of the four judges recommended by the Patna High Court Collegium of which he was the head did not meet the income criterion.

Justice Gogoi does not elaborate what the income criterion is. Even if it is that an advocate recommended for the post of a judge should have certain minimum income, how could the collegium’s decision be used to deny Menon judgeship at the Supreme Court. An advocate who takes up the cases of only the poor might not have any income. Does that mean he cannot be a judge? Indeed Justice Gogoi’s is strange logic.

He defends the Collegium system but in the process he argues that “corrupt” and “incompetent” judges are fine as Chief Justices of Tripura and Meghalaya courts but not in courts like the Madras High Court. As I said, he is a great political chess player. The way in which he invited Justice Markandey Katju to the court is a case in point.

Katju had no clue what was in store for him. He ended up facing a contempt of court case from which he could escape only by tendering an unconditional apology. When Gogoi turns against someone, he or she has no escape. When a lady judge of the Madras High Court was transferred, she preferred to resign, but he did not let the matter end there.

He obtained an Intelligence Report against her. Since it was oral, he wanted it in writing. When the IB gave it in writing without signature, he asked the SC registry to send a letter to the IB Director enclosing the unsigned report asking him to authenticate it. See to what levels he could go!

When Justice Gogoi faced a sexual harassment case, he had the distinction of taking suo motu action against the poor woman. He devotes page after page to argue that he did not sit in judgement of his own conduct and everything that he did was according to the inquiry system in vogue. Finally, the woman was reinstated, proving that whatever he may say or write, she had a case.

In the process, he justifies the in-house procedure. When the woman asked to have a lawyer to assist her, it was denied. Elsewhere in the book, he says the courts should not be prisoners of customs. He mentions that 13 or 14 cases of allegations of misconduct against judges were handled in that manner.

The readers would have been happy to know if even one judge was found guilty of misconduct, sexual or otherwise. Gogoi himself mentions serious sexual allegations against another judge.

He defends the Ayodhya verdict. A careful reading of the verdict shows that the judgement is bereft of legal points. It has upheld every contention of the Muslims and, yet, the disputed land was given to the Hindus. The point is that it satisfied the majority community and the nation was spared of riots in which the Muslims would have suffered. Small wonder that no judge claimed paternity of the verdict and they had the choicest wine at Taj Mansingh on the day the verdict was announced. Celebration of justice or celebration of compromise!

He projects himself as a Herculean character but when it came to handling the Kashmir cases about abrogation of Article 370 and reducing the status of the state to Union Territories, all he has to say is that, “as of date, the bunch of writ petitions is still pending consideration by the court”.

When it comes to the national register of citizens, Gogoi speaks like an AASU spokesman quoting the late Lt.-Gen SK Sinha as if what he said was Gospel truth. If anyone thinks that Justice Gogoi has ended his fusillade, he is mistaken, for he forebodingly concludes the book, “There are many other secrets, opinions and sentiments that I may or may not take to my grave. Only time will tell”. What a cocktail of bluff and bluster!.

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