“The typical Indian judge is Hindu, upper-class, upper-caste and male.” The statement drew a few titters at an event in the national capital late in August. But Dr Mohan Gopal, former director of the National Judicial Academy, was speaking in earnest and many in the audience, a gallery of legal luminaries, were nodding grimly. Barely 48 hours later, instead of genteel, theoretical critique, there was the scrum of a real battle. All the gavels in India’s judicial courts coming down in unison could not have restored order after the fifth seniormost judge in the Supreme Court, Justice Jasti Chelameswar, refused to attend a meeting of the SC collegium over lack of transparency and arbitrary appointment of judges.
Judges appointing judges, a system created by the Supreme Court in 1993, was akin to the Gymkhana Club deciding on new members, Union finance minister Arun Jaitley, a senior lawyer of long standing, had quipped in October 2015. Sensing the mood, the Supreme Court had asked the Union government in December 2015 to help it evolve a ‘Memorandum of Procedure’ in order to streamline the functioning of the collegium. With no agreement so far on what method to choose for this, and with the apex court divided over Justice Chelameswar’s charge, the court has eventually agreed to hear, this month, a petition that accuses the collegium of promoting relatives and “monopolising the higher judiciary by the kith and kin of sitting and former judges of the Supreme Court, legal luminaries and their juniors”.