INDIA:Chief Justice Thakur’s anguished focus is only the tip of the iceberg

Last Sunday, the Chief Justice of India, Justice T.S. Thakur, made an emotional plea to the Executive to increase the number of judges and fill up the vacant posts to fix the issue of the severe shortage of judges in India. A visibly crestfallen man, the Chief Justice spoke in detail about the challenges faced by judges in India, judges who are working hard to make access to justice a reality. Justice Thakur reiterated that the efficacy of the judicial system is vitally connected with India’s development. He choked up when he began to talk about the poor litigant, and the people who are languishing in jails and said,

“Therefore, it is not only in the name of the litigant, the poor litigant…and the people languishing in jails… but also in the name of development of this country, its progress that I beseech you… to rise to the occasion…and realise it is not enough to criticize … you cannot shift the entire burden to the Judiciary.”

The AHRC commends the Chief Justice for the stand he has taken and his courageous display of emotion at a public event. His emotional state forces the country to take note and ruminate on the terrible state of justice in India.

A system gasping for air, there are reportedly 36,68,000 cases pending before the High Courts. The constant tussle between the Centre and the State regarding whose responsibility it is to fill up vacancies has done nothing for the abysmal ratio of 12 judges per million in India.

According to Justice Thakur, access to justice remains an illusion with at least 30% of the population below the poverty line. He also directs attention to the cause of under-trial prisoners who account for 63% of the prison population.

While the AHRC believes that failure to fill up vacant posts in the Judiciary is one big reason for the gargantuan backlog of cases, it is simply the tip of a melting iceberg. India’s justice problem cannot be solved by simply increasing the number of judges or the number of courts.

It goes far deeper and is much more systemic than Justice Thakur has let on. The AHRC’s work in many Indian states shows how the police in India book innocent and hapless people for crimes, thereby severely clogging up an already overburdened system. Recently, the AHRC received complaints from its partner organization in Kerala regarding rogue police officers who are booking vulnerable individuals on trumped up charges.

The Supreme Court in May 2014 acquitted the accused in the Akshardham Terror Attack case (Adambhai Suleiman Ajmeri & Ors. vs. the State of Gujarat & Ors.), citing lack of evidence, and rapped the authorities for a shoddy investigation, causing innocents to languish in jail for more than a decade.

Most recently, the MCOCA court in Maharashtra discharged the eight accused persons in the Malegaon terror attacks case, citing lack of evidence. The eight accused, arrested in 2006, suffered for 10 years; they were branded as terrorists, by a botched up investigation, by police officers desperate to book anyone they could lay their hands on.

Don’t these and umpteen other cases show how rooted the problem in India is? Yes, the Executive is responsible to make sure the backlog is cleared up, but the responsibility does not begin and end with simply clearing proposals for new judges or setting up new courts.

The Executive has the responsibility to make sure that the police are trained in modern investigation techniques and are severely penalized for booking innocent people for crimes – the more serious the crime, the graver should be the penalty for the erring police officials. This will help in preventing unnecessary cases from entering the system and dragging it down further.

A recent interview given by Justice Thakur also points to the poor infrastructure that contributes to cases piling up. It is the responsibility of the Executive to ensure that the court systems are modernized, with better infrastructure, computerization of court records, more staff, and better training. Obsolete and redundant laws are also a part of the picture, and they need to be struck off the books; speaking in an interview on National Litigation Policy, Law Minister Sadananda Gowda acknowledged the same.

The nature of justice and judicial reform is much more complex than either Justice Thakur or the Law Minister have indicated. There is no mention of corruption by either party. Corruption in the Judiciary and in the Executive is a huge stumbling block on the road to justice.

India cannot realistically clear the huge backlog if frivolous cases are filed, if Judges allow endless adjournments and are open to being “fixed”, or if the police channel someone’s personal vendetta by harassing their enemies. The possibilities and realities are many. While the AHRC welcomes Justice Thakur’s plea to the Prime Minister, this is the perfect moment to steer the debate towards the deeper issues plaguing our justice system.

Let it be not be wasted.

India Desk: Please contact Urmila Pullat –