Warning that democracy is at risk, four senior judges of the Supreme Court on Friday mounted a virtual revolt against the country's chief justice, raising questions on "selective" case allocation and certain judicial orders, sending shockwaves across the judiciary and polity.
The unprecedented move by the four judges including Justice J Chelameswar, the second senior judge after Chief Justice Dipak Misra, brought to fore the simmering differences between the country's top judge and some senior judges in the apex court in recent months. The apex court currently has 25 judges.
Justice Chelameswar himself described as an "extraordinary event" in the annals of the Indian judiciary when the judges addressed a joint news conference during which he said, "sometimes administration of the Supreme Court is not in order and many things which are less than desirable have happened in the last few months."
The judge accused Justice Misra of not taking any "remedial measures" on some of the issues which affected the functioning of the apex court that they had raised. Justice Misra became the CJI on August 28, 2017, and he is due to retire from on October 2 this year.
Unless this institution is preserved, "democracy will not survive" in this country, Justice Chelameswar said at the unscheduled press conference, in the first of its kind event in independent India, leaving uncertain how this open dissension in the hallowed institution would be resolved.
In a scathing criticism and unvarnished self-reflection of the Supreme Court, Chelameswar, who was accompanied by Justices Ranjan Gogoi, M B Lokur and Kurian Joseph at the press conference, said they had met the chief justice this morning and "raised issues affecting the institution." The CJI and the four judges comprise the Supreme Court collegium that selects judges for the higher judiciary.
"Unless this institution is preserved, democracy will not survive in this country," Justice Chelameswar said, adding that it was "extremely painful" to hold the press conference in such a manner. The conference was held at his residence here.
He said all the four judges "failed to persuade CJI that certain things are not in order and therefore you should take remedial measures. Unfortunately, our efforts failed.
"And all four of us are convinced that democracy is at stake and many things have happened in recent past," he said.
Asked what these issues were, he said they included the "allocation of cases by CJI". The remarks assume significance as the apex court earlier in the day took up for consideration the issue of alleged mysterious death of special CBI judge B H Loya, who was hearing the sensitive Sohrabuddin Sheikh 'fake encounter' case.
Justice Chelameswar said "we owe a responsibility to the institution and the nation. Our efforts have failed in convincing CJI to take steps to protect the institution."
"This is an extraordinary event in the history of any nation, more particularly this nation and an extraordinary event in the institution of the judiciary ... It is with no pleasure that we are compelled to call this press conference."
There was no immediate official response from the CJI office.
Asked whether they wanted the Chief Justice to be impeached, Justice Chelameswar said, "let the nation decide."
The Centre made it clear it is not going to intervene in the unprecedented development, saying the judiciary will resolve the issue itself.
"Our judiciary is reputed all over the world, independent and they will sort the matter themselves," said minister of state for law P P Chaudhury.
The four judges, in their seven-page letter to the CJI, said, "It is with great anguish and concern that we have thought it proper to address this letter to you so as to highlight certain judicial orders passed by this court which has adversely affected the overall functioning of the justice delivering system and the independence of the high courts besides impacting the administrative functioning of the office of the Hon'ble Chief Justice of India."
The letter, that was released to the press, was sent a couple of months back, Justice Chelameswar said.
"It is too well settled in the jurisprudence of this country that the chief justice is only first amongst the equals — nothing more or nothing less."
The letter said that there have been instances where cases having "far-reaching consequences for the nation" and the institution have been assigned by the chief justices of this court "selectively to the benches 'of their preference' without any rational basis" for such assignment.
"This must be guarded against at all costs."
"We are not mentioning details only to avoid embarrassing the institution but note that such departures have already damaged the image of this institution to some extent."
The letter also raised the concerns of the judges on the allocation of cases.
"It is too well settled in the jurisprudence of this country that the chief justice is only first amongst the equals -- nothing more or nothing less.
"A necessary corollary to the above-mentioned principle is the members of any multi-numbered judicial body including this court would not arrogate to themselves the authority to deal with and pronounce upon matters which ought to be heard by appropriate benches, both composition wise and strength wise with due regard to the roster fixed.
"Any departure from the above two rules would not only lead to unpleasant and undesirable consequences of creating doubt in the body politic about the integrity of the institution. Not to talk about the chaos that would result from such departure.
"We are sorry to say that off late the twin rules mentioned above have not been strictly adhered to," the letter said.
The legal fraternity said they were "pained" and "sad" at the outcome of events in the country's highest court.
"It is very unfortunate," said former CJI K G Balakrishnan, while Congress leader Ashwani Kumar, who is also a senior advocate, observed, "It is a sad day for the judicial system." Some senior advocates like K T S Tulsi said there could have been some "compelling" reasons for the four judges to lay bare their differences.
Attorney General K K Venugopal, who had a meeting with Justice Misra after the joint news conference of the judges, said it "could have been avoided" and that all judges would now have to act in "statesmanship" to ensure total harmony.
At the news conference, the judges rubbished suggestions that they have broken ranks and said they will discharge their duties as usual.
Justice Gogoi said "nobody is breaking the rank and it is a discharge of debt to a nation which we have done."
Gogoi would be succeeding Misra as CJI in October this year.