Friday, May 11, 2018

Ringing that bell of justice

Public Interest Litigation (PIL) has been allowed to become a giant machine to turn people who could be plaintiffs into mute victims.

So widespread is its appeal and demotic reach that its cinematic rendition too had to face it - a real PIL against a reel PIL – for representing legal profession in a poor light. Though the case was quashed, it did in a way justify the strength of contemporary jurisprudence in the country. Jolly LLB and its sequel Jolly LLB-2 appealed to viewers as these movies celebrate the power of PIL in challenging deeply elitist and exclusionary dimensions of legal procedures. To an average cinegoer, PIL is the reminder of the bell that Emperor Jahangir is believed to have hung outside his palace for aggrieved subjects to pull at any time to seek instant justice. But why the poor didn’t get justice in the first place has remained unanswered!

In response to the slow paced court procedures which exemplify ‘justice delayed is justice denied’ the PIL was introduced in the late 1970s as a tool to represent subaltern interests, aimed at erasing the class-based biases. It was hailed as the most responsive move by the judiciary, providing speedy justice by easing traditional judicial procedures. It did work as judges donned their activist avatar, and in the interest of the public proclaimed solutions, reprimanded officials and enforced orders. A celebratory clamor followed as general public found recluse in court’s role in filling ‘vacuum in governance’.

But what began in the late 1970s as a judicial revolution was reduced by mid 1990s to a tool that worked against the very interests it had promised to serve. Citing the ruthless ‘slum demolition’ and the controversial ‘sealing drive’ cases in the capital, Anuj Bhuwania unfolds how a promising judicial tool was appropriated by the court to jump jurisdictional limits in taking control of urban governance through PIL. It did improve matters but at the cost of larger public good. The sealing drive is a case in point wherein then Chief Justice Y K Sabharwal took personal interest in turning a long-running PIL about relocation of industries into a case about misuse of commercial properties, purported to serve the interests of his own family. Although the charges of corruption remain unproved against the now deceased judge, the ideological slant in favor of corporate capital affecting livelihoods of millions remains evident.

The cases referred to in Courting the People make it amply clear that the non-procedural and arbitrary nature of PIL has helped the court initiate a case in public interest on its own, appoint its own lawyer, investigate the issue, and issue orders for implementing its decision. What is more, in a majority of cases the victims were neither consulted nor allowed to enter the court room before the court pronounced on their fate. Class-based exclusions were materially inscribed. Taking cognizance of such pathetic instances, the author wonders how PIL has been allowed to become a giant machine to turn people who could be plaintiffs into mute victims.

However, it will be erroneous to conclude that the book views PIL entirely in poor light because it argues that with the right kind of judges, who do not take procedural liberties on offer; a right kind of judgement is still possible. Bhuwania’s emphasis throughout the book is not so much on the unjust outcomes of PIL cases, but rather on the profound injustice of the judicial process adopted in them. In this context there is little denying that the pathology of PIL has infected legal culture more generally in the post-liberal era, as armed with radical potential of PIL the appellate judges could pursue political causes they deemed fit.

It goes without saying that in the din of emerging PIL culture the important and challenging aspect of integrating the three-tiered judicial system into well-oiled functioning machinery that can provide timely and quality justice to the subaltern has largely been side-stepped. The lower judiciary with its inefficient and corrupt system continues to be perceived as purely pathological, whereas the heroic persona is reserved for higher courts that are viewed, thanks to PIL, as the panacea to endemic social and political ills. In the market-driven demand-supply scenario, the culture of PIL with its star judges and celebrity lawyers has acquired a conspicuous and higher political status in the country’s appellate judiciary. Its self-congratulatory nature with its inbuilt justifications will only perpetuate it to grow.

Courting the People raises more questions than what it sought to address in the first place. It is a somewhat disturbing read that points out at its (PIL) fundamentally protean nature which stems from its mimicry of ideas of popular justice. As long as it is believed that the poor can gain justice from benign paternalism of the presiding judge, the idea of Emperor Jahangir’s Zanjir-e-Adl will continue to resonate in the corridors of appellate courts. Bhuwania’s efforts will be well served if his research is made available in a language palatable to a wider readership.

Courting the People
by Anuj Bhuwania
Cambridge, New Delhi
Extent: 157, Price: Rs 495

First published in the Hindustan Times dated May 12, 2018.

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