Last week, as India rolled out plans to deal with the spread of the novel coronavirus, the Supreme Court quashed the bail petition of Anand Teltumbde, one of India’s leading scholars, and asked him to surrender to the police in the second week of April.
Teltumbde, an advocate for India’s most disadvantaged communities, including Dalits, once called “untouchables,” has been swept up in a broad crackdown against lawyers, activists and dissent in general. He has been accused of supporting a banned group of Maoist militants, known as Naxalites, who seek to overthrow the government — charges he of course denies. Many of those charged have been languishing in jail for a long time.
Teltumbde’s work against the caste system in India and his fight against majoritarian politics made him a target of right-wing leaders, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Teltumbde has been on the forefront of condemning the communal politics unleashed by Modi and has compared him to Hitler. He also rightly accused Modi of being complicit in the anti-Muslim carnage of 2002 that left more than 1,000 people dead in the state of Gujarat, when Modi was chief minister.
Teltumbde’s unfair treatment by our judiciary underscores the loss of independence by India’s institutions. The refusal by the Supreme Court to grant him bail came soon before a former chief justice, Ranjan Gogoi, joined Parliament after being nominated by Modi government. Gogoi delivered some of the most crucial rulings in recent times that helped enable the Modi administration’s majoritarian agenda. His appointment, just four months after his retirement (and after he was accused of sexual harassment), has raised big questions about justice in the era of hypernationalism that Modi has come to represent.
In November, Gogoi delivered a big victory to Modi when he ruled on the Babri Masjid, an important mosque for Indian Muslims demolished in 1992 by right-wing Hindu nationalists. The court ended up awarding the land to a Hindu litigant. It was a judgment by Gogoi that also cleared the Modi government in allegations of corruption in a defense deal involving the purchase of Rafale fighter jets. The administration was accused of bypassing procedures and compromising national security to clear an arms deal that benefited an Indian billionaire.
Now Gogoi has been rewarded with a place in the Indian Parliament, putting a spotlight on the unholy nexus between political power and the Indian judiciary.
It’s clear India’s Supreme Court has been politicized and has become pliant toward the current administration. Recently, Justice Arun Mishra, who has also ruled in favor of Modi, hailed the prime minister as a versatile genius, an internationally acclaimed visionary who thought globally and acted locally. The comment was widely criticized, including by the Supreme Court Bar Association. Mishra led the justices who refused to grant relief to Teltumbde, despite the flimsy evidence presented in his case.
The hall of shame of the Indian judiciary in recent times is sullied with brazen cases of human rights violations. In February, when Delhi saw horrifying communal carnage that led to the loss of 53 lives, arson and hundreds injured, the Delhi High Court called out the state police for its complicity and asked to take action against ministers from the BJP government who gave hate speeches against Muslims. The judge who delivered the order was transferred overnight.
The Supreme Court once called Modi a modern-day Nero for looking the other way as innocent women and children were burning in the 2002 attacks on Muslims in Gujarat.
But those days seem to be long gone. The appointment of a former chief justice to the Parliament by the ruling government has only exacerbated the country’s governance and moral crisis. The appointment not only casts a shadow on the rulings delivered by Gogoi, but it also strikes a blow to the impartiality of the Indian judiciary.
While almost every constitutional office in the country has been compromised in the past few years by the Modi regime, it was the Supreme Court that gave hope to the common Indian that justice could prevail in the most turbulent times. Now the integrity of our judges and the character of the Indian judiciary has been called into question at a moment when we’re heading down an increasingly authoritarian path. The highest court in the land is meant to preserve and enforce the integrity of the Indian constitution. India’s vibrant democracy rests on its shoulders.
India is roiled by economic despondency, induced by demonetization and a clear lack of trust by investors, protests against the divisive and unconstitutional Citizenship Amendment Act, an atmosphere of religious intolerance that led to the Delhi pogrom and our seemingly under-preparedness to fight the coronavirus. Now the independence of our country’s judicial authority is under attack, which could further erode the moral consciousness of our nation and its people, endangering the idea of India forever.
This story first appeared in WASHINGTONPOST.COM on MAR 24, 2020 here.