Higher Resolution
Outlook|May 11, 2020
The SC’s decision, and the high courts’ adoption, to hear matters of “extreme urgency” via virtual means face questions of transparency and efficiency. And the lower courts lie helplessly inert.
Puneet Nicholas Yadav

AT 8.07 pm on April 23, Arnab Goswami, the editor, and owner of Republic TV, moved a petition in the Supreme Court demanding an urgent hearing to quash multiple FIRs filed against him by Congress leaders in various states. The FIRs had sought Goswami’s arrest on various grounds, including inciting communal hatred and making derogatory remarks against interim Congress chief Sonia Gandhi. The SC Registry scrutinised Goswami’s petition post-haste and listed it for hearing before a two-judge bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and M.R. Shah at 10.30 the next morning.

With the SC having laid down standard operating procedures for listing and hearing only extremely urgent cases through video conferencing during the ongoing lockdown, the alacrity with which Goswami’s petition was heard raised eyebrows. More so, since scores of petitioners who sought a hearing by the SC much before Goswami continued to wait. Advocate Reepak Kansal filed a complaint with the secretary-general of the SC, alleging “discrimination” and demanded corrective steps against the “pick and choose policy adopted by the registry”. Kansal tells Outlook, “I had to wait for 11 days to have my matter (regarding supply of rations to stranded migrant workers during the lockdown) heard but Goswami’s case was listed for hearing through a supplementary list released by the registry within an hour of his lawyers filing the plea.”

The past month has demonstrated afresh the misery of the poor as well as migrants who have borne the brunt of the devastating economic fallout of the coronavirus crisis. Add to this the Muslim community that continues to be blamed for the spread of the virus from the Tablighi Jamaat. If the lockdown-fired cauldron of injustices isn’t bubbling yet, there are other examples to consider too: police excesses against those who “defied the lockdown”; doctors who pleaded helplessly for PPEs; job losses and pay cuts in the private sector despite PM Narendra Modi’s request against it; government servants pressured to contribute from their salaries to the PM-CARES fund. And Kashmiris, for whom the lockdown is only a continuation of curbs on civil liberties and the Anand Teltumbdes, Umar Khalids, Safoora Zardars, Masrat Zehras and Gowhar Jeelanis who must battle charges under the draconian UAPA.

THE role of the judiciary as parens patriae for each of these citizens cannot be emphasised enough. Therefore, the arbiters of justice must adapt swiftly to a lockdown and post-lockdown situation with greater swiftness than other pillars of democracy.

The SC was, in a sense, the first institution that realised the need for a paradigm shift in its functioning. A day ahead of PM Modi’s announcement for a countrywide lockdown on March 24, Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde decided that the court would conduct hearings through video conferencing. The high courts soon followed suit, though a majority of district courts across the country continue to struggle.

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