One can feel yet another aura populariswith Mr. Justice Jagdish Singh Khehar who was sworn in as the Chief Justice of India on January 4, 2017 after the magnificent and propitious era of Hon’ble Mr. Justice T.S. Thakur, a fine human being and a person of exuberant spirits, the highest degree of ability, accuracy and action. In the words of Gibbon, “The winds and waves are always on the side of the ablest navigators.”
India is the biggest democracy in the world with 1,267 million inhabitants, of which 834 million can vote despite India’s linguistic and religious diversity. However, there are two precious sapphires studded in the crown of Indian democracy: its independent Judiciary and the committed Armed Forces.
The Supreme Court of India came into being on January 28, 1950, two days after India became a Sovereign Democratic Republic. The inauguration took place in the Chamber of Princes, a portion in the Indian Parliament. This was the home of the Supreme Court till it moved into its present building at Tilak Marg, New Delhi in the year 1958. The inaugural ceremony was simple but mirthful when the judges of the Federal Court, comprising Chief Justice Harilal J. Kania and Justices Saiyid Fazl Ali, M. Patanjali Sastri, Mehr Chand Mahajan, Bijan K Mukherjea and S.R. Das graced the occasion.
Sir Alladi Krishnaswami Ayyar once said, “The Supreme Court of India is more powerful than any Supreme Court of the world.” This is because our Supreme Court acting as the guardian of the Constitution also exercises appellate and advisory powers. Our Supreme Court is a temple of justice and its judges are the honourable priests, who are equipped with extensive powers to deliver the justice.
“Justice and power be brought together, so that whatever is just may be powerful, and whatever is powerful may be just.”-Pascal
Justice Jagdish Singh Khehar, not only subscribes to the aforementioned adage but also implements it.
Known for his clairvoyance, boldness and straightforwardness, Justice Khehar headed the five judge Constitution Bench in the Supreme Court, that in October 2015, struck down the National Judicial Accountability Commission (NJAC) Act, which had been brought in to end the decades-old collegium system where judges appointed judges. NJAC was a proposed organization which would have been responsible for the appointment and transfer of judges to the higher judiciary in India. The Commission was established by amending the Constitution of India through the Constitution (Ninety-Ninth Amendment) Act, 2014 passed by both Houses of Parliament in August 2014.
The Bench in a majority of 4:1 rejected the NJAC Act and the Constitutional Amendment as “unconstitutional and void” as in its view it violated the basic structure of the Constitution. It held that the collegium system, as it existed before the NJAC, would again become “operative”. The Bench, however, admitted that all is not well even with the collegium system of “judges appointing judges” and that the time is ripe to improve the 21-year-old system of judicial appointments.
Justice Khehar observed, “… one is constrained to conclude that in the process of evolution of societies across the globe, the trend is to free the judiciary from Executive and political control, and to incorporate a system of selection of appointment of judges based purely on merit. For it is only then that the process of judicial review will effectively support nation building.” Giving his individual judgment as presiding judge of the five-judge Constitutional Bench, Justice Khehar said, “It is difficult to hold that the wisdom of appointment of judges can be shared with the political executive. In India, the organic development of civil society has not as yet sufficiently evolved. The expectation from the judiciary to safeguard the rights of the citizens of this country can only be ensured by keeping it absolutely insulated and independent from the other organs of governance.”
Reacting to the judgment, Kapil Sibal, Advocate said that NJAC was an ill-conceived legislation by the NDA government. Harish Salve, Senior Advocate said that the Supreme Court is giving a message that the power is with them. Mr. KTS Tulsi, renowned Advocate lamented while saying, “I am disappointed as someone in the Parliament said this is the tyranny of the unelected over the elected.” Giving his views, Senior Advocate Gopal Subramanium said,”Good sign that the Supreme Court has called for further discussions on collegium system. It shows that it has accepted that there are defects in the system like there is opacity. Secondly, it has stopped the interference of the Executive. It has stood by the basic principle. It is the most remarkable judgment after Keshavananda Bharati case.”
Justice Khehar also headed the Bench that set aside the imposition of President’s Rule in Arunachal Pradesh in January 2016. The reversal of the President’s Rule had paved way for restoration of Congress government which had earlier been dismissed by the Central Government. Through the verdict the Supreme Court dismissed Nabam Tulsi’s decision as illegal.
About a few months ago, responding to Attorney General Mukul Rohatgi’s remark at a function that the courts should stay within their ‘Lakshman Rekha’, Justice Khehar said,”The stakes are high. The pressure is tremendous. Aggressions are high. I have spent years here. Seven to eight years in the Supreme Court is killing. Be it the 39th Amendment of the Constitution (placing Prime Minister’s office beyond judicial scrutiny) or else the 99thAmendment affecting the independence of the judiciary (striking down the NJAC Act), the Supreme Court has upheld the constitutional ethos. That is our Lakshman Rekha.”
In another case, while setting aside a full Bench decision of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, Justice Khehar in October 2016 held that differentiation between ad hoc and temporary employees being paid less than the regular staffers was an “act of exploitive enslavement” and reminded all employers that “equal pay for equal work” was a constitutional principle. Everyone doing the same work was entitled to equal remuneration – whether employed on regular basis or temporary. “Any act of paying less wages as compared to others similarly situate constitutes an act of exploitive enslavement. Undoubtedly, the action is oppressive, suppressive and coercive, as it compels involuntary subjugation.”
Born on August 28, 1952 Justice Khehar was awarded the LL.B. degree by the Panjab University, Chandigarh in 1977. He acquired LL.M. qualification from the same University in 1979; for the latter qualification, he was awarded the Gold Medal for having stood first in the University.
He enrolled as an Advocate in 1979 and practiced mainly in the Punjab and Haryana High Court, Chandigarh; Himachal Pradesh High Court, Shimla and the Supreme Court of India, New Delhi. He was appointed as the Additional Advocate General, Punjab in January 1992, and then as Senior Standing Counsel, Union Territory, Chandigarh. He was designated as a Senior Advocate in February 1995. He was the Standing Counsel for universities of the area, corporate bodies and a large number of companies and cooperative organizations.
He has appeared as counsel for Mr. M. Krishnaswamy, M.P. (from the Arani constituency in Tamil Nadu), in the defence of Mr. Justice V. Ramaswami, the then Judge of the Supreme Court of India, before the Judges Inquiry Committee (comprising of Mr. Justice P.B. Sawant, then Judge Supreme Court of India; Chief Justice Mr. P.D. Desai of the Bombay High Court; and Mr. Justice O. Chinnappa Reddy, former Judge of the Supreme Court of India) constituted to investigate the grounds on which the removal of Justice V. Ramaswami was sought.
He was elevated to the Bench of the High Court of Punjab and Haryana at Chandigarh on February 8, 1999 and was appointed as Acting Chief Justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court twice i.e., with effect from August 2, 2008, and again, with effect from November 17, 2009. He was elevated as the Chief Justice of the High Court of Uttarakhand at Nainital on November 29, 2009 and thereafter transferred as the Chief Justice of the High Court of Karnataka, where he assumed his office on August 8, 2010.
By a notification dated May 20, 2010 the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha appointed him as a member of the Judges Inquiry Committee for investigating the grounds on which the removal of Mr. Justice P.D. Dinakaran, Chief Justice of the Karnataka High Court, had been sought.
Further, he was appointed as the Judge of the Supreme Court of India on September 13, 2011 and was sworn in as the 44th Chief Justice of India on 4th January, 2017.
Justice Khehar is known for his transparency and honesty and timely action. He believes, “Only the actions of the just smell sweet and blossom in the dust.” He is an arch enemy of corruption and is determined to use judiciary as a tool to wipe out corruption. Although he has a short stint, the Nation expects him to deliver a lot.