We must act against those misusing PIL, which is considered the most important tool in delivering speedy justice to the underprivileged and the poor
The seeds of the Public Interest Litigation (PIL) germinated in India during the time of Justice Krishna Iyer in 1976 and subsequently in 1979, when the inhuman conditions of 50,000 undertrial prisoners led to their release. The idea that emerged in a movement that was steered by Justice PN Bhagwati was to ensure speedy justice as a fundamental right, which was never within the reach of the poor and the underprivileged.
From being a potent weapon meant to check the failures of the legislature and the executive, the PIL slowly and steadily became a domain to nurture and pursue private interests. It offered a political theatre for guerrilla warfare in a layered style. It soon became the Frankenstein’s monster that could make the legislature and the executive shiver. And this year, the PIL industry wants to achieve its final goal and that is to dictate terms to the Supreme Court (SC) of India.
There has been so much degeneration that Justice Arijit Pasayat underscored that the ‘P’ in PIL stands for politics, paisa, publicity or private interest. This position has been adequately reiterated by the SC in the Ashok Kumar Pandey case. However, the litany of frivolous petitions over a period of time has become so big that PIL activists have started issuing integrity certificates to serving and retired judges and bureaucrats.
“Why is your shirt not buttoned and why are your collars open?” the Chief Justice of India (CJI) asked a PIL lawyer in the ongoing proceedings in Court No 1, following the murder of eight policemen on duty and the subsequent encounter of Uttar Pradesh’s (UP) notorious gangster Vikas Dubey and his associates by the police.
The single-member commission of enquiry appointed by the Government of UP was undone following certain PILs filed before the apex court. This was done even after the SC has ruled in the Bharati Tamang and State of West Bengal Vs CPDR cases that a PIL for seeking a commission of enquiry is maintainable only in exceptional circumstances.
It was further qualified in the Zahira Habibulla Sheikh and Common Cause Vs Union of India case that such “exceptional circumstances”, justifying a relief-seeking court-appointed enquiry, arise only where deficiency in a probe is visible or there is prima facie evidence of abuse of power, which casts any doubt on the independence of the commission. The SC further held that even in such cases, a third party can seek remedy through a PIL only when the allegations of such abuse of power or deficiency in enquiry are borne out of records, as laid down in the Rajiv Ranjan Singh Lalan case.
However, the PIL action continued. The first round was followed by objections to the appointment of a particular retired judge of the Supreme Court even after the CJI cleared the name. The “bias” of the retired bureaucrat in the commission was mocked. The Special Investigation Team (SIT) constituted by the State under the Additional Chief Secretary was challenged. Value and virtue certificates from an invisible, point-based human rights curriculum were exchanged and exhibited before the Bench.
How far should the court go to satisfy the petitioners — especially when they have no track record of representing the public at large in any matters of grave concern — and those who attack the reputation of retired judges, whose contribution to the legal system for decades is in the public domain?
How did the apex court deal with such frivolous petitions in the past? In the Mathews Nedumpara case, the SC in 2019 initiated suo motu contempt proceedings and, after taking into consideration the objectionable conduct of the petitioner, including his acts of filing frivolous petitions, sentenced him to three months’ jail and a suspension of the sentence if he undertook that he would never browbeat a judge. He was additionally barred from practising before the SC for one year.
Further in the case of Suraz India Trust v Union of India, the court ruled that the petitioner be precluded from filing any case in public interest before any court in this country and imposed a penalty of Rs 25 lakh.
When one thought that the SC- appointed commission would finally get to work on why the mockery of rule of law in the gory death of policemen should not be repeated, another bunch of petitions was filed, this time based on a media article. The PILs again questioned the integrity of a commission that collectively brings to the table 150 plus years of service to the nation.
Should these petitions and their consequent dismissal, as bland as it may appear, soaked in the semantics of apology, not be considered one more assault on the mutilated bodies of the policemen who died on duty?
Keeping aside differences on political or ideological leanings, misgivings or otherwise concerning the judiciary, the police force and the graver grouse we have developed towards the criminal justice system, we need to pause and introspect.
The commission is expected, as per the terms of reference, to enquire into the nexus between the criminals and the police/establishment and make suggestions to ensure such events do not recur in the future.
How long do we wait for the commission to function and make appropriate recommendations to fix a broken system? A system in which a history-sheeter with more than 60 heinous offences was out on bail.
A system in which “insiders” appeared to have tipped off the criminals. A system in which there is no speedy trial or regular hearings. A system in which the criminals run a racket from within the jails. A system in which the families of policemen murdered are looking at a long and hard road to justice. A system in which endless aspirations for the idea of justice are only soaked in the body of hope. Just because hope is the only feeling stronger than fear and it is with that hope that we look up to Court No 1 to dispense justice now.
It is time to move beyond simple dismissals and imposition of costs. In spite of settled laws, the tyranny of frivolous petitions is not just obstructing the functioning of the apex court by eating up precious time and resources but is mocking at the very idea of justice. It is time to ensure that just because the highest court has opened its doors to justice, it cannot be converted into a platform for enabling the agenda of one particular section of activist lawyers. It is time to act against those misusing the PIL, which is considered the most important tool in delivering speedy justice to the underprivileged.
(The writer is a Special Correspondent of The Pioneer)