Does one sense a kind of boldness in the ranks of the judiciary lately, a boldness that was sadly missing when occasions demanded it earlier?
We do owe our courts a lot. But for the boldness - be it over the eco-friendly compressed natural gas (CNG) which got us better breathing air or the sealing spree where the government was brought to its knees hopefully to usher in some rule of law in matters of urban discipline - things would continue to be in the rut. It does appear that the entire governance per se is dependent today and is leaning heavily on the guts of the judiciary.
In matters of criminal cognizance though, one perceived, till lately, our courts to be timid. Didn't we suffer the ignominy of watching someone accused of murder and known to be a criminal take oath as a member of the nation's parliament?
Rajesh Ranjan alias Pappu Yadav, who wielded influence and flaunted muscle power from within the jail where he was incarcerated, had earlier warranted the Supreme Court to transfer him to Delhi's Tihar jail so that distance and better supervision could control and negate his propensity to rig an impending election, even from within Patna's Beur jail.
It was disgusting and disgraceful to note then that the very same apex court found its hands tied, to mechanically endorse and permit this individual his right to go to parliament and take oath as member, five months after being eligible to do so, because he had been duly elected by the voters of Madhepura - his constituency in Bihar.
I suppose this didn't involve guts, just a helpless interpretation of the nation's laws. But some consolation was the court's recent stand denying him bail and a firm directive not to file such requests any further.
As I see it, the discernible trend started perhaps in Maharashtra with the conviction of a minister and bureaucrats involved in a matter of non-compliance of court orders that led to resignations and jailing - something unthinkable before this really happened.
The latest is the conviction in the Shashinath Jha murder case of Shibu Soren, a minister in the cabinet of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Closely following this is the conviction of the flamboyant BJP MP Navjyot Singh Sidhu, more popular today as a TV star.
Things were decidedly different not too long ago. I remember a strange scene some of us were witness to at a conference on the criminal justice system organized by the Indian Law Society here in New Delhi in the mid-90s. A spirited young police officer from Punjab then working in CBI had made bold to express how most of the judiciary in Punjab had capitulated and abdicated their judicial functions when Sikh terrorism ran riot.
The magistracy at whatever levels could find their voice again, the officer postulated, only to castigate police officers who had actually controlled terrorism once it was subdued by sheer dint and courage of the then police management in the state.
The officer was forced to withdraw his statement when faced with the intimidating tenor of the dignitary chairing the session - a former chief justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court. This gentleman took umbrage at the officer's direct accusation and challenged him with a "if you withdraw your statement, I will chose to ignore that you ever made it" kind of a threat.
But there were other instances too, not necessarily terrorism related, when judiciary was found lacking - viewed as too timid to take on the powerful, more particularly politicians in power.
The might of the legal fraternity is another that has always challenged and defied judicial boldness. Early in my service career I remember a murder accused lawyer who secured bail within 24 hours of arrest thanks to his cronies barging into the magistrate's courtroom determined to get him to sign on the dotted line.
There are instances when judiciary has exhibited reluctance to take on the lawyers including when members of the bar on strike ransacked the courtrooms in Delhi High Court and abused the justices. The police had to be called in to save the day - strangely without Delhi Police being asked to take cognizance of the matter.
And there is the case not too long ago of the then Uttar Pradesh chief minister Kalyan Singh, when even the apex court after holding him guilty ended up merely sentencing him "till the rising of the court".
Yes. Things are changing today -- for the better. It is indeed heartening that the errant criminal politician is being brought to book, even if it is a case of delayed justice. Is it public sentiment that is providing fillip to judicial boldness? Perhaps!
(Maxwell Periera is a former joint commissioner of Delhi Police. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)