Saturday, April 18, 2015

The Other View — A Controversy Unnecssary and "Unfortunate" on Judges' Conference & PM's Dinner on Holy Days

The Other View
A Controversy Unnecssary and "Unfortunate" on Judges' Conference and PM's Dinner on Holy Days

By Amba Charan Vashishth

The heart of India's 'secularism' is so delicate that it gets hurt at the drop of a hat. The latest provocation  is the Chief Justice of India scheduling a conference of country's chief justices on 3-5 April, 2015. The conference is also attended by State chief ministers. The Prime Minister also threw a dinner in honour of the visiting judges on Sunday, the 5th April. April 3 was a Good Friday and April 5 the Easter. The protagonists of 'secularism' raised a great hue and cry over this infringement of the 'secular' psyche. They forgot that similar conferences had been held earlier too. But this becomes an 'issue' when the party in power is non-Congress and non-left. The unfortunate part is that this time the hackle was raised by a Supreme Court judge. Interesting to note that with a Christian population of over 83 oercebt USA doesn't have a national holiday but just a state holiday restricted to some state. But in India with a Christian population of just 1.9 percent, we have one. Why is there no cry in USA?

The annual ritual of convening a conference of Chief Justices of High Courts which is also attended by chief ministers of States, for some reason or the other, got a break in 2009. The last one was held on April 5-6, 2013. The conference provides every invitee  a rare interface between judiciary and executive when former met chief ministers face to face and explained the need for adequate infrastructure and space for creating more courts to tackle the huge backlog of cases and provide speedy justice to litigants. 

Chief Justice of India (CJI) H. L. Dattu chose to revive the practice and scheduled it for April 3 to 5, 2015. On the concluding day Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited all the participants for a dinner. Coincidently, April 3 happened to be Good Friday and the dinner coincided with the Easter Sunday — both holy days for Christian brothers.

It is customary for organisers to invite all members of a committee or conference for the meeting and lunch/dinner, yet it is not mandatory for all the invitees to attend come what may, though, courtesy demands that participants convey their convenience in advance.  Not all the judges and the CMs have attended the meet in the past. To attend or not a meeting or to join a lunch/dinner is a matter between the host and the guest. In the instant case, while all Supreme Court judges are invited, the attendance of only the top three apex court judges -- the CJI and two senior-most judges, in this case Justice T S Thakur and Justice A R Dave -- is mandatory.

There could be many reasons for an invitee not able to join although he/she very much liked to do. A participant's own birthday or a wedding in family, an untoward happening could have coincided with the meeting and he may want to be excused. No offence involved. At times, one may avoid attending a meeting as a matter of protest.

Being spiritual and religiously committed to one's faith is something that should be applauded and appreciated. It is erosion of this religiosity that is the cause of many of our maladies eating into the vitals of the nation and the world. 

Justice Kurian Joseph had every right to excuse himself from the meeting on Good Friday and PM's dinner on Easter citing religious reasons. He had every right to convey his feelings both to the CJI and the PM. But what provoked him to make a public issue of it is something unusual. The eyebrows were raised only when his letters which are a matter between the writer and the addressee, got public and viral. CJI Dattu has called it "unfortunate".

The saving grace is that while regretting his inability to attend PM's dinner on Easter Day, Justice Joseph recalled  the "Indian model of secularism" based on the principle of sarva dharma sambhava (equal respect for all religions)... In India, he said, secularism is not a mere passive attitude of religious tolerance but a positive concept of equal treatment of all religions". At the same time he was not lost of the apprehension that it may smack of "communalism". So in his letter to CJI Dattu he stressed: "Please don't think that I am striking a communal note."

"Irrespective of the religion, Diwali, Holi, Dussehra, Eid, Bakrid, Christmas, Easter, etc, are great days of festival celebrations in the neighbourhood," Justice Joseph wrote to the PM, "Your good self would kindly appreciate that no important programmes are held during (these) sacred and auspicious days…..though we have holidays during that period as well."  He also told CJI that the government had declared April 3 as a holiday because of the spiritual significance of the day. "If the state has declared it a holiday, how can another organ of the state, judiciary, nullify it by making it a working day?"  he asked. In reply CJI Dattu said, the question I have to ask myself,  "perhaps I can't ask you, is whether it is institutional interest or individual interest one should give preference to…I would give priority to former." Without involving himself into a religious controversy he he criptly said, "Work is worship". Contradicting Justice Joseph the CJI reminded Justice Joseph: "The conference of chief justices had been organized at least on four occasions when it was Good Friday, Independence Day or Valmiki Jayanti….If I have to schedule the conference on a working day, then the chief justices will have to come a day earlier, attend the conference for two days, and then take another day to reach their respective high courts. Four working days of 24 chief justices would be wasted" He and his predecessors, he explained, always preferred to call the conference on an April Friday whenever it was a holiday.

Interesting to note that secular USA with a Christian population of over 83 percent does not have a national holiday on Good Friday; it is just a state holiday in some States. But India with a Christian population of just 1.9 percent does have a national holiday on that day. Yet, 'seculars' do not question US secularism but they do of India. 

A public holiday on a day devoted to any religion is as much a holiday for the person of that very faith as to others. Therefore a meeting or a public function organized on that particular day as much pinches the follower of that faith as others because it is an off day for him/her too.

When a person joins a public office/service, it enjoins upon him certain obligations whether he is a prime minister, a judge, a police or fire officer or even a clerk or a peon. A public holiday on Ram Navmi, Dussehra, Diwali, Guru Nanak Birthday, Prophet Mohammad birthday, Christmas, Guru Ravidas birthday is a holiday for all.  Yet no public servant can refuse the call of duty even on a holiday. If a heinous crime of murder rape, arson, looting and violence, a serious accident and the like takes place, can the area police officer refuse to rush to the scene claiming it is a public holiday connected with his faith? Can a fire officer refuse to budge on the same excuse when a wild fire is engulfing more and more areas? Even judges are on duty on Sundays and public holidays to attend to urgent matters which cannot wait for the next day.

No denying the fact that Easter is a day of celebrations, festivities and feasting. But a dinner by a high dignitary like a prime minister is no less than a feast. Therefore, joining the PM dinner would have meant enjoying the festivities in the august company of a wider family of dignitaries of judiciary and the executive.                                                                    ***   
The writer is a Delhi-based political analyst.
Also published in the weekly ORGANISER

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