When the courts of law are counted as 'heroes' of the year in an annual list, it may mean two things. One, the judiciary in the country is generally 'non-heroic', or non-performing. In other words, it was in the year 2011 only that the courts across the nation got their act together and showed a unique commitment to heroic judgments. Or two, that the courts in India went out of their way to ensure and sustain a certain rule of law in a fashion that the confidence of an average Indian is not lost in the idea of justice, more so in a year when the other institutions of the state seemed to flounder.
The author of this essay means the latter, for it is difficult to argue in favour of the former. I think we need to be clear about this at the outset. Courts in India are generally, and rightly so, perceived as incorrupt (if not incorruptible) institutions providing recourse to the 'aam aadmi' while s/he negotiates his or her way through the multiple injustices of economic disparity, communal politics, corruption, unequal social order and rampant violence that accompanies the current notions of 'development' and 'reform'.
In such a scenario, one expects the Supreme Court of the land to stand by the common Indian. And it did, especially on corruption. If it wasn't for the apex court, the 2G scam would not have gained the enormity and scale it achieved in 2011. When the Supreme Court decided to monitor the scam, it resolved to put people in the highest echelons of power to task. That explains why, in an unprecedented move, Tihar Jail saw some of the most powerful VVIPs cooling their heels as just another inmate, waiting to be bailed out. Few did get out, but continue to face the law as an everyday chore.
In another judgment that could change the face of anti-Naxal operations in India, the Supreme Court in July held that arming civilians to take on the Maoists is unconstitutional. The judgement was a serious setback for the Chhattisagrah government, which had armed a section of the tribals as Special Police Officers (SPOs), also called Salwa Judum, and put them out as foot soldiers in the war against the Naxals. It was a landmark judgment, not only because it addressed the most marginalised section of our society, but also because the ruling hit at the core of the contemporary ideas on development and industrialisation by exposing the social violence that accompanies these ideas.
2011 was also the year when the nation witnessed the first verdict in the Gujarat pogrom cases. In the first sentencing in nine years, 31 persons out of the 73 accused were found guilty and sentenced to life for the Sardarpura massacre in which 33 people were locked up and burnt alive.
While any sense of closure in the Gujarat violence eludes the nation and, as feared by many, may never happen, the verdict was remarkable given the highly polarised and politically charged nature of the case. With Narendra Modi presiding over the state before and since the pogrom and Gujarat continuing to be the Hindutva hotbed, the verdict offered the first glimmer of hope in the numerous other cases pending in various courts across and outside Gujarat. Of course, the Mehsana verdict was possible only after the Supreme Court appointed the Special Investigations Team (SIT) to probe the violence.
In another landmark judgment, the Supreme Court in February this year ruled that sex workers or prostitutes are entitled to live with dignity under Article 21 of the Indian Constitution. Since they are human beings, the court said, their problems must be addressed. The court directed the Central and State governments to prepare schemes for providing vocational training to sex workers and sexually-abused women in all cities in India.
Children were also duly taken care of. Whether it was the decision to punish Surinder Kohli in the grisly Nithari serial murder case where 16 slum children disappeared and were apparently abused and then murdered. Anxious parents of the missing children rushed to Nithari with photographs. Koli later confessed to killing six children and a 20-year-old girl after sexually assaulting them. Only four murders have been solved so far. On 15 February 2011, the Supreme Court upheld the four death sentences to the main accused Surinder Koli.
Of course one expects the apex court of a nation to stand for the right causes. But that's not to say the other courts across the nation did not hear the people, or not delivered.
Take land for example. Few issues ignite more passion - and occasional violence - than the contested rights to land. The resources are limited, the ambitions unlimited. Farmers need to hold on to it to continue what his ancestors have been doing for ages; the corporate, contemptous of the narrow vision of the farmer, wants that land to install a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility; the upwardly mobile middle-class, on the other hand, wants that piece of land to build his dream skyscraper and own a flat on the 34th floor. The crucial role an independent and fair arbiter like a court of law plays in this situation cannot be overemphasised.
We saw the interplay of such competing worldviews in the Greater Noida land verdict. In July, the Supreme Court, upholding the Allahabad High Court verdict, struck down the acquisition of 156 hectares in the region as illegal. The apex court noted that the land in Shaberi village in Greater Noida had been taken from the farmers for industrial projects, but was actually being sold to commercial developers for high-end apartment complexes. Later in October, the Allahabad High Court further quashed the land notification in three other Greater Noida villages - Asadullapur, Shaberi and Devla.
Or take illegal mining. Another more fundamental and extremely violent aspect of the ongoing land wars in India. The story of mining in India is actually a story of the two Indias (or three, or more depending on how you look at it) that has become a fancy buzzword lately. As the state withdraws itself progressively from the public space, leaving the nation open to private enterprise and capital, the Indian courts intervened. And delivered.
On Sept 5 this year, a CBI team arrested Janardhana Reddy and his brother-in-law Srinivas Reddy, the (in)famous Reddy Brothers of the Bellary mining empire, in Karnataka. The CBI said the entire operation had the green signal of the court and they were only going about their job of carrying out their investigation. The powerful Reddy brothers, a law unto themselves and considered invincible in their bastion, were finally under the purview of law.
To conclude, it can safely be said that if political chaos, corruption and despair marked 2011, then it was also a year when the courts of law reinforced our faith in the idea called India.
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