By Sanjeev Sirohi*
It is official now that the senior-most Judge of Supreme Court – Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde to take over from the incumbent Chief Justice of India (CJI) – Justice Ranjan Gogoi on November 18 just a day after Justice Gogoi retires as CJI on November 17! PK Misra who is the Principal Secretary to the PM Narendra Modi presented the warrant of appointment to the CJI-designate – Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde in New Delhi on October 29, 2019. President Ram Nath Kovind on October 29 appointed Supreme Court Judge – Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde as the next Chief Justice of India from November 18! He was sworn in as Chief Justice of Madhya Pradesh High Court on 16 October, 2012 which he held till 11 April 2013 and was elevated to the Supreme Court on 12 April 2013.
The notification issued by the Ministry of Law and Justice states that, “In the exercise of the powers conferred by clause (2) of Article 124 of the Constitution of India, the President is pleased to appoint Shri Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde, Judge of the Supreme Court, to be the Chief Justice of India with effect from 18th November, 2019.” Justice Bobde has certainly an impeccable reputation of always being polite, precise and yet powerful in expressing himself in his judgments which he has rendered in last so many years in his official capacity as Judge of the Supreme Court! Justice Bobde will be the 47th CJI and will have a fairly long tenure of almost one-and-a-half-years, with his term set to end on April 23, 2021.
Justice Bobde is the second Judge from Maharashtra’s Nagpur region to be appointed CJI after Justice Mohammad Hidayatullah who was the 11th CJI from 25 February 1968 to 16 December 1970. The legal fraternity in Nagpur is certainly extremely delighted over his appointment into the most prestigious chair of CJI and they have every right to feel delighted because Nagpur town becomes the talking point in each and every corner of the country due to his being appointed as CJI.
He was born on April 24, 1956 at Nagpur and hails from a family of reputed lawyers. His grandfather was a reputed lawyer. His father – Arvind Shriniwas Bobde was a two time Advocate General of the Maharashtra government in 1980 and 1985. Justice Bobde’s elder brother late Vinod Bobde was also a senior Supreme Court lawyer and a Constitutional expert.
Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde completed Bachelor of Arts and LLB degrees from Nagpur University. Nagpur High Court Bar Association (HCBA) Secretary – Praful Khubalkar, who once worked as a junior lawyer in Justice Bobde’s chamber was all praise for the CJI-designate over his knowledge and professionalism.
Without hiding his true feelings, Khubalkar said frankly that, “It’s a proud moment for the legal fraternity in Nagpur that Justice Bobde, once a member of the bar here, has been appointed to the top post in Indian judiciary. He has worked in the Nagpur Bench for several years and he was designated as a senior advocate from Nagpur. Justice Bobde’s arguments in the court as a lawyer used to be so impressive that people would flock to listen to him. I had the opportunity to be in his chamber. I was his junior and closely watched the way he used to work and argue cases. I had the opportunity to be in his chamber. I was his junior and closely watched the way he used to work and argue cases. We have seen Justice Bobde work as a lawyer, senior advocate and then as a Judge of the Bombay High Court here.”
Khubalkar further went on to add that, “He used to encourage junior lawyers. Senior members and lawyers here are very happy and delighted over his appointment. In his honour, we are planning a grand felicitation programme.” Nagpur District Bar Association President Kamal Satuja said that, “It was a matter of great pride that a legal luminary from Nagpur has been appointed as the CJI. He is a role model for all members of the legal fraternity. He will always be a source of inspiration for young lawyers who will be encouraged to strive for excellence. It is not only a dream come true for Justice Bobde, but for the entire legal fraternity.” There can be no denying it!
Justice Bobde was appointed an Additional Judge of the Bombay High Court on 29 March 2000 just two years after he was designated as a senior advocate and remained a Judge of Bombay High Court till 15 October 2012. He had a practice of over 21 years and was involved in several high stake cases, including the Adarsh housing society scam and the PIL against Lavasa Corporation Limited. He had the power to always convince Judge by his strong persuasive power armed with deep knowledge of law while he was lawyer for which he shall be always remembered as the lawyers of Nagpur never tire to point out very rightly!
When asked about what were his best moments in his 22 years as a lawyer, he took no time in replying honestly that filing insolvency pleas on behalf of 3.9 lakh Maharashtra farmers to save them from debt recovery officers was a very satisfying case. He candidly disclosed that, “The farmers were perennially debt ridden because their products didn’t even fetch them the money invested to grow crops. There was an agitation by Sharad Joshi to stop debt recovery officers of cooperative banks from entering the village as they were taking away the utensils and other items from the farmers’ homes. I advised them and then filed insolvency pleas on behalf of farmers. The Bombay HC and later SC stayed debt recovery from farmers.”
While recalling his experiences as a Judge, he pointed out that he dealt with a case of a rape-cum-murder of a young girl. A labourer Arumugam was convicted and sentenced. But the investigating officer committed suicide and left a note confessing that he had framed the labourer by planting false evidence and tutored witnesses. Justice Bobde then pointed out that, “I was of the opinion that not only the man should be acquitted, but there should be prosecution of the witnesses who gave false evidence. This case made me realise why a Judge should not only seem to do justice but also strive to do justice by looking deeply into every aspect of every case.”
It was Justice Bobde who while being on the Constitution Bench had first pushed for mediation of the Ayodhya dispute in order to “heal heart and minds”. It also cannot be ignored that it was Justice Bobde who had spoken up repeatedly during the 40-day hearings in court on the need to bring the bitter acrimony between the two communities to an end. During the hearing, he had very rightly observed that, “We cannot undo what has already happened. But we can put an end to the acrimony, heal the relationship between the two communities.” What can be more important than this what Justice Bobde has so very rightly pointed out! Justice Bobde has handled many important cases in his more than six-year tenure as a Supreme Court Judge!
It was Justice Bobde who was part of the three-Judge Bench who passed the historic interim verdict that was passed on May 18, 2018, which set aside the order of Karnataka Governor Vajubhai Vala granting Karnataka Chief Minister BS Yeddyurappa 15 days to prove his party’s majority and instead directed that a floor test be conducted within 24 hours. On the administrative side, Justice Bobde headed the first-of-its-kind three-member in-house Committee, also comprising of Justices Indira Banerjee and Indu Malhotra of Supreme Court which gave a clean chit to CJI – Ranjan Gogoi who was facing serious allegations of sexual harassment leveled by a former Supreme Court staffer as they found no substance in those allegations leveled by the woman staffer on CJI Ranjan Gogoi!
A few of the other important decisions passed by Justice Bobde include the two-Judge order passed in 2017, where the Apex Court rejected a woman’s plea seeking termination of her foetus, after reviewing a medical report that the 26-week-old foetus had a chance of survival; and a 2016 order passed by a three-Judge Bench which had suspended the sales of firecrackers in the National Capital Region, citing the extreme pollution. His notable judgments include his bold opinion upholding privacy as a fundamental right. He wrote that the first and natural home for a right of privacy is in Article 21 at the very heart of ‘personal liberty’ and life itself. He also rightly wrote that, “There are innumerable activities which are virtually incapable of being performed at all and in many cases with dignity unless an individual is left alone or is otherwise empowered to ensure his or her privacy.”
Justice Bobde was also part of the Apex Court Bench which had rightly insisted that a citizen cannot be deprived of essential services and welfare subsidies of the State for lack of an Aadhaar card. He was also a member of the Apex Court Bench which had rightly suspended the sale of firecrackers in the National Capital Region in 2016 to curb pollution. In 2016, he was part of a Bench led by then CJI TS Thakur which ruled that seeking votes in the name of religion might be a greater evil than whipping up sentiments based on caste or religion. In 2017, he upheld that Karnataka government’s ban on a book on the grounds that it outraged the religious feelings of Lord Basavanna’s followers.
Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde is among the seven Judges of the Supreme Court who have disclosed their assets on the Apex Court’s website. When his attention was drawn to the thin presence of women Judges in the Constitutional Courts, he said politely that, “I will strive for an objective and unbiased approach to select more women Judges for the High Courts and the Supreme Court. But, the problem is their availability. They have to be 45 years or more to be eligible for selection as HC Judges. So, we cannot create woman Judges for Constitutional Courts overnight. They have to be in the system.”
When asked whether there is a systemic bias against selecting more women Judges, he retorted that, “No, it is because of their non-availability. There could be another reason for this. Whenever the Collegium proposes a name to government for appointment as HC Judge, a steady stream of complaints pour in making all kinds of allegations. May be, the women do not want, and rightly so, to get enmeshed in such unwarranted controversies created by frivolous complaints.”
On the question of age of Judges, Justice Bobde is on the same page as CJI who proposed to the Union Government to increase the retirement age of High Court Chief Justices and Judges of High Court to 65 years from the present 62 years. He struck the right chord when he said that, “It will ease the competition to become a Supreme Court Judge. But more importantly, it is a waste of experience and talent acquired over the years, if a Judge is eased out of the system at the age of 62 years when the person is at the peak of his intellectual ability.”
On appointments of Judges, he said that, “I agree there should be transparency in appointments but I also believe that protection of a person’s reputation is also important. We don’t complain why someone is not inducted in the Cabinet, as reasons for non-inductions are not crucial. Similarly, in the army, do you say that why so and so has not been made a general? I don’t think withholding such things amount to secrecy, it’s primacy.”
While defending the time taken in the appointments of Judges, he agreed that the process was long drawn but said there was reason for it. He said that a lot of inputs are taken into account while appointing the Judges adding also that the information is processed at the High Court Collegium level, then at the Supreme Court level, and sometimes even independent information is taken into consideration. Many senior lawyers have wished him and hoped that justice will be delivered in time under his leadership! Sanjay Hegde who is a senior advocate in Supreme Court too said that, “I wish him good luck and good health, for the task ahead. Hopefully, he will be a calming influence in what looks like increasing turbulent times. Many high courts are working at half strength due to lack of appointments. His pleasant but firm personality may yet smoothen the path of judicial regeneration.”
We recently saw how Justice Bobde was heard saying in his courtroom that it was only lately that the Judges had understood the benefits of hearing a case continuously, without a break, as they had heard the Ayodhya dispute. This may be an indication that, in future, important cases may be heard on a day-to-day basis in the top court! What can be more good news than this for the litigants?
It will be the biggest boon for litigants if cases are decided in time and Justice Sharad Arvind Bobde seems fully committed to achieve that! What more can litigants ask? We all must wish him the very best for all the challenges and opportunities that lies in his tenure as CJI!
One is pretty confident that he will certainly rise high to fulfil the huge expectations that litigants and people have from him! His cool, calm yet firm approach while deciding cases will certainly immensely benefit our nation! He rightly says that, “Questioning by itself is healthy, but they should not be mala fide and vicious. Personal attacks on Judges are uncalled for and destructive. It is not only the authority of the judiciary which is under challenge by social media, online articles and opinion heads but every kind of authority worth its name. What is happening in society? There is challenge to authority of parents, schools, the Parliament. This is the age of challenging authority.” Justice Bobde has rightly pointed out and we all must strive to ensure that we behave in a disciplined way and refrain from such conduct which is totally uncalled for! There can certainly be no denying it!
*Advocate based in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh