Land, faith, politics: Big Supreme Court rulings up next week

The second half of next week will be one of the most significant in the history of the Supreme Court with a bench headed by Chief Justice of India (CJI) Ranjan Gogoi, who retires on November 17, set to deliver at least four important and much-awaited judgments: on the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute, on review petitions over the purchase of Rafale jets from France, the entry of female worshippers between the ages of 10 and 50 into the Sabarimala temple, and on whether the CJI’s office falls within the sweep of RTI Act. All the judgments are likely to be delivered on November 13, 14, and 15.

The fact that these judgments will all be delivered next week became clear on Thursday after the SC registry issued the list of business for Friday, showing that justice Gogoi will not be pronouncing judgments on any of the issues on Friday. November 11 and 12 being holidays, this leaves just three working days, November 13 to 15, for the CJI to deliver the verdicts.

Ahead of the crucial Ayodhya verdict, the Uttar Pradesh administration has deployed additional forces, clamped prohibitory orders on large gatherings, and is keeping a close watch on social media posts. Top Hindu and Muslim leaders have appealed for calm and police is conducting mock drills, flag marches and drone surveillance to prepare for the day of the judgment.

The Union home ministry has asked all states, in particular UP, to ramp up security. About 40 companies of paramilitary forces have been sent. The RPF has prepared a list of about 80 major stations for deployment of additional force. To be sure, the CJI delivering important verdicts in quick succession is not a unique occurrence. Last year, in the days running up to his retirement, then CJI Dipak Misra delivered important judgments such as decriminalising homosexuality, ruling that privacy is a fundamental right, establishing the constitutional validity of Aadhaar while protecting the rights of individuals, and allowing women of all ages to enter the Sabarimala temple in Kerala.

 

Even though CJI Gogoi retires on November 17, his last working day in the Supreme Court will be November 15. On November 18, justice SA Bobde will take over as the next CJI. His appointment was cleared by the President of India on October 29.

In addition to these cases, a bench led by CJI will also decide on the fate of a petition seeking criminal contempt proceedings against Congress leader Rahul Gandhi for wrongly attributing to the apex court his “chowkidar chor hai” remark against Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the Rafale deal.

A five-judge bench led by CJI Gogoi, in Feburary this year, reserved its verdict on a batch of pleas challenging its ruling that opened the doors of the Sabarimala temple to women of reproductive age, setting off massive protests in Kerala by traditionalists and triggering a political slugfest between Kerala’s ruling Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

 

The hearing in the equally controversial review petition on the purchase of Rafale jets was concluded by the court in May 2019.

The top court had on December 14, 2018, dismissed all petitions seeking a court-monitored probe of the ~59,000 crore contract for Rafale fighter planes made by Dassault Aviation of France. The court said that there was no reason to doubt the decision-making process. The petitioners had alleged fiscal malfeasance and commercial favouritism in the deal.

Former Union ministers Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie, and advocate Prashant Bhushan moved the Supreme Court for a review of the verdict, saying the ruling contained errors and relied on incorrect claims made by the government in an unsigned note given in a sealed cover to the court.

 

The 40-day marathon hearing in the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute was concluded by a five-judge bench, led by CJI Gogoi, on October 16, leaving just over a month for the judges to write their judgment on the decades-old controversy.

The town of Ayodhya continues to be on high alert and special training sessions are being organised for police personnel for any possible emergency that may arise during the Hindu religious event of Kartik Purnima, when at least a million devotees are expected on November 12.

The makeshift Ram temple has seen a manifold jump in daily devotee footfall, report priests. Narrow lanes in the Ramkot area that lead to the disputed site are packed with pilgrims. “The Supreme Court verdict has made Ayodhya and Ram temple the focal point of all discussions,” said Acharya Satyendra Das, head priest of the makeshift temple.

 

From Saturday, an emergency operation centre will be set up in Lucknow. “We have made all arrangements to deal with any kind of situation,” said Ayodhya district magistrate Anuj Kumar Jha.