This interview was conducted at The National University of Juridical Sciences (NUJS), Kolkata, one of the premier law universities in the country, where Justice(Retd.) J. Chelameswar taught a Credit Course, titled "Fundamentals of Constitutional Law", from 15th-17th September 2019. The interview was conducted by the press team of the Student Juridical Association(the official student body of NUJS), comprising of Aakanksha Jadhav, Ayushi Thakur, Saieesh Kkamath and Tanishk Goyal from the Class of 2023.
Justice(Retd.) Jasti Chelameswar, is widely appreciated as a voice of reason in the Indian judiciary. Having retired on 22 June 2018, Justice Chelameswar has had a memorable stint in the Supreme Court. He has contributed to several landmark judgements, including upholding the Freedom of Speech (Shreya Singhal v. UOI), upholding the Right to Privacy(Justice K. Puttaswamy v. UOI), and the NJAC judgement by providing a strong dissenting opinion. Further, Justice Chelameswar has also served as the Chief Justice of the High Court of Kerala, and the Gauhati High Court, where he did exemplary work on the Green benches. Justice Chelameswar also became a household name, after being one of the four judges to hold an unprecedented press conference in 2018, highlighting the problems that affect the Supreme Court, and questioning the allocation of benches.
TRANSCRIPT OF THE INTERVIEW
Q. Sir, throughout the course of your career, you have held many positions. You have been a member of the bar, and the bench. What positions have you enjoyed the most, and what positions have challenged you the most?
A. As a member of the bar, I had a lot of freedom and choice to pick the cases I would like to do. As a judge, those choices are very restricted. Necessarily, the range of issues which any judge handles, is definitely higher than the range of issues even the most successful advocates would handle. So, by virtue of the restriction on the freedom to choose the cases I wished to handle, and the fact that the range of issues to be handled was wider, I can say that the bench was a challenging experience as compared to the bar.
Q. Sir, we had the opportunity to go through some documentations of the demographics in the judiciary. While the exposure gave us an insight into the working of the judiciary, we concurrently came across a counter narrative that that the collegium has a tendency to follow an unspoken trend of selecting judges who are just like them. There was also a narrative which we came across, that most of the judges who are appointed belong to the upper castes. Sir, keeping these narratives in mind, would you say that there is a lack of diversity within the judiciary?
A. I would say that it is not exactly a lack of diversity. What I would like to point out here is, that the judiciary, unlike the legislature, is certainly not a representative body. Therefore, there is no mandate to accommodate each and every segment of the society. What the judiciary is required to do is discharge the responsibilities entrusted to it. However, in the process, it is possible to give representation to these segments. This can be done by giving representation to some major segments of the society. I would also like to point out here that the Supreme Court is not the only representative of the Union Judiciary. We have High Courts and Subordinate Courts as well.
Q. Sir, how do you feel about the current narrative of making Supreme Court a strictly Constitutional Court coupled with Having a National Court of Appeal in an attempt to deal with pendency of cases?
A. I am all for making the Supreme Court, an exclusive Constitutional Court. Now on the question whether there should be a National Court of Appeal, I have different view. I do not believe in the narrative of having a National Court of Appeal. The judicial system of this country worked without a Supreme Court from 1862-1952, for almost 90 years. High Courts were the courts where finality was attained. There were very few cases where appeals went to the privy council. This was essentially because, amongst other things, the scrutiny was very strict, affordability was an issue and most of all the quality and prestige, the High Courts enjoyed during those times was certainly very different. I would not prefer to have another court of appeal. I would rather believe that the existing High Court structure should be strengthened and this is a view which I took even when I was on the bench. For instance, if there is a dispute regarding the seniority of two people in a particular state’s Panchayati Raj Service, why should the nation be worried about it? The matter should ideally attain finality at the High Court level. Theoretically speaking, there is no guarantee that the Supreme Court will give a better judgment than the High Court. This is a never ending process. If you think that the quality of adjudication of the High Court is not as desired, try to improve the quality, by finding appropriate ways and means of improving them.
Q. Sir, for a young Justice Chelameswar, if not law, what would have been the profession you would have got into?
A. Well. If I had a free choice, I would have loved to become a painter.
Q. Sir, does that mean that law was not a free choice for you?
A. Law was a compromise for me.
Q. Sir, what is your take on the NLU model of education? Do you believe that law has become a profession for the elite and the concept of NLUs has somehow contributed to it?
A. The method of teaching in the National Law Schools is somewhat different from the methods which were followed in the conventional law schools. Perhaps, it is desirable to have a uniform model of legal education in India. Now, whether the conventional model was good or bad, it is for you to judge. Well, I am a product of that model, and I don’t think I did so badly in life as a member of the bar or the bench. However, things change. The new model has now come into existence and it has produced brilliant children. Now, whether it is because of the training or the raw material which is going into the training, given the last 25 years, these law schools and this new paradigm of legal education came into existence. There is a fierce competition to enter these institutions to study law. In our days, one could just walk into the law college. The reason, perhaps which I see is this. The amount of money which a successful lawyer makes today, makes Amitabh Bachhcan and Rajnikant think twice whether they should continue in their profession or not. Some of the big lawyers, in fact do make more money than any successful film star. Economic success remains a factor which attracts anybody. And post globalization, the kind of money which was in circulation in the profession, perhaps attracts most people. What is in store for the future concerns every human being out there. Gandhiji’s choice to live in deprivation and poverty had a goal. He wanted the common man of the country to believe that he was one amongst them. It is undisputed that anybody would like to have better quality of life.
Q. Sir, Last time you were here, at NUJS you told us that you wanted to go back to farming. Are your plans still the same after having explored academia post retirement?
A. I would still do farming. I am still doing it. But, well if somebody wants to hear me and my opinions out, yes I would be happy to come and give lectures. In the last 14 months of my retirement, I have not rejected a single invitation from any educational institution. Reason being, I have certain basic beliefs which I have made public in the last few years. And I believe, and my only hope is from the younger generation. I don’t expect any major change to come in the system by those who are already entrenched in the system because they believe in status quo. And that is basic human nature. To not want things to change. And, it is only youngsters who can think and are open to new ideas, and maybe over period of time, they can bring in some change.
Spoil as many youngsters as possible is my motto.
Q. Sir, what would your advice be to us youngsters, who aspire to make it big in the times to come?
A. Everybody has their own definition of making it big you see. For some it may be money, for some it may be power, and for others, it may be glory and making a lasting contribution to evolve the existing jurisprudence. Everyone has to make a decision of his own. My advice would be, whatever you choose, there are no shortcuts to achieve that. Shortcuts would be short tenured cuts. There is no substitute for hard work. Nothing comes free in this universe you see. Good Luck and All the best!