Allow us a thought experiment. Imagine an Indian company that announces one day that it will henceforth reveal its balance sheet and its income-tax returns, but only to its board of directors—not to its shareholders or to any regulator. Now imagine the howl that would arise from the government if it heard of such a thing: One cabinet minister would declare a mass investigative probe, another would heap abuses on the private sector.
Now replace this Indian company with Indian judges, and one can see why it’s not a thought experiment any more.
If only the United Progressive Alliance government exercised this bit of imagination, it would have anticipated the howl the Opposition generated in Parliament on Monday over the Judges (Declaration of Assets and Liabilities) Bill. The Bill would ensure that judges declare their assets, but only to a “competent authority”—either the President, the Chief Justice of India or the chief justice of a high court. This declaration, however, cannot be made to the public.
We aren’t disputing the judiciary’s right to—rather requirement for—independence. Unlike elected representatives in the legislature, judges are supposed to be impartial arbiters of the law who don’t make decisions to help a particular constituency.
The government holds senior judiciary to be exempt from the Right to Information Act that citizens can otherwise use to find out what public servants are up to. But some judges may contend that they aren’t public servants in the first place. Chief Justice of India K.G. Balakrishnan said in April 2008 that the Chief Justice was a constitutional authority, not a public servant (he seemed to retract that comment later). But the Supreme Court itself passed a judgement in 1991 that held a high court or Supreme Court judge to be a public servant.
The government’s Bill is tantamount to declaring that India’s judges are a separate class of public servants, even citizens. That’s a dangerous line to cross. In the process of trying to uphold and maintain judicial independence, the government is only making the judiciary vulnerable to public perception of corruption and even more vulnerable to political interference.
Should judges declare their assets to the public? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org