New Delhi: It was a short but eventful tenure for Chief Justice of India J.S. Khehar. The 65-year-old, who took over on 4 January, wrapped up his last week at work in a flurry of headline-grabbing judicial activity, leading benches that delivered two historic judgements, upholding the right to privacy and striking down instantaneous triple talaq.
As Khehar prepared to attend his last day in office on Friday, lawyers mostly had words of praise. “Matters before constitution benches can go on for some time but he (Khehar) kept the leash very tight for its hearings. Argument times were confined. Similarly the triple talaq matter was listed for hearing during the vacation of the court and there was some resistance from the bar but he insisted that it was an important matter and since it was vacation there was no pressure of any other work," said Supreme Court lawyer Aishwarya Bhati, who was part of both hearings.
Khehar’s career has seen him pass several landmark judgements, including one on Sikh identity where he spoke about religious aspects that are fundamental to a community’s beliefs. He also headed the bench that held that the principle of equal pay for equal work must extend to daily wagers, casual and contractual employees who perform the same duties as regular staff.
A graduate of Punjab University, Khehar has served as chief justice of the high courts of Karnataka (2010) and Uttarakhand (2009). He was made a Supreme Court judge in 2011.
The chief justice’s post is a leadership job and comes with immense responsibilities that are not just administrative in nature. “The chief justice represents the profile of the court—is it liberal, is it conservative, how well it upholds civil liberties. One of the most important functions of the job is the ability to withstand pressure from the government," said senior apex court lawyer Rebecca John. She, however, minced no words in saying that over the past few years the separation of powers of the judiciary and executive have not been followed in spirit. “But judgements like the right to privacy come with redeeming moments—that ultimately if you protect the Constitution everything will be fine."
Khehar’s tenure, though, has had its fair share of controversies. Chief among them was the one over former Arunachal Pradesh chief minister Kalikho Pul’s suicide note in 2016. Pul’s wife wrote a letter to the chief justice seeking directions to register an FIR on the basis of the allegations made by Pul in his note, reportedly naming judges and politicians. Khehar ordered the letter to be listed as a writ petition though Pul’s widow had sought an administrative enquiry.
“He turned almost 180 degrees after his appointment," said Supreme Court lawyer Dushyant Dave, who was counsel for Pul’s wife Dangwimsai.
Shreya Agarwal contributed to this story.