For Ranjan Gogoi, the 46th Chief Justice of India, Friday marked his last day at court room number 1 in the Supreme Court complex. Sitting in his room on his last day with his successor Justice SA Bobde, Gogoi ordered issuing of notices in 10 cases that were supposed to be taken up by him, marking an end to his over 12-month tenure.
Gogoi demits office on 17 November.
In the last week of his tenure, Gogoi passed a slew of key landmark judgments pertaining to government matters, religion, politics, and the applicability of law to his own office.
Following are six crucial judgements passed last week:
The most crucial among all was the judgement in the Ayodhya land dispute case — one of the oldest pending cases and also one with huge political, social and religious ramifications. An apex court bench, headed by Gogoi, announced the final verdict in the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid case on 9 November, 2019, decades after the first suit in the case was filed in January 1950.
The 1045-page judgement called for setting up of a trust for building a temple at the disputed site while ordering the sanctioning of a five-acre land parcel to Muslims to build a mosque within Ayodhya. Gogoi pronounced the judgment, a unanimous decision of the five-judge bench, and settled the long-festering dispute.
On 13 November, Gogoi, heading a constitution bench, passed a judgment re-emphasizing that nobody was above law. Expanding the ambit of Right to Information (RTI) applications, the Supreme Court upheld a Delhi high court judgement declaring the Chief Justice of India’s office as a “public authority" that falls under the Right to Information (RTI) Act. The judgement stressed that no office was above law and that citizens have the right to question institutions and offices. The bench said, “judicial independence and judicial accountability go hand-in-hand."
On 13 November, another judgment was pronounced by a five-judge constitution bench, headed by Gogoi, where in a 3:2 majority verdict, the apex court referred the broader question of whether all provisions of the Finance Act 2017 could be construed as being part of Money Bill and hence didn’t need Rajya Sabha’s approval. The Supreme Court held that a larger bench should look into the correctness of the Aadhaar judgment since the Aadhaar Act was also passed as a Money Bill.
In another politically sensitive judgment, a three-judge bench, headed by Gogoi and comprising Justices SK Kaul and KM Joseph, on 14 November dismissed a review petition in the Rafale deal case. It also censured Congress leader Rahul Gandhi for wrongfully attributing the “Chowkidar chor hai" remark against Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the top court.
The petition had alleged irregularities in the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter jets from France’s Dassault Aviation. This verdict too was unanimous. The bench concluded that it was inappropriate to order a roving inquiry into the allegations.
On the same day, Gogoi, in another landmark judgement, put the spotlight on the constitutional validity of religious practices that put restrictions on women. A five-judge referred a review petition in Kerala’s Sabarimala temple case to a larger seven-judge bench. The larger bench has been asked to look into pending cases in relation to entry of Muslim women into a dargah/mosque; Parsi women married to non-Parsis and their entry into the fire temple; and issues related to female genital mutilation in the Dawoodi Bohra community. The apex court observed that a common policy needs to be formulated to deal with cases that juxtapose religion with faith and equality.
Gogoi’s legacy is not restricted to just judicial matters. As the head of administration of the Supreme court, he also passed orders on making available the top court’s judgments in seven languages including English and Hindi.
Gogoi’s judgements in several politically sensitive cases, over the last week, will have an impact on both electoral politics and the upcoming winter session of Parliament starting on 18 November.
While the judgement in Ayodhya dispute was the most crucial as it had dominated India’s political landscape for seven decades, the verdict in the Rafale controversy came as a respite for government as the Opposition had made it a campaign during the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has demanded an apology from Gandhi since the verdict.
On his last date at office, Gogoi circulated a parting note to journalists covering the Supreme Court, refusing one-on-one interviews. He said, “bitter truth must remain in memory."
On Friday, Gogoi visited Rajghat to pay his respects to Mahatma Gandhi. Gogoi had also visited Rajghat the day he assumed the office of Chief Justice of India on 3 October, 2018. He had then taken over the reins from Justice Deepak Mishra.
(Gyan Verma contributed to the story)