Highlights:

  • The lawyers including P Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal, Anand Grover, Indira Jaising, Prashant Bhushan, Iqbal Chagla in a letter referred to the proceedings undertaken by the top court on certain PILs and urged that judicial notice be taken to help the migrant workers.
  • The manner and matter of the former judge who got an article published under the caption, “Supreme Court Deserves an ‘F’ Grade For Its Handling of Migrants”, definitely caused a diminution of the image of the court in the estimation of the members of the public.
  •  Their aim is really and substantially to discredit the government and specifically the Prime Minister. When that is not working as per their script they turn to a soft target- the judges and the court.

What happened in and around the centre of the judicial process over the “migrant workers” at the instance of a few senior lawyers created poignancy of the high order in the peace-loving community of lawyers and the public.

On 26-05-2020 a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court told the government at the Centre and the states to report back in two days on the steps being taken to help migrant workers stranded due to the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown. This is a refreshing development as on previous occasions the Court was not much enthusiastic to tread on to the territory of the executive. Earlier proceedings were closed on the basis of the submissions by the Government counsel. In fact, the government was straining every nerve to make things happen for the relief of the poor workers. But very soon the problem turned into a major humanitarian crisis. The Court suo-moto took the subject to its file and issued notice.

A bench led by Justice Ashok Bhushan on 26-05-2020 said it was taking suo motu note of media reports and the many representations that they had received about the plight of migrants. In its preliminary remarks recorded in the order, the bench said the central and state governments should immediately provide adequate transport arrangements, food, and shelters “free of costs”. The Bench never made any observations castigating the government. The Court explained in the order the reasons for taking up the matter. The Court also gave governments time until 28-05-2020 to come up with their response. With a very objective and balanced view, it thought aloud that the government and the states had taken measures “yet there have been inadequacies and certain lapses”. “We are of the view that effective concentrated efforts are required to redeem the situation.” The Court also had adverted to media reports, “continuously showing the unfortunate and miserable conditions of migrant labourers” walking on-foot and cycles from long distances.

“They have also been complaining of not being provided food and water by the administration at places where they were stranded or in the way i.e. highways from which they proceeded on-foot, cycles or other modes of transport.”  Supreme Court said, “this section of the society needs succour and help” by the governments concerned. This is a most matured approach maintained always with a high degree of dignity by the Supreme Court, but at the same time reacting effectively and constructively to the blatant thwarting of the fundamental rights of the unwept and unhonoured lot of the society. The court opined that the governments though were doing effectively to tackle the issue more attention and action was felt to be necessary. The governments had accepted the advice of the Court with all humility and obliged to come back with details of action taken in the meantime. The matter was to be considered by the Court again on 28-05-2020.

A day before the Supreme Court took cognizance on its own the “unfortunate and miserable” plight of migrant labourers, twenty prominent lawyers from Delhi and Mumbai wrote a critical letter to Chief Justice of India (CJI) S A Bobde and other judges saying the top court’s “apparent indifference” to the humanitarian crisis and its “institutional deference” to statements of the executive would amount to abdication of constitutional role if not rectified immediately. This started to turn the course of events with apparent acrimony.

The lawyers including P Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal, Anand Grover, Indira Jaising, Prashant Bhushan, Iqbal Chagla in a letter referred to the proceedings undertaken by the top court on certain PILs and urged that judicial notice be taken to help the migrant workers. “We respectfully submit that this institutional deference to statements made on behalf of the Government and the Court’s apparent indifference to this enormous humanitarian crisis, would if not rectified immediately, amount to the Court having abdicated its constitutional role and duty to these teeming millions of poor, hungry migrants,” the letter said. They are some of the best lawyers of the Supreme Court Bar. They are public men of known identity and stature. Yes, they are all “honourable men”. It is their institution, no doubt, but it is the institution of others also, others who do not share their mode of operation and their points of view. Genuinely said it is the institution for the people of India, of this and coming generations. Then the question arises whether the Court can be allowed to be converted into a theatre of the Absurd at the hands of a few self-righteous people. While stating the grievances of the migrants these men of eminence made judgmental observations on the Court also. There were other“honourable men” too; equally erudite from all of whom the Court over the years has benefited so much. Lawyers like Mohan Katarki, SiddarthLuthra, Santosh Paul, Mahalaxmi Pavani, CU Singh, Vikas Singh, Aspi Chinoy, Mihir Desai, Janak Dwarkadas, Rajani Iyer, Yusuf Muchhala, Rajiv Patil, Navroz Serve, Galati Singh, and Sanjay Singhvi also signed the letter. All honourable men and their epistolary harangue touched heights of didacticism when they told the court,

“Indeed, the current migrant crisis is symptomatic of how the constitutional promises of equality, life, freedom, and dignity have been totally ignored by the Government while imposing arbitrary executive measures. The Supreme Court’s unwillingness to hold the Government to account and to provide succour to these poor millions will severely erode its constitutional role and status as the guardian of the fundamental rights of the people.”

The sermonising went on to say that, the Supreme Court’s constitutional role and duty assume even greater importance in the time of a crisis, such as the present when the entire country and its economy was “locked down” from March 24, it said, adding that more than 75% workers earn their livelihoods in the unorganized sector and the lockdown resulted in an “immediate loss of employment, livelihood and the means of sustenance”. The court was specially held faulty for accepting the submissions of the government earlier. The letter said the apex court took note of the status report of the government which referred to a circular prohibiting movement and transportation of migrant labourers and also accepted the statement in March that “no migrant person was walking on the roads in an attempt to reach his/her home towns villages.”The Court failed in all respects to alleviate the perils of the suffering people they argued.

So the main argument of their submissions was that the Supreme Court of India is a failed institution; that it has failed to protect the interests of the poor people like the migrants; that it is pro-government; that it is not protecting the Constitution of India; that it was indifferent to humanitarian crisis; that it did not punish the delinquency of the government and so on. The Court has failed in all respects, they say. A virtual charge sheet is rolled out to indict the Supreme Court. Perversity at its peak! Language is, strictly speaking, contumacious.

Soon intervention applications were filed by the interested parties. The matter was taken up by the Court on 28-05-2020 dehors the epistolary dharna by the above lawyers and directions were issued. The Supreme Court gave a detailed interim order about the transportation of migrant labourers, which has become a matter of controversy since the Centre started running special trains from May 1. Over the last days, a series of instances were reported of hungry and desperate migrants looting food carts at various railway stations. Several migrants have died after being on the trains without food and water in the sizzling heat. Court referred to the heart-breaking video of a child trying to wake his dead mother which had gone viral. The court understood the migrants’ problem very well and asked the Centre and states to file replies on the issue, said the major problem is the “transportation of migrants and providing them food”. The specific directions of the Court are enumerated hereunder:

  1. As and when the state governments put in a request for trains, railways have to provide them. No fare for train or bus shall be charged from migrant workers. The fare will be shared by the states.
  1. Migrant workers who are stranded shall be provided food by the concerned state at places which shall be publicized and notified.
  1. During the train journey, the originating states will provide meals and water. The railways will provide meals and water. Food and water will also be provided on buses.
  1. The state shall oversee the registration of migrant workers and ensure that after registration, they board the train or bus at an early date. Complete information should be provided to all concerned.
  1. Those migrant workers found walking on the roads, should be immediately taken to shelters and provided food and all facilities.

The Court has done its part so well honourably remaining within the parameters of judicial permissibility. The government cannot work without the Judiciary, and the Judiciary also cannot work without the government. The people of India can live peacefully only if both function without fear or favour, affection, or ill will. This working condition of the Judiciary is thwarted by the reckless and rash attitude and actions of these learned and honourable people which have not made any value addition to the cause of the migrant labourers. Migrant labour issue became a handy and timely weapon to beat the government and the judiciary for these agitators and challengers. They failed everywhere and then started to blackmail and heckle the government and the law officers. The Solicitor General made some plain speaking, and he is obliged under law to do so. He is duty-bound to safeguard the interest of the government and also the prestige of the Court. He had dissected and displayed these people before the Court and the people of India. Having got exposed by the Court and the Solicitor General they have now broad-based their campaign from attacking the Supreme Court to an all-round attack of the Government and its law officers.

Then comes “the unkindest cut” of all. A former judge of the Court Justice Madan Lokur drew a picture of the SCI with very dark colours and mocked it with an ‘F’ grade in the matter of dealing with the migrants’ issue. When the Supreme Court initially, declined to interfere in the matter of the migrants, two months back, no hands moved to criticize or to remind the court of the alleged flaw in its functioning. But even then the particular judges who heard the case maintained a high degree of decorum and reticence with a solitary but weighty comment that it was “unfortunate” on the part of the former judge to throw cudgel at the institution and held their ground saying that they had taken the suo moto cognizance of the issue because of their conscience. The Solicitor General had every reason to bring out the real nature of the people who are out to scandalize the Court.

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