Today’s Hindu carries an op-ed by Sriram Panchu which chronicles, comments upon, and provides the context for some of the events in the unfolding saga of declaration of assets by judges, including the recent judgment of the Delhi High Court by Justice Ravindra Bhat. (For posts covering some of Panchu’s views expressed previously, click here).
Unlike some of the more zealous advocates for this cause, Panchu recognizes that judges may have some justifiable concerns, and suggests that:
A suitable body and procedures will have to be devised to deal with the [relevant] questions and get the answers. Safeguards must be erected to minimise harassment to judges, and this will be in addition to the extraordinary power that judges have to punish for contempt of themselves, and the common remedy of criminal and civil action for defamation.
While many commentators are showering praise on Justice Bhat’s judgment, they appear not to focus upon the part of his judgment where he asserts that the justification for declaration of assets by judges stands on a slightly different footing than that which requires the declaration of assets by people seeking to become Parliamentarians. As I noted in a previous post, Justice Bhat has argued that while judges must declare assets, there are good reasons why we would want to provide for a regulatory system where the public interest in such disclosure can be balanced against the legitimate privacy concerns of individual judges and the judicial institution as a whole.
To his credit, Panchu’s analysis, at least in the portion quoted above, seems to recognize this aspect of the judgment’s reasoning. It may well be that as a temporary measure, to dispel the several concerns that Panchu highlights in his piece, current judges may want to declare their assets on a publicly accessible website. But is this feasible as a long term regulatory measure? If the advocates for disclosure indeed believe that the only way forward is for judges to declare their assets directly to the public with no intermediate mechanism, they will have to provide a response to the arguments raised by Justice Bhat.
Here is one reason why a potential judicial candidate might be turned away from a process which requires full and complete disclosures directly to the public with no filters to prevent abuse: the way our contemporary media outfits (particularly their TV avatars) conduct themselves. The Express columnist, Shailaja Bajpai, has a series of columns dissecting the bizarre ways in which recent important events have been covered by mainstream Indian TV channels (click here, here and here).