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SC judges enjoyed lavish state hospitality in MP. Here's why it's troubling

Saurav Datta | Updated on: 10 February 2017, 1:49 IST

It's no secret that higher court judges in India are a privileged lot. Still, the lavish hospitality accepted without compunction by Supreme Court judges from the Madhya Pradesh government went too far, to say the least.

And when activist Ajay Dubey filed an RTI application with the National Judicial Academy, Bhopal, asking for details of expenses incurred on the opulent 'Judges' Retreat' programme, he was told by Prasidh Raj Singh, the Public Information Officer of the academy, to define the term "hospitality" before his request could be entertained.

Troubling questions

Judges' Retreat programmes are supposed to enable judges to brainstorm, exchange ideas and enhance their knowledge. But the fourth such retreat of Supreme Court judges, held in mid-April, has come into the spotlight for all the wrong reasons. It has emerged that the judges, along with their spouses, dined in silverware and accepted rich gifts from the Madhya Pradesh regime. How much public money was spent on the programme is anybody's guess since the NJA has refused to part with the details.

The episode raises serious questions about judicial conduct, independence of the judiciary and the sanctity of the citizens' right to information.

Also Read:Doval briefs SC judges on national security, asks for 'more cooperation' from courts

Why did the state government foot the bill for the event? Why did the judges and their spouses indulge in such vulgar display of luxury, and, on top of that, accept gifts from the government? On what grounds did the NJA refuse to disclose information and insist that a particular term be defined first when this is clearly outside the ambit of the RTI Act?

RTI activist sought details of money spent on judges' hospitality. He was told to define 'hospitality' first

It is a no-brainer that the judiciary must keep a high wall between itself and the Executive. To have credibility, judges must not only be impartial but they must be seen as such. But if the judges of the country's apex court roll around in politician-sponsored luxury, they forfeit their claim to impartiality. They also give up their right to take umbrage at criticism, and slap critics with criminal contempt charges, as they have often done.

Wedded to secrecy?

As for NJA's refusal to provide details of the money spent on Judges' Retreat, Section 8 of the RTI Act clearly lays down what information is exempt from disclosure. As even a bare reading of the provisions of Section 8 makes clear, there is no clause that allows a public authority to insist that definitions of words and phrases be furnished as a precondition for disclosure of information.

Also Read: What a U-turn, milord! Guj judge deletes quota remark to avoid impeachment

Interestingly, this isn't the first time the judiciary has its shown determination to exempt itself from the RTI Act. In 2014, the Madras High Court held that the RTI Act did not apply to it. In July 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that it was not bound to disclose information about the medical expenses incurred on its judges.

This particular retreat has been mired in controversy from the very start, not least for National Security Advisor Ajit Doval lecturing their lordships about national security and asking for "more cooperation" in such cases. Now, the revelations about top judges enjoying lavish hospitality on public dime has only pushed the judiciary deeper into the muck of its own making.

Also Read: Give judges a break. Let them have their vacations

First published: 20 June 2016, 10:10 IST
Saurav Datta @SauravDatta29

Saurav Datta works in the fields of media law and criminal justice reform in Mumbai and Delhi.