India’s top judges accuse Chief Justice of undue influence in hearings

Justices Kurian Joseph, Jasti Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi and Madan Lokur address the media at a news conference in New Delhi Credit: REUTERS

Four of India’s most senior judges have launched an unprecedented public attack on the country’s Chief Justice over independence of the judiciary.

The rebel judges who rank just below the Chief Justice published a letter expressing their concerns and held a press conference – the first time Supreme Court judges have directly addressed the media and public.

Justices Kurian Joseph, J Chelameswar, Ranjan Gogoi and Madan Lokur said that they feared for democracy because important court cases were being allocated to junior judges, effectively suggesting Dipak Misra, the Chief Justice, was trying to influence the outcome of hearings.

“The four of us are convinced that unless this institution is preserved and maintains its equanimity, democracy will not survive,” Justice Jasti Chelameswar said during the press conference.

The events prompted the Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, to call an emergency meeting with Ravi Shankar Prasad, his law minister.

The rift between Mr Misra and his judges has been growing for some time, but the tipping point appeared to be the hearing into the death of Judge Loya, in 2014, who presided over a case in which Amit Shah, the president of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, was implicated in a murder.

Mr Loya’s family allege his death was foul play, not a heart attack as officially recorded, and occurred after he was offered a £12.5 million bribe to rule in favour of the BJP leader.

Within weeks he was dead and Mr Shah was acquitted. Yesterday, the high-profile case into the death was assigned to a bench that does not include any of the four most senior judges below the Chief Justice, who then held arranged the letter and press conference.

Mr Misra also faced criticism in November, when he overturned a ruling to recuse himself from hearing a case involving alleged bribery by a medical college.

The bribes were allegedly paid to a district court judge to influence a Supreme Court case that Misra was hearing, sparking concerns over a conflict of interest. The Chief Justice has so far declined to respond.