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Editorials/Opinions Analysis For UPSC 28 November 2023

  1. It is time to Revamp the Structure of the Supreme Court
  2. Democracy Thrived in Ancient India


Context:

The Supreme Court of India currently faces a backlog of 79,813 cases before its 34 judges, prompting calls for structural changes. Chief Justice of India D.Y. Chandrachud also recently expressed the intention to establish diverse Constitution Benches, indicating a potential shift in the court’s structure.

Relevance:

GS2-

  • Separation of Powers between various organs Dispute Redressal Mechanisms and Institutions.
  • Structure, Organization and Functioning of the Executive and the Judiciary

Mains Question:

It is time to revamp the structure of the Supreme Court in order to safeguard a citizen’s fundamental right to access it. Discuss. (15 marks, 250 words).

Evolution of the Supreme Court:

  • During the colonial era, there were three Supreme Courts in Bombay, Calcutta, and Madras. The Indian High Courts Act of 1861 replaced these with High Courts for distinct regions.
  • The Government of India Act, 1935, established the Federal Court of India as an appellate body for the Privy Council and High Courts.
  • India adopted the Constitution in 1949, and the Supreme Court, as it stands today, was inaugurated on January 28, 1950, under Article 124 of the Constitution, just two days after India became an independent democratic republic. Its establishment in Delhi was facilitated by Article 130.
  • The inaugural Supreme Court comprised eight judges, including the Chief Justice. However, as the caseload increased and backlogs grew, Parliament progressively raised the number of judges: from eight in 1950 to 11 in 1956, 14 in 1960, 18 in 1978, 26 in 1986, 31 in 2009, and finally, 34 in 2019.

Working of the Supreme Court:

  • The Supreme Court of India operates within three constitutional jurisdictions: original, appellate, and advisory.
  • It functions both as a Constitutional Court and a Court of Appeal, with benches of different sizes determined by the Registry under the Chief Justice of India’s (CJI) guidance.

Overburdened Judiciary:

  • An overburdened judicial system is reflected in the current functioning of the Supreme Court, which issues approximately 8-10 decisions annually through Constitution Benches comprising five or more judges.
  • The court primarily serves as an appellate body, with merely four out of the 1,263 decisions issued in 2022 coming from a Constitution Bench.
  • Its jurisdiction encompasses cases between the Center and the States, inter-state disputes, civil and criminal appeals, and the provision of legal and factual advice to the President.
  • Any individual can promptly approach the Supreme Court if they believe their fundamental rights have been violated.

Structural Changes Needed:

Constitution Benches:

About:

The CJI, serving as the Master of the Roster, directs the composition of benches. Constitution Benches, typically consisting of five, seven, or nine judges, address specific constitutional law issues as outlined in Article 145(3) of the Constitution, which mandates a minimum of five judges for cases involving substantial constitutional interpretations or referrals under Article 143 related to the President’s consultation power.

Suggestions to Enhance the Working of Constitution Benches:

  • Discussion on the creation of a distinct Constitution Bench emerged in March 1984 when the Tenth Law Commission of India suggested a division of the Supreme Court into two segments: the Constitutional Division and the Legal Division.
  • According to the proposal, only matters concerning constitutional law would be presented to the envisioned Constitutional Division.
  • Echoing this sentiment, the Eleventh Law Commission reiterated in 1988 that dividing the Supreme Court would enhance the accessibility of justice and significantly reduce litigants’ fees.
  • The rationale behind this proposal stemmed from the observation that a substantial portion of appeals in the Supreme Court originated from High Courts in closer proximity.

National Court of Appeal:

  • Notably, appeals from the Punjab and Haryana High Court, Allahabad High Court, and Delhi High Court constituted a significant portion, while courts situated farther from the apex court had fewer appeals, influenced by challenges in accessibility and associated costs.
  • An earlier case, Bihar Legal Support Society v. Chief Justice of India (1986), expressed the view that establishing a National Court of Appeal would be “desirable.”
  • Such a court could entertain special leave petitions, enabling the Supreme Court to focus exclusively on constitutional and public law-related issues.

Regional Benches:

  • To enhance the accessibility of the Court, the 229th Law Commission Report in 2009 suggested the establishment of four regional benches in Delhi, Chennai or Hyderabad, Kolkata, and Mumbai.
  • These regional benches, with six judges each, were recommended to handle non-constitutional matters, redistributing the backlog of such cases.
  • Meanwhile, a Constitution Bench in New Delhi would consistently address constitutional issues. This approach aimed to enable the Supreme Court to address constitutional matters and other nationally significant cases on a day-to-day basis.

Division Benches:

While Division Benches (two judges) or full Benches (three judges) usually handle a variety of cases, ranging from film restrictions to allegations of police commissioner misconduct, the Supreme Court’s broad jurisdiction has led to the consideration of trivial public interest litigations. Examples include requests to delete passages from the Quran or remove secularism from the Constitution’s Preamble.

Conclusion:

Currently under consideration by a Constitution Bench in the case of V. Vasanthkumar v. H.C. Bhatia, these issues prompt a reflection on measures to safeguard a citizen’s fundamental right to access the Supreme Court. With the guidance of the Chief Justice of India (CJI), there is an opportunity to address this structural gap by designating certain appeal benches of the court as regional benches.



Context:

India’s democratic heritage predates the very inception of democracy itself, standing out not only for its early establishment but also for its meticulous organization and inclusivity compared to Western counterparts.

Relevance:

GS-1

  • Ancient Indian History
  • Salient Features of Indian Society

GS-2

  • Indian Constitution
  • Parliament

Mains Question:

India’s democratic legacy extends far beyond the very origin of democracy itself. Analyse by drawing illustrations from the Kudavolai electoral system of the Chola Dynasty. (10 marks, 150 words).

Kudavolai Electoral System:

The ancient Kudavolai electoral system, employed from the 9th to the 16th century, exemplifies this tradition.

Working of the System:

  • In this system, villagers gathered, wrote the names of eligible candidates on palm leaf slips, collected them in a pot, and selected representatives through a shuffle, showcasing thoughtful planning and inclusiveness.
  • Evidence of the Kudavolai system’s practice is found in inscriptions from the 12th regnal year of Parantaka Chola, specifically in Uttaramerur and Pallipakkam village, Thanjavur.
  • This system is often cited as an illustration of Tamil Nadu’s democratic heritage, illustrating how the principles of Manu Smriti were applied during the Chola period.
  • The Uttaramerur election provides insight into the qualifications for candidacy, the electoral process, and ethical considerations during the Chola era.
  • The constitution, clearly articulated in the Chola period, specified that each village, or “Kudumbu,” equivalent to a modern-day ward, would select one person from 30 families.
  • Candidates had to meet basic qualifications, and there were parallels between Chola-era practices and modern-day electoral requirements, including the declaration of wealth.
  • The inscription uses the term “Perumakkal” to refer to the elected representatives, and notably, no payment was made for their roles.

Prevalence and Extent of the System:

  • The inscription discovered in Uttaramerur provides intriguing insights into the resolution of the general assembly and the Kudavolai system, which was employed to elect representatives to the village assembly or Sabha.
  • The inscriptions on temple walls also attest to the prevalence of village assemblies in other parts of the state.

Disqualification of Members:

  • Furthermore, if an individual faced disqualification, neither they nor their close relatives were eligible to participate in subsequent elections.
  • Strict prohibitions against misconduct, including accepting bribes or misappropriating others’ property, were in place.
  • If villagers were aware of such illegal activities, the member involved would face disqualification within a year. Those proven guilty of misconduct were barred from participating in future elections.
  • Individuals who advocate for the elimination of corruption while accumulating significant sums, often referred to as “sagasam,” face scrutiny. Even protectors of such individuals are barred from standing for election.
  • To counteract malpractices like breaches of ethical conduct, the entire electoral process was designed to be transparent and conducted in the presence of the community.

Working of Committees:

  • Following the formation of election committees, the functions of the Sabha were diverse. Among the 30 elected members, 12 were appointed to the Annual Committee, another 12 to the Garden Committee, and 6 to the Tank Committee.
  • These committees were responsible for overseeing the administration of their designated areas of authority.
  • In addition to managing communal land, they held exclusive responsibility for tax collection. The tax collection process was meticulously carried out by these committees, aiding central officers in land surveying and tax assessment.
  • They also played a crucial role in recording property transfers and resolving land disputes.
  • The planning of irrigation was conducted with utmost efficiency, leading to the regular maintenance of ponds and other water bodies. Consequently, this meticulous approach fostered flourishing agricultural practices.

Conclusion:

While electoral malpractices and misconduct persist in present times, the Chola-era system offers lessons in transparency, ethical conduct, and community involvement. The inscription suggests that the democratic process could be tested in villages or colleges to explore its relevance for the current era. Comparisons between the dedication and sacrifice of historical leaders and present-day counterparts invite contemplation.


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