Why is it that the Indian judiciary has all the time in the world to entertain frivolous cases but can’t clear its prolific backlog of pending cases?
Pokémon GO, a location based augmented reality game, is the newest entrant in the ever-increasing list of things to offend the ever so fragile religious sentiments of some Indians. To play Pokémon Go, users install the app on their smartphones. The app ‘reads’ a user’s location via the device’s GPS and accordingly displays an item in the app that the user can choose to collect. The game has apparently offended some people by displaying virtual eggs in places of worship. Distressed by the “blasphemy”, these aggrieved individuals approached the Gujarat high court and filed a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) against the game. The high court, on its part, was quick to offer redress. It admitted the PIL and sent notices to the union and state governments as well as the game makers, US-based Niantic Inc.
Ironically, Niantic Inc. has neither released the game in India nor does it have any immediate launch dates in sight. Consequently, those playing the game are the ones who have downloaded it either from foreign servers, or APK sites. The Gujarat high court is apparently least bothered with such trivial details. Neither was it bothered with its own Chief Justice R. Subhash Reddy’s lament that there are more than 22 lakh cases pending in various courts of Gujarat. The court had all the time in the world to redress the hurt religious sentiments of a few by a game that is not even released in India.
It is this frivolity that is the real bane of the Indian judicial system. In addition to the backlog of pending cases, it is this habit of accepting even the most absurd claims for litigation, while making access to justice almost impossible for the genuinely aggrieved, which has caused a ‘crisis of credibility’ for the judiciary, as highlighted by Chief Justice of India T.S. Thakur’s own lament in March this year.
There is no dearth of such silly cases in Indian courts even as the genuine ones wait their turn for years, even decades. A whopping 59,468 cases were pending before the Supreme Court as of February 19, 2016 and 1,216 of these have been pending for more than a decade. Collective pendency at the high courts stood at 4,153,957 cases, with 777,630 of them pending for over a decade. The lower judiciary, comprising of district and subordinate courts, had 26,488,405 cases pending by the same date, with 2,043,737 of them having been pending for over a decade.
Add to this the agonising wait for hearings in ‘unlisted’ cases – the ones which do not have a fixed date for the next hearing. As of August 18, 2016, the number of unlisted cases stood at a whopping 33,57,575 cases, as per National Judicial Data Grid, the Indian Supreme Court’s own portal to disseminate information regarding case disposal and pendency.
In sum, as so many cases await even a hearing date, the judiciary does not think twice before taking up such silly cases!
The disease, unfortunately, is not a new one. Indian courts have seen numerous such cases, the most recent ones include sedition cases against popular south Indian actor-politician Ramya for saying that Pakistan is a nice country and not hell. The list also includes a variety of similar sedition cases against a lot of people, based on the flimsiest of grounds: against Rahul Gandhi, for instance, for supporting Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) students who were accused of sedition and thus being seditious himself “by association”.
Despite the fact that only the state can charge people with sedition, private individuals lodged most of these cases. Why should judges let such pesky facts come in the way of justice, though?
Similarly, Tamil actress Khushboo was slapped with 22 criminal cases in various courts of Tamil Nadu and even in one distant Indore, Madhya Pradesh, for speaking about premarital sex and advising adolescents to be safe and use precautions. The Supreme Court eventually scrapped all of them in 2010, but not before causing a lot of distress to the actor.
In its historic judgement, the court also reminded Indian judges that the judiciary’s paramount duty is to ensure that no innocent person is subjected to prosecution and humiliation on the basis of false and wholly untenable complaints.
Six years have passed since that judgment and it does not look like judges have learnt any lessons. On the contrary, the disease seems to have spread. Earlier the problem was limited to the lower levels of the judiciary, with super-enthusiastic judges trying to solve perceived historical wrongs and give justice to mythical figures like Mother Sita, but now it has crept upwards.
A Bihar court has, in fact, accepted a petition against Lord Ram for mistreating Sita by banishing her to live in exile in a forest with no suitable justification for doing so!
The Supreme Court, for its part, has initiated no action against either the persons who lodge such cases to harass and humiliate their targets or the erring judges who accept them. The fate of such cases often follows the same trajectory: case gets filed, persons accused get summoned, petitioners enjoy their 5 minutes of fame and the accused suffer through their harassment. Then the cases are disposed of without the court even issuing a reprimand to the frivolous petitioners!
In this context, the case against Pokemon Go does not seem all that surprising. One can bet that the same thing will happen in this case too and only after the Indian judicial system has been rightly mocked in the international arena.
One hopes CJI T.S. Thakur has taken note, for, the crisis of the credibility in the Indian judiciary has just become a tad bit graver.
Avinash Pandey, alias Samar is Programme Coordinator, Right to Food Programme, Asian Human Rights Commission, Hong Kong. He can be contacted at [email protected]