Tirath Singh Thakur
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The Standard Bearer
Not many Chief Justices become famous. They are not easily approachable. They are not instantly recognisable media figures. And underneath their public robes, they lead very private lives. But the 43rd CJI, Tirath Das Thakur, 65, is an exception. It's hard to think of a month when he has not been in the news.
The chief justice had barely warmed the top court benches before the nation woke up to photographs of him carpooling to work on January 1 despite being exempt from the Delhi government's odd-even vehicle rationing formula.
That no-excuses leadership was what the nation expected. His predecessor, Justice H.L. Dattu, had told journalists that he was handing over the baton with a sense of fulfilment: "From whatever foundation I have laid, I'm sure he will make things better." A nation tormented by the historic clash between the two pillars of the state, the Executive and the Judiciary, over the National Judicial Appointments Commission in 2015, had hoped for civility and camaraderie, with the CJI overhauling the collegium system of appointing judges and shoring up judicial credibility. Instead, constant corrosive bickering and battles with theNarendra Modi government marked the CJI's 13-month tenure: from judicial appointments and vacancies, restoring Congress governments in Uttarakhand and Arunachal Pradesh, drought to bad bank loans.
On December 2, 2015, as he took over the reins, he had said: "The judiciary is facing its greatest challenge in recent times." He had also announced that 400 high court judges would be appointed during his 13-month tenure. In a country where judges can barely devote more than 2.5 minutes to hear a case-thanks to a massive shortfall of 44 per cent in the high courts alone-it was his "top priority," he had said in March. But by April, the CJI was openly accusing the government of dragging its feet on filling judicial vacancies. It's a "national challenge", he had repeated in August. "Why don't you lock the courts?" he had lashed out at the NDA government in October. With his term nearing its end, he hammered away: "There are around 500 vacancies in high courts today."
As he rides into retirement on January 4, 2017, he is leaving behind a legacy marked by hot-button issues: from big bank defaulters to the fate of Indian cricket, the Sahara-Vyapam-Saradha scams to the constitutionality of sedition, defamation, triple talaq and demonetisation. All that and more will be the new CJI, J.S. Khehar's, to deal with.
But for most Indians, Justice Thakur will be remembered for that one day, April 25, 2016, when he stood on stage with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and reached into his pocket for a handkerchief to mop his eyes: "In the name of development and progress, I beseech you, to rise to the occasion?" Did you think the law is above all emotion?
-by Damayanti Datta