Gulf News recently caught up with Prashant Bhushan, rights activist and one of India’s leading lawyers. In this exclusive, he walks us through his unusual career, his early interest in environment and anti-corruption drives, his unequivocal opinions on ‘case law judges’, the intriguing Judge Loya case and the current political scenario.
GULF NEWS: You have been described as a lawyer, activist and politician. The First Post caricatured you as 2G’s Dabangg (Dabangg, a hit Bollywood film). Play on Dabangg, a fearless crusader, who exposed the 2G Spectrum scandal, senior advocate Colin Gonzales who heads the Human Rights Law Network, New York, compared you to a tiger prowling in the court, while your peers — lawyers — say derisively you are ‘an activist who takes up causes, not cases’.
PRASHANT BHUSHAN: Yes, I am an activist and causes are important to me, not cases, unless of course a principle is involved. Morals and probity are important and I value them. My very first case and the cause that I got involved in, albeit indirectly, was in the disbarment of [former prime minister] Indira Gandhi’s election as a member of parliament. I say ‘indirectly’ because it was my father who was handling the case.
To what extent were you influenced by your father, and his professional career? Despite an unusual career path, you have followed in his footsteps. Why are you so closely linked to public interest litigations [PIL] and seen primarily as an anti-corruption crusader?
My father was the lawyer for Raj Narain, Mrs Gandhi’s opponent and they were difficult days and so I began assisting my father in court, taking notes and closely observing the proceedings. Yes, to a large extent I was influenced by my father, but I came to law through a circuitous route. My first interest was Physics and I finished a semester at IIT [Indian Institute of Technology] Madras only to find that Philosophy was what drew me and so when I got a scholarship to Princeton, I flew off to New Jersey. Princeton was wonderful, but their Philosophy Department did not interest me and so I returned to India. And then I completed my law degrees from Allahabad. The Raj Narain case was my initiation, the rites of passage to PILs. I was also intensely involved in environment-related issues, specifically the ‘Narmada Bachao Andolan’ [save Narmada movement].
On corruption, it is my earnest opinion that this is at the very heart of almost all that ails India. Corruption impacts on everything around us. Akin to cancer, it eats into our entrails — the body politics — and taints and maims institutions. Tackle corruption and you are set free. India is set free.
I also consider case-law judges and lawyers to be prisoners of the past. The human condition is far too complex to fall back on judgements and precedents of the past. Case laws are important, but one needs to be innovative and open-minded. How does a great deal of personal wealth square with activism? American novelist Edith Wharton said — ‘the only way not to think of wealth is to have a great deal of it’.
I see no dichotomy there. First, this idea of enormous personal fortune has been overdone. Yes, we — the family — are moderately wealthy and since I had the luxury — early in my life — of staying with my father and sharing his office space, I did not have to chase cases to make money or pursue the conventional lawyering career. I could devote time to ‘causes’ and PIL work. It’s been a great boon, as wealth allows you the opportunity to be engaged full-time in wider social issues.
Would you rate the Judge Loya Case and the various verdicts that have been issued on this case as the most scandalous cover-up in the history of India’s Supreme Court?
The Caravan magazine has done extensive investigative work on this case. There is no doubt in my mind that the CJI [Chief Justice of India] has been compromised and pressure was put on the courts. There are also audio tapes confirming payments to the judiciary to obtain a favourable verdict. Bench-fixing is rampant and Caravan magazine has questioned pivotal evidence, namely, whether Judge Loya even stayed at Ravi Bhawan, Nagpur, the alleged scene of death.
You are an avid reader of science fiction. Please share with our readers, the favourite authors you love to read. What are you reading now? Why have you not written after your early work The Case that Shocked India?
I love to read but don’t get the time to read. The last book I read was Arundhati Roy’s The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. She is one of my favourites. Yes, I love sci-fi but haven’t read any for a while. On penning books, I have an unpublished work of fiction. It is unlikely I will ever get it printed though; because I don’t find it good enough to be inked.
CJI Dipak Misra firmly believes the master of roster function and the special powers enshrined in his office are inalienable rights. Is this written into India’s Constitution? If so, have the founding fathers failed us?
The Constitution of India is silent on this issue. By precedent, this administrative function has been performed by the CJI. Earlier, master of roster was a routine task. However, in more recent times, this routine has taken an altogether new dimension. Indeed, in a hypothetical situation, an ambitious CJI and a strong prime minister can try and subvert the Constitution and rule of law. The founding fathers, therefore, ensured this right or privilege was not cast in stone.
Was Indira’s era of emergency less dangerous to democracy than Narendra Modi’s tactics — subterranean and the resort to stealth to control public institutions? Former Union minister Arun Shourie calls it “an undeclared Emergency”.
Yes. Mrs Gandhi undoubtedly started the slide, committed bureaucracy and judiciary, and shades of ‘I am the state’ etc were all her legacy, but that was a one-time aberration and there was nothing hidden about it. No stealth. Here, since it is invisible, it is more dangerous. Now even the RTI [Right to Information Act], a vital weapon of defence for the citizenry from an overbearing state, is under threat. The ‘Big Brother’ syndrome and ‘US-against-Them’ are here to stay unless Modi is unseated in 2019.
Ravi Menon is a Dubai-based writer, working on a series of essays on India and on a public service initiative called India Talks.