The Supreme Court dealt with ‘hostile’ high court judge C S Karnan and the issue of trust deficit among its judges in 2017 and delivered historic verdicts like banning triple talaq and gifting citizens the most cherished fundamental right of privacy.
The year also saw a judgement in the J Jayalalithaa graft case whereby her close aide Sasikala Natarajan was convicted and put behind bars which virtually created political upheavals in Tamil Nadu and a spilt in the AIADMK.
However, the apex court, which gave a reprieve to Prime Minister Narendra Modi by trashing a plea for an independent probe into the Birla-Sahara diary case allegedly speaking about bribes being paid to top politicians, kept his government on tenterhooks for its stand on Rohingya Muslims by making it clear that human rights of the refugees need to be protected.
In yet another case in which the Centre courted controversy was the issue of forcible conversion of women in Kerala by linking it to “love jihad” in which NIA alleged that the marriage of 25-year-old woman Hadiya was a classic example of the concept in which it said that the man who married her was purportedly connected with terror group ISIS.
In the midst of all these developments, the verdicts cherished most by citizens and that hogged the international glare was the history-defining decisions by five judges trashing the 1,400-year-old Islamic practice of triple talaq and the path-breaking ruling by nine judges adding right to privacy as a fundamental right in the Constitution.
While triple talaq among Sunni Muslims was declared as against the basis tenets of the Holy Quran and the Shariat, the top court which ruled that right to privacy was protected as an intrinsic part of right to life and personal liberty under Article 21, grappled throughout the year with yet another sensitive issue of Aaadhar having bearing on the privacy.
Though a five-judge constitution bench will examine if Aaadhar scheme violated privacy, it has been made clear that government notifications making national biometric identifier mandatory for various services and welfare schemes would not be enforced by extending the deadline to March 31, 2018.
Notwithstanding all these matters, the year would go into the annals of history as for the first time the apex court’s seven senior-most judges took upon themselves the task of fixing rogue elements inside the judiciary by holding sitting Calcutta High Court judge C S Karnan guilty of contempt and sending him to jail for six months for levelling allegations against serving and retired judges.
Justice Karnan had gone to the extreme of staying his own transfer from Madras High Court to Calcutta High Court.
Even before the judiciary could overcome from the Karnan episode, internal squabble among the judges of the apex court surfaced with the number two judge in the seniority, Justice J Chelameswar usurping the administrative function of Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra in allocating and setting up the bench when CJI court was seized of the constitutional matters.
The incident led to the constitution of five-judge bench which held as wrong the decision of Justice Chelameswar by holding that “chief justice is the master of the roster”. The issue drew lot of media attention as an activist lawyer and an NGO had raised the issue of bribes being taken in the name of judges for favourable orders in a medical college matter.
Keeping aside the two sordid saga concerning the judges, the apex court, which in the year 2017 saw three Chief Justices—T S Thakur, J S Khehar and Dipak Misra—at the helm, delivered a plethora of path-breaking verdicts including the terming as corrupt practice the use of caste and religion in elections, notwithstanding the over use of Hindutva and soft-Hindutva cards in bitterly-fought recent Gujarat polls.
Shedding the cloak of opaqueness, the most common criticism of judiciary, the apex court for the first time since its inception decided to allow video-recording of proceedings, besides ordering to upload on its website the decisions taken by its collegium on elevation, transfer and confirmation of High Courts and Supreme Court judges.
The vexatious 25-year-old Babri demolition case and the Ayodhya land dispute matter came up in the apex court which paved way for day-to-day trial of BJP veteran L K Advani and others and rejected the plea of Muslim bodies like Sunni Wakf Board to hear the title dispute post 2019 general elections.
The Ayodhya matter would also be remembered as the BJP utilised the statement of senior Congress leader Kapil Sibal in Gujarat polls that the issue be not heard till next general election to the hilt.
Cracking the whip on rising pollution, the apex court termed health of citizens as “far, far more important than the commercial interests of the manufacturers” and banned sale of vehicles, which are not BS-IV compliant, from April 1.
The bitterly-fought Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh polls saw for the first time use of Voter-verified paper audit trail (VVPAT) system at the instance of the top court which later thwarted the last-ditch attempt of Congress party seeking counting of 20 per cent paper trail in booth per constituency.
The fate of tainted politicians—V K Sasikala and Lalu Prasad—was also sealed by the apex court.
While Sasikala is cooling her heels in a Bengaluru jail after being sentenced to four years in a disproportionate assets case, RJD strongman Lalu Prasad was made to face trial in fodder scam cases by the top court.
Lalu Prasad, at the fag end of 2017, was convicted in a fodder scam case by a Ranchi court for fraudulent withdrawal of Rs 89.27 lakh from Deoghar treasury between 1991 and 1994 and would be sentenced on January 3.
The top court carried forward its intense scrutiny, which had begun in 2016, and started the year by removing BCCI top brass including its president Anurag Thakur for obstructing court-mandated structural reforms in the cash-rich sports body and went ahead by appointing ex-CAG as one of the administrators. Thakur had to later tender unconditional apology in the Supreme Court.
It also asked a Parsi trust to break age-old traditions and allow a Parsi woman and her sisters, who married outside the community, to visit ‘Tower of Silence’ and attend prayers in the event of the death of their parents.