We are taught, in our schools, that the citizens of India stand equal before law – and that whether rich or poor, all can get justice from the judiciary. Decades of practical experience of the toiling people –from peasants fighting against usury and dispossession from their meagre holdings to workers trying to their right to unionise and fight collectively for protection of hard-won rights – have however strengthened the impression that the courts typically protect the interests of the rich and powerful. And what have the working people learnt from the functioning of the highest Court of the land during the past two months when the country was locked down in the wake of the pandemic?

Many days before an official lockdown in the wake of the Covid 19 pandemic was announced by the Government of India, the office of the Chief Justice announced that only a few benches would function – so the number of cases that could be heard would be limited further, adding even more to the notorious backlog of cases and delays that ordinary litigants face. The Court started using video-conferencing technology to hear cases – which only connect lawyers and litigants to judges and court staff. Thus, the openness of hearings has been completely done away with. But that is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

The fact that the functioning of the Court has been severely limited means that only cases that are considered ‘urgent’ are being heard during the lockdown. But who decides what is ‘urgent’? It may be recalled that in January 2018, four senior judges of the supreme Court had organised an unprecedented Press conference about the problems in the functioning of the court and the then Chief Justice. They issued a statement, which said, among other things “There have been instances where cases having far reaching consequences for the nation and the institution have been assigned by the chief justices of this court selectively to the benches ‘of their preference’ without any rational basis for such assignment. This must be guarded against at all costs”. If anything, the way cases are being even considered for listing in the recent past so that they can be at least heard by the benches available has become even more opaque!

And what has been the experience of a case concerning the toiling people that does get eventually listed? In instance after instance, the court has accepted without demur whatever the Union Government has put on affidavit and not carried out its duty of holding the government to account through powers of judicial review. On the issue of the rights of stranded migrant labour, the increased spending on MNREGA ( the employment guarantee scheme), or the provision of wages to workers during the lockdown, the Court has not only fully accepted whatever the union Government has claimed, it has also shown that it has no interest in upholding the rights of workers.

This is at a time when millions of workers have lost their jobs and have nowhere to go but their villages back home – maybe hundreds and thousands of kilometres away, a time when tens of thousands of workers are trudging to their villages on foot all across the country. They are braving hunger, thirst lack of medical care and even risking their very lives to accidents while doing so. The Central and State Governments have only given lip service to their needs and politicians of the Congress and BJP merely shed crocodile tears at their plight. The highest court of the land could have been expected to come to their rescue and defend their rights to life, right to livelihood and their right to dignity at one of the most trying times that our country has seen – only if one believed in miracles.

Since the Union Government claimed that stranded workers are being provided with food (itself a lie since many of them were starving!) the Court asked why the workers needed to be paid their wages if they were getting food! In response to a plea asking the Union Government to provide food and water to workers trudging back to their home villages in the wake of the loss of their livelihoods, the Court said it would not do so. Thus, nothing short of adding insult to injury for the hapless workers.

The Union and State Governments are falling head over heels to allow the rich capitalists to exploit the labour of the working people even more viciously. Several states like UP, Rajasthan, and others have suspended the operation of many or even most of the laws protecting the workers – rights that the working class of India and the world have won through decades of struggle. They wish to make 12 hour working day as the new norm, seek to remove the right of the workers to unionise and much worse. Going by recent events and trends, we can have no illusions that workers are going to get justice from the courts; especially when the highest Court of the land has set such a terrible example.

Recent events strengthen the growing realisation among the working people that neither the government nor the courts protect their interests. They seek to serve the interests of the very rich in our country – so that they can exploit the workers and peasants of our country and become even richer. So, what can the working people of India do?

It should be truly clear to most working people that we need to take control over our own lives and not leave it in the hands of self-serving politicians and parties of the very rich. We must take political power out of the hands of the exclusive elite where it rests now, and vest it in the hands of the people, where it rightfully belongs. We need to work for the establishment of a society where the people would be guaranteed their rights. We need to create a system where every arm of the State – legislature, executive and judiciary – would carry out its duty of ensuring prosperity and protection for all. Only in such a system can the judiciary really uphold the rights of the working people and ensure that justice is truly meted out to one and all.

Dr Venkatesh Sundaram

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