Justice KM Joseph criticises government, media in national conference address; calls for reform

He calls for comprehensive reforms across government, media, and judiciary to uphold the Constitution and democratic values.

BySouth First Desk

Published May 30, 2024 | 5:14 PMUpdatedMay 30, 2024 | 8:07 PM

Justice KM Joseph

Retired Supreme Court Judge Justice KM Joseph delivered a compelling address on Thursday, 30 May, questioning the roles of the government, the media, the Governors, and even the judiciary in upholding the Constitution.

He delivered a lecture on “The Constitution in a Changing India” organised by the Student Union 2023-24, GLCE Law Journal, and the Bhagat Singh Study Circle of Government Law College in Ernakulam, Kerala.

He addressed a range of pressing issues affecting the Indian Constitution. Justice Joseph touched upon critical challenges India faces, its economy, political humility, secularism, media integrity, and the judiciary.

He called for comprehensive reforms across government, media, and judiciary to uphold the Constitution and democratic values.

Constitutional amendments

Justice Joseph expressed concerns over the excessive number of constitutional amendments in India. They indicate the imperfections within institutional frameworks, suggesting that a stable constitution should not require frequent changes.

“We’ve had 108 amendments over the span of 75 years that have led to more provisions. We are all imperfect, so the institutions we make will also be imperfect. These amendments are not to belittle the contribution made by members of Constituent Assembly,” he said, as quoted by Live Law.

He remarked that one of the qualities of a good law is its durability, emphasising the need for stability in legal provisions.

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Economic justice

Highlighting economic disparities, Justice Joseph pointed out that the bottom half of the Indian population takes home only 15 percent of the national income, with an average yearly income of ₹71,000.

He argued that despite changes in economic policies, justice has not improved for the lower half of society.

Justice Joseph questioned the state’s effectiveness in securing reasonable livelihoods as mandated by Article 39A of the Constitution, citing the exodus of talent due to unfavourable business environments.

“People are fleeing our shores. Why is this happening? Because we are not providing them a conducive atmosphere to start a business and survive here,” he said, as quoted by LiveLaw.

Political humility and corruption

Justice Joseph called for greater responsibility and humility among public servants, condemning corruption as incompatible with India’s aspirations of becoming a 21st-century superpower. He defended the right to criticise as a natural right, essential for a functioning democracy.

“My right to be critical of my country is a natural right that I will not surrender under the social contract theory merely because others may not like me and I’m in the minority,” he asserted.

Role of Governors

Justice Joseph criticised Governors’ political meddling, insisting that their role should be confined strictly to legal boundaries. He said that every Governor should be taught the fundamentals laid down in the Shamsher Singh case regarding the true role of the Governor.

He also stated that Governors should not act as agents of the union government but maintain a neutral stand.

“Governor cannot intermeddle in politics. He cannot be an agent of the Central Government. He should have a neutral stand,” he said.

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Whither secularism, weak Election Commission

Justice Joseph emphasised the importance of secularism, as enshrined in the 42nd Amendment and upheld in the St Xavier case, which held that all religions would be treated equally.

“The courts have held that the political parties must be secular. You cannot have a defacto reversion of state religion,” he held.

Justice Joseph criticised the Supreme Court’s Hindutva judgment for not aligning with the Constitution’s secular ethos, arguing that the interpretation was inconsistent with the principles laid down by figures like Savarkar and the RSS.

Another important aspect is Section 123(3) of the Representation of the People Act, which prohibits candidates from asking for votes in the name of religion. This has been part of many debates.

He called for the Election Commission of India (ECI) to take stronger action against politicians, whoever they are, who exploit religious identities for votes, stressing that timely intervention is crucial to upholding the Constitution.

“Anything that they do, which creates a religious identity and fetch them votes, is forbidden, and ECI must come down heavily, whoever it is, however high he may be,” he said.

Justice Joseph warned that failure to act promptly undermines democratic principles and the work of the founding fathers.

Blasts media role

Justice Joseph lambasted the media for prioritising business interests over journalistic integrity, stating they subordinate their journalistic duty to the urge to earn more money.

He criticised the media’s subservience to government influences, compromising their duty to inform the public accurately.

When business houses control media houses, they tend to follow the dictates of their editors, ultimately tracing the line of control to management.

“The government of the day holds significant power. If the government controls their business fate, the media may fall in line and compromise their freedom and duty,” Justice Joseph said.

In 1995, the Supreme Court held that the press does not have an independent fundamental right and that its right is part of Article 19(1)(a). It held that the freedom of the press includes the right to inform and educate.

There is also the right of the reader to be informed. “This is important because the right to know is a fundamental right. If you don’t know, how will you participate in democracy?” he asked.

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Fake news

Justice Joseph also condemned the proliferation of fake news, which distorts public perception and impacts the electoral system. He urged the media to reform and fulfil its role as a watchdog for democracy.

“You can’t take part unless the stream of information coming from media houses is pure, i.e., it’s unbiased and not done with an agenda to help anyone or to destroy another,” Justice Joseph said.

“Unfortunately, very large sections of the media are doing just that. This has a gross impact on the workings of the Constitution as it impacts the electoral system. Who will question the people governing us if the media does not take up this role? “he asked.

“It is not the role of the media to be the Opposition. But there are issues which matter to the common man, which the media has to take up as part of its duty,” he said.

Manipur and media silence

Expressing disappointment over the media’s selective coverage, Justice Joseph pointed out that positive changes might have occurred if the media had uniformly highlighted issues like those in Manipur.

“I’m shocked when I watch some of the media, but I still watch it, hoping they’ll reform one day. I want a healthy and resilient media,” Justice Joseph said.

“Sometimes, an anchor will mute some of the speakers who raise questions, violating the speakers’ and the public’s rights because they might have some agenda. For some others, they’re all ears,” he said.

He advocated for a resilient and unbiased media that addresses significant issues impacting the common man.

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One Nation One Election vs defection

“The One Nation, One Election, touted by the party in power, has a background. The first election was held in 1952, 1957, 1962, and 1967. In all these elections, we had one nation, one election. It’s not a new idea,” Justice Joseph said.

“If you introduce this, we will have the horrific practice of defection happening in our country. The practice of elected representatives having no morality, being bought like chattels, and the kind of money that will change hands…,” he said.

“If such a thing happens in a state after one nation, one election, they’ll have to wait for five years. They’ll have President’s rule. We don’t want that,” He said.

Delimitation concerns of south India

Addressing the impending delimitation exercise, Justice Joseph expressed concerns for states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which may lose constituencies to states with higher population growth like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

“Article 81 talks about proportional representation. In 1973, holding a consensus and deciding the boundary was put off for 25 years. Vajpayee also put it off for 25 years and that period is ending in 2026,” he said.

He emphasised the need for proportional representation to maintain fair political representation.

He said these states may lose constituencies while states with unchecked population growth, like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, could gain more representation.

Reforming  judiciary

Justice Joseph proposed a series of reforms for the judiciary to enhance efficiency and accountability. Firstly, he advocated for the establishment of a permanent constitution bench.

With the current roster of 34 judges, Justice Joseph argued that having a dedicated bench would expedite constitutional matters, ensuring hearings within six months to prevent them from languishing in limbo, which could foster cynicism and distrust.

Secondly, he delved into the functioning of the collegium system, of which he was once a part.

Justice Joseph highlighted the process where the Supreme Court proposes appointments, leaving the government to decide on their acceptance.

He lamented instances where proposals remained unaddressed indefinitely, citing the example of a colleague from Uttarakhand whom he believed deserved recognition but did not get it.

Justice Joseph emphasised the need for the judiciary to tighten its grip and take proactive measures, even resorting to suo moto proceedings in cases of contempt, if necessary, to ensure swift resolution and uphold the integrity of the legal system.

(Edited by Shauqueen Mizaj)