In Ron Howard’s 2005 drama, Cinderella Man, there is a powerful scene—Joe Gould (played by Paul Giamatti), the manager of washed-up boxer Jim Braddock (Russell Crowe) is compelled to let the latter’s wife, Mae (Renée Zellweger), into his house.
In Ron Howard’s 2005 drama, Cinderella Man, there is a powerful scene—Joe Gould (played by Paul Giamatti), the manager of washed-up boxer Jim Braddock (Russell Crowe) is compelled to let the latter’s wife, Mae (Renée Zellweger), into his house. Having assumed that Gould has been living a lavish lifestyle, she is shocked to find an empty house with a modest table and two chairs, when invited inside for refreshments. Giamatti says, employing a boxing metaphor, that it ‘is important to keep your hands up’. He is obviously referring to the need to keep one’s guard up, but in the context of the film, it also means preserving an image and an exterior. This breakdown of a scene from the movie has a real-world analogy in the ongoing crisis of the Supreme Court (even though, the Attorney-General had us prematurely believe that the storm in the teacup has blown over, before saying it hasn’t).
To briefly recap the incidents of last week, a major controversy surfaced at the apex court when its four senior-most judges, after the Chief Justice, including the one in line (Justice Ranjan Gogoi) to be the next Chief Justice of India as per convention, came out publicly against major administrative anomalies in the Supreme Court. An immediate outcome from this public outburst has been a splintering of the Indian legal fraternity. Two distinct groups have formed—the first, vociferously favouring the actions of the four ‘rebel’ judges in exposing a long running rot, while the second is admonishing this action, including in an extreme instance, a retired judge reportedly supporting the impeachment of the rebel judges for pursuing ‘trade unionism’.
What is fascinating about the latter group of lawyers, judges, and other members of the fraternity, is the rather patronising and conceited tone and tenor they have adopted while abusing the cliché that goes ‘airing dirty linen in public’. This seems deceptively similar to what Gould said in Cinderella Man—the need to keep up an appearance in order to preserve the majesty and prestige of the Supreme Court specifically, and the Indian judiciary, more generally. However, often, the challenge in using clichés is that it is easy to pick one and turn it on its head, using it out of context. While Gould keeps up appearances in the movie, those who have watched the film would recall that he is in the process of restoring the status of his washed-out boxer client. In order to take such steps effectively, it serves both their interests in employing the aforementioned wisdom.
However, the case with the Supreme Court’s crisis, and people outraged by the ‘rebellion of judges’ is starkly different. Airing one’s dirty laundry in public certainly has the capacity for producing dire ramifications when legitimate steps are being taken to rectify an ill. Such misadventures can potentially backfire and derail such a remedial process. But when such cliches are employed simply to maintain the status quo and keep the public in the dark, it is abuse, protecting culpable individuals and continuing with the ills afflicting an institution.
Since the Emergency, the Indian higher judiciary (especially the court supreme) has been shrouded in an impermeable cloak. In the public imagination, it has been steadily built up as an incorruptible institution, far superior to those ranked its peers in the legislature and the executive. Even in the past, when many have sought to pierce the veil surrounding it and debunk the aura of incorruptibility, there have been strong rebukes against such efforts. Individuals attempting to impart greater transparency are almost always singled out as renegades and mavericks undermining the judiciary’s majesty and reputation. It is pertinent to pause here, and evaluate the situation—the reputation of the Supreme Court, or rather the judiciary as a whole, is often touted as a symbol inspiring faith and confidence of the common man.
However, the group of individuals disagreeing with the current actions of the Supreme Court (rebel) judges is seemingly forgetting the value of accountability. Over the past decade, echoes of a non-transparent Supreme Court have gained momentum, be it regarding judicial appointments, day-to-day administration, corruption allegations, or other grave concerns. The tactic consistently being employed is one of brushing things under the carpet, rather than addressing the elephant in the room. In such an environment, we must ask ourselves, is the action of the four judges truly undermining the judiciary’s reputation? Or does their drastic and unprecedented step arguably demonstrate their commitment to preserving and upholding the same? We must also confront this censorship temperament premised on a farcical rationale, with counter-proverbial wisdom, if necessary—the first step to resolution is acknowledging an ill, not concealing the same.