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DY Chandrachud, liberal judge who made history by consigning his father’s legacy to archives

During his career, the new Chief Justice of India has been part of several constitution benches & delivered landmark judgments in high-profile cases, like Ayodhya land title dispute.

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New Delhi: Whether he concurs or dissents, either way, his judgments evoke a keen interest. His verdicts are an assertion of constitutional principles — stressing on acceptance of diversity and inclusivity — and speak of him as a true liberal who is extremely sensitive and empathetic towards marginalised sections of society.

However, at the same time, he is equally conscious of maintaining judicial decorum and refrains from breaching the “lakshman rekha” (a strict boundary never to be crossed) when it comes to deciding on policy matters or development projects. Here he chooses to indulge in a deliberative process with the executive, nudging and not directing it to follow judicial orders.

This is how the 50th Chief Justice of India (CJI), Justice D.Y. Chandrachud, is defined by his college mates, law teachers, and bar as well as bench colleagues.

Sworn in Wednesday by President Droupadi Murmu, Chandrachud, who will turn 63 on 11 November, will have a two-year term in the CJI’s office. Not only will he have the longest tenure for a CJI in a while, he will also be the youngest one in office in the past 10 years.

Also Read: Chandrachud called for taking ‘woman’s point of view’ in court. Some Indians can’t digest it

Uphill task

Known for penning landmark judgments in many important cases, including the Ayodhya land title dispute and the right to privacy case, his tenure as the head of the Indian judiciary will be eagerly watched. While on the judicial side he has some high-profile cases to hear and decide, on the administrative end he faces an uphill task of filling up 18 vacancies set to arise during his term, and also bridge the wide gap between sanctioned and working strength of judges in High Courts.  

With Union Law Minister Kiren Rijiju’s outburst last week on the opaque collegium system, it would be interesting to witness how the incumbent CJI responds and whether he initiates measures to counter the criticism against the current system of appointment of judges.

Justice Chandrachud’s swearing-in is also a historic moment. It is for the first time that the Indian judiciary will see a son following in his father’s footsteps to occupy the highest seat. His father, Justice Y.V. Chandrachud, was the longest-serving CJI for seven years, between 1978 to 1985.

Graphic: Soham Sen | ThePrint
Graphic: Soham Sen | ThePrint


However, the son has, through his verdicts, displayed the “proverbial generation gap” between him and his father.

In 2017, Chandrachud, in the right to privacy case, or the K.S. Puttaswamy judgment, overruled his father’s “seriously flawed” verdict in the ADM Jabalpur case of 1976, infamously called the ‘Emergency verdict’.

The 1976 judgment, in which the senior Chandrachud had concurred, upheld the Emergency proclamation by the then Congress government led by Indira Gandhi, curtailing fundamental rights of Indian citizens assured under the Constitution.

D.Y. Chandrachud authored the majority opinion in the 2017 Puttaswamy case and went on to make poignant remarks on the ADM Jabalpur verdict. It read: “…when histories of nations are written and critiqued, there are judicial decisions at the forefront to liberty. Yet others have to be consigned to the archives, reflective of what was, but should never have been.”

A year later, in 2018, D.Y. Chandrachud, once again dissented from his father’s 33-year-old verdict on the constitutional validity of section 497 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), which declared adultery provision as unconstitutional.

His life

He may have grown to frame his own independent judicial opinions, unencumbered by senior Chandrachud’s views, but he inherited his love for Indian classical music from his father and mother.

Born in Pune on 11 November, 1959, the judge’s childhood was spent in a musical environment. His father was a trained classical singer, while his mother an All India Radio artist and a disciple of well-known Hindustani classical singer Kishori Amonkar.

Justice Chandrachud moved to Delhi at the age of 12 when his father assumed the CJI’s office, and ’13, Tughlaq Road’ became his home. He continues to reside in the same bungalow even now — even though he is eligible for a bigger accommodation in terms of his seniority — with his wife and two special daughters, whom the couple adopted while the judge was in Allahabad High Court.

An illustrious career

He graduated with honours in economics and mathematics from St Stephen’s College, New Delhi, in 1979, studied law at the Faculty of Law, Delhi University, in 1982 and then pursued his masters in law from Harvard University in 1983. Later, he also completed his doctorate in juridical sciences in 1986.

After his academic acquisitions, Chandrachud moved to Mumbai to commence his legal career. There he served as the Additional Solicitor General of India until he was appointed as a judge in March 2000. He was then moved to the Allahabad HC as its chief justice and finally, in March 2016, was elevated to the apex court.

Embracing technology

As a top court judge, he has shown remarkable jurisprudential acumen on a spectrum of legal issues, affecting one’s individual rights and liberties. 

His judicial decisions marked a transformative period in India’s judicial history, but HIS efforts as the head of the e-committee showed that he practised what he preached. “Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” he wrote in 2018 when he authored the majority verdict in the Swapnil Tripathi case that opened the doors for live-streaming of court hearings.

Though the Covid pandemic became a reason for courts across the country to resort to online hearings in March 2020, Chandrachud saw this moment as an opportunity to push for transparency in court hearings. With the top court still reluctant to make its proceedings public, the e-committee under this guidance framed live-streaming rules and circulated it to all the High Courts, giving them the discretion to adopt them.

Months later, six HCs embraced them and went live on their respective YouTube channels. Last month, finally, the top court too streamed proceedings of its constitution benches.

The e-committee is also working to develop an exclusive national platform to live telecast all court proceedings.

If on the administrative side, he heralded a changeover, on the judicial side the judge has proactively encouraged the use of technology. He hardly dissuades lawyers from still appearing through the online mode, even as physical hearings have begun. For him, online hearings have helped women tackle gendered demands, and allowed new mothers to argue from their homes instead of taking a back seat in professional life — an ethos he has constantly fortified in his judicial pronouncements.

Chandrachud has also convinced lawyers in the Aam Aadmi Party versus Delhi Lieutenant Governor case to do paperless hearings and offered the lawyers to get trained in case they were handicapped technologically.

The judge has set an example by embracing technology himself. Soon after Covid forced judges to hold online hearings from their residential offices, Chandrachud used this opportunity to sharpen his skills on how to use electronic gadgets and started typing out his own orders, particularly the brief ones.  

Though it first began to overcome the problem of staff shortage during the pandemic, for Justice Chandrachud it has now become a norm. His bench is one of the few that is paperless and the judge, even now, continues to type out short orders. He prefers to attend online conferences and seminars, unless his physical presence is required.

As his former colleague from the Supreme Court, Justice Deepak Gupta, said, there are high hopes and expectations from the incumbent CJI. And like him, the legal fraternity too strongly believes that some of their dreams may come true.

(Edited by Geethalakshmi Ramanathan) 

Also Read: NV Ramana: The Chief Justice of India who didn’t like shouting in court


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