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Obiter Dicta, And When Judges Jest

Obiter Dicta, And When Judges Jest

“We wonder if there are any descendants of the Lord Rama in Ayodhya,” his Lordship smiles from the Bench of the Supreme Court currently adjudicating the seemingly insolvable riddle of who owns the birthplace of the god.

And lo and behold, the answer came not from Ayodhya but from the bloodlines of the princelings of the former state of Jaipur. I am, quoth of the young woman who would be a princess if Indira Gandhi had not consigned to the dustbin of history all these royal houses – seven hundred or so of them in divided India, some large such as Kashmir and Hyderabad, and others the size of a postage stamp. Nonetheless, the young lady has had her moment of media fame. It does not matter that her late grandfather was an adopted son.

Each one of us can, of course, claim to be a child of the Supreme Being, who made us, and made us woman and man, made us all equal in our inheritance, not prince and pauper, and gave us alienable rights including the pursuit of happiness in the world he had created for us. For those who are evolutionists and not creationists, do not believe in god, mono or polytheist, we all evolve from the Mother whose skull was found in the Rift Valley, Africa, from where we spread all the way to India and Sri Lanka and the rest of the globe.

This is not about Kashmir and Hyderabad, Junagarh and Baltistan in the context of the demolition of Article 370 and its paraphernalia, though the verb demolition does link it with the smashing down of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, the consequent bloodshed and the court cases that now find their maturity in the Supreme Court and the judges making all those remarks.

These remarks, Obiter Dicta, do not have the force of law, which the final orders alone merit. But they do have the power of a large stone thrown into a still pond. They cause ripples which reach far and wide, and they cause much speculation as to why the learned and honourable Justice, sometimes no less than the chief justice, may be trying to signal on his line of judicial thinking.

It all depends on the persona of the judge, his erudition, his scholarship in the classics, Oriental or Occidental, his depth in theology and his early introduction to the fine and performing arts. Obiter dicta can be incisive, probing and trying to elicit hidden layers of the truth in a case. It can be a put-downer, quietly silencing an uppity senior counsel trying to throw his weight about, as much as it can be a pat on the back, encouraging a younger lawyer to do better. But at all times, these words from the Bench are not meant to be empty.

A few days earlier, the same bench had wondered if there was any law suit in the world with respect to the birthplace of Jesus of Nazareth - or Emmanuel – in Bethlehem. The senior counsels in the case have told the court they will try finding out. Christians who go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Lands have mixed reactions when they see the Silver Star that marks the niche dug in a rock in a place where shepherds may well have kept their sheep safe. A cathedral is now built covering the tiny landscape. 

Some are underwhelmed. They were perhaps expecting a preserved diorama as they see in Christmas cards come December. Most are overcome with a great sense of spiritual emotion. In this tiny palace was born the Saviour. The eyes of faith. For the record of religious tourism, there are two graves of Jesus in Jerusalem. One is in the Holy Sepulchre, the official one. The other is in the Garden and is called The Grave In the Garden. The tourist guide reminds you that both graves are empty. They have to be.  That is an article of Faith.

There is a grave of Jesus claimed in Kashmir where a school of thought, mostly taunting Believers, say Jesus lived, learned from the Indian sages, and died and was buried. Mercifully, that grave too is empty. If it were not, it would have been subjected to a DNA test, and descendants searched across continents. Once I told a TV discussant dissecting a Dan Brown novel that I would share that DNA, if it was found, as children of god.

I hope millions, if not every one of us 1.30 billion India rise tell the court that we are descendants of the Lord Rama, as are NRIs and other. It can test our DNA.

I also hope senior judiciary chose their words well. I remember with pain the words of another chief justice who, when asked to order the government of the state of Odisha to repair  340 or so churches burnt in Kandhamal in the targeted violence of August-September 2008. He told Counsel, “Christians have money from abroad. They can repair their own churches.” Governments, of course spend trillions on religion, from pilgrimages to repairing religious places or subsidizing the training of clergy. But that is another matter.

That was of course in the matter of the Bajrang Dal activist and self-styled protector of cattle, Dara Singh, burning alive the Leprosy medical missionary, Graham Stuart Staines and his young sons Philip and Timothy in the night of 22 January 1999 as they slept in their jeep in a forest in Manoharpur in Orissa, as the state was then called.  Dara Singh was sentenced to death in the trial court. The High court upheld the conviction but reduced the sentence to a life term in prison. The Supreme Court agreed Dara Singh did not deserve death. The judge wrote, and I paraphrase, that Dara had murdered the three because the father was converting Tribals.

The Supreme Court was rationalizing, even justifying brutal murder of innocents, people thought. The community was outraged. They wrote to the Chief justice. The Supreme Court excised these words from the recorded Judgment. 

Even the Supreme Court, once in a rare while, can eat its words.

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(Published on 19th August 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 34)