The judiciary, the Supreme Court in particular, had long enjoyed the reputation of being the only national institution that had resisted the rot in public life. Now it too may be tottering. The virtual revolt against the Chief Justice of India by four of the most senior judges ~ including the man widely tipped to be elevated as the next top judicial officer if convention is followed ~ would have triggered a tsunami of dismay had it been limited to administrative affairs. Truly devastating is the suggestion that the administration of justice is impacted by the manner in which work is allocated.

What was said at Friday’s epochal press conference and written by the judges to the Chief Justice some weeks ago reveals the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Four of the five most senior judges of the country have said there is rot within the system, in a sense confirmed what had been alleged in the past by a former Law minister and several others. Their views deserve consideration, if only because they more than anyone else would have been aware of the import of their unprecedented action which if undertaken by anyone other than them would have invited a charge of contempt. They have staked the prestige of the Apex court and their own professional reputations as jurists of the highest order. It must therefore be accepted, without attributing any motives to them, that the provocation must have been grave.

But while there appears to be reason to sympathise with the dissenters led by Justice J Chelameshwar, they would have enhanced their “case” of upholding judicial independence and propriety had they been specific and spelt out charges that CJI Dipak Mishra would be required to answer. Having taken the unprecedented step of calling a press conference and releasing their missive to the CJI, the judges ought to have gone the distance ~ for surely they would have realised the damage done by their limited action that hinted at but did not reveal the workings of the court’s administration which caused them such dismay. At the same time, it must be appreciated that the substance of their complaint assails not just the Chief Justice, but other judges of the apex Court, indeed the institution itself.

To preserve reputations of their brother judges too, the four should have opted for full disclosure. Addressing the malaise superficially, or limiting it to a confrontation between the CJI and his four brother judges, will not provide a solution. A clean-up calls for the surgery of utter transparency and not a damning by innuendo. This is a moment for catharsis and it devolves on all judges of the apex Court to put their heads together to restore the credibility of the judiciary. Senior members of the Bar must assist this endeavour without regard to their political affiliations.

Comparing the current crisis with what had shaken the court during the infamous Emergency is inaccurate ~ then the assault had been government-initiated, this time around it appears largely self-inflicted. Is there a way out? Surely there must be if the sagacity and sobriety that are believed to mark the conduct of the apex court come to the fore. At stake is justice as democratic India knows it, indeed at stake is democracy itself.