I have never witnessed a Chief Justice of India speaking his mind in quite the way that Ranjan Gogoi did last week. The occasion was the book launch of my friend and fellow journalist Mrinal Talukdar. A CJI launching a book is itself a rarity, but Justice Gogoi’s candour at the event was rarer.
He minced no words in defending the Supreme Court ordered National Register of Citizens (NRC) process, lambasting “arm-chair commentators” and social media, and then went on to hold forth on values such as the acceptance of diverse cultures and inclusiveness. Is there a clue hidden here to the upcoming Ayodhya verdict, I wondered.
On Saturday morning, when the much-anticipated verdict came, Gogoi wrote himself into the pages of history, bringing closure to a 134-year-old title dispute that has played a tumultuous role in Indian politics. He retires on November 17, when he will turn 65.
“Ranjan has his own mind. No one can influence him,” says Surendra Nath Sarma, a senior advocate of the Gauhati High Court, who started his legal career at the bar along with Gogoi in the late 1970s. “He has taken the decision purely on merit. Also remember, it is a unanimous judgment of all five judges (of the bench that heard the case). We all know how independent-minded judges like (Sharad Arvind) Bobde and (DY) Chandrachud are.”
Gogoi used to come to the high court on a cycle-rickshaw, and Sharma, who had a Yezdi motorcycle then, used to occasionally give him a lift. Later, Gogoi bought a Vespa scooter and then a Maruti 800, Sharma recalls.
In 2001, Gogoi became a permanent judge of the Gauhati High Court. He was elevated as Chief Justice of Punjab and Haryana High Court in 2011. The following year, he became a judge in the Supreme Court.
An alumnus of Don Bosco School in Dibrugarh, Assam, and St Stephen’s College, Delhi, Gogoi received his law degree from the University of Delhi before returning to his home state to practice law. When he was still a junior advocate, his father, Congress leader Kesab Chandra Gogoi, became the chief minister of Assam for a brief period in 1982.
In the late 1980s, young Gogoi suffered from severe pancreatitis and was shifted to Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences for treatment.
One oft-told anecdote about Gogoi, according to two former colleagues of his, goes as follows: Abdul Muhib Mazumdar, who would become Assam’s law minister, once asked the senior Gogoi when his son would join politics. The father retorted: “My son will never join politics. Maybe, one day, he will become the Chief Justice of India.”
Benudhar Das, a senior advocate of the Gauhati High Court and Gogoi’s contemporary, says: “This is not a random anecdote. It has been documented in a recent publication.”
The remark proved prophetic. Gogoi was appointed CJI on October 18, 2018. As the Supreme Court judge and then its chief justice, he was involved with a number of important cases the most prominent being the National Register of Citizens process in Assam, meant to identify illegal immigrants.
The most challenging moment in Gogoi’s career came when a former Supreme Court staffer levelled sexual harassment allegations against him. She claimed the judge harassed her while she served as a member of his staff. An internal three-judge committee dismissed the allegations, finding they had ‘no substance”. He also courted controversy when he joined a group of three other judges last year to hold an unprecedented press conference protesting the court’s functioning and allocation of cases under the then CJI Dipak Misra.
Advocate Das, who says he had interacted with Gogoi closely during his early years in Guwahati, says the CJI is not only hardworking but highly meticulous. “He does not keep things pending,” he adds.
Sarma calls him a doer, a trait that has seen him take to the domain of the executive. His recent order transferring NRC coordinator and Indian Administrative Service officer Prateek Hajela from Assam to Madhya Pradesh is one such instance. This was perhaps done to protect Hajela from the machinations of local politicians opposed to the NRC list produced under his supervision.
Such transfers are usually done by the Department of Personnel and Training, under the central government.
The CJI’s holding of a law-and-order review meeting with Uttar Pradesh chief secretary and police chief on Friday was also another unusual measure.
“If he decides to do something, he will do it,” Sharma says, adding that Gogoi has an uncanny ability to call a spade a spade. “If he says ‘yes’ to something, it will be ‘yes’ for you, me and everybody. In politics, he would have been a misfit,” Sarma adds.
Date of birth: November 18, 1954
Educational qualification: BA in history from St Stephen’s, Delhi; LLB from Delhi University.
1978: Joined bar in Gauhati High Court
2001: Appointed as permanent judge in Gauhati High Court
2010: Becomes judge in Punjab and Haryana High Court
2011: Appointed Chief Justice of Punjab and Haryana High Court
2012: Elevated as judge of Supreme Court of India
2018: Appointed Chief Justice of India