Commentary | The slow fade of the protests taking aim at Nepal’s chief justice

The protests, which ran consistently for about two months, will have achieved little if they fail to bring the fundamental issues plaguing Nepal’s judiciary to the forefront.

Rhishav Sapkota

  • Read Time 3 min.

Kathmandu: Most familiar lawyers who’d be trodding the corridors of Supreme Court donning black jackets sounded the most ominous for the past month. Their statements about the supposedly sacrosanct and hallowed institution, that is the judiciary, pointed to a judicial apocalypse in the offing—all because of the maneuverings of the person who headed that “hallowed” institution, the Chief Justice Cholendra Shumsher Rana.

The situation, these lawyers felt, was so urgent that political divisions between the otherwise bickering black-jacket unions temporarily dissolved. The unions were on a war footing, behind shields, swords outside their sheaths, demanding that the chief justice step down—a hard bargain to ask, even by negotiators of the law.

On November 6, the officials of Nepal Bar Association (NBA) and senior advocates met Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba to “indirectly” demand the impeachment of Rana, citing 17 reasons. The protests also picked up on the widely-reported allegation that Rana had sought a seat in the Deuba-led government.

The Prime Minister’s stance was that the judiciary should resolve its disputes within itself. A former attorney general present in the room claimed that the PM’s stance on the issue was that the ideal resolution to the judicial fiasco would be the CJ’s resignation.

On November 14, the Nepal Bar Association wrote a letter addressing the judges in the Supreme Court to stop hearing any cases the Chief Justice had allocated, saying that the NBA had demands for the Chief Justice—that he needed to stop allocating cases to benches, needed to stop sitting on one to hear any case himself, and needed to ultimately resign. The reason behind this, the NBA mentioned, was that the CJ had misused his respectable position to diminish the “sanctity of the entire judiciary system”, and had “lost all trust”.

Was the lottery system, then, the elixir for what the Bar Association calls an “irreversible damage” to the judiciary? (Photo: RSS)

A remedy came two weeks later, when, on November 25, a 18-member bench in the apex court decided to incorporate the lottery system in allocating cases to particular benches by amending the existing legal provisions governing the court. The decision was a first of its kind in the seventy-year long history of the institution. Hearings on all kinds of cases  in the court resumed on December 1, and the agitating lawyers started representing their clients again, and the CJ retained his position.

If in case the resignation comes, will the new inhabitant of the hallowed seat in the “sacrosanct” institution and soldiers of the politically divided lawyers’ association rally to reform the Court?

Was the lottery system, then, the elixir for what the Bar Association calls an “irreversible damage” to the judiciary?

The members of the NBA are still protesting, albeit not with the fierceness that was apparent before the judges made this latest decision. The lawyers are still calling for the CJ’s resignation. The protest, it seems, has now reached an impasse, with the CJ adamant in retaining his position. Moreover, the protests will have achieved little if it fails to bring the pertinent fundamental issues plaguing the courts of the country to the forefront.

On the ides of March, dictator of the Roman Republic Julius Caesar was assassinated by Roman senators, jealous of the dictator’s fame. The Republic fell, civil wars ensued, and the Roman Empire rose from the ashes. The reader is at liberty here to gauge the fame (and virtue) of the inhabitant at the “hallowed” seat above but where the analogy is meant to be suited is in the prognosis if the resignation comes.

It is worth repeating that the allegations against CJ are the most pointed in the history of Nepal’s judiciary. It is not just a question of whether the CJ will resign or not but one about upholding rule of law, the principle of separation of powers, and maintaining people’s eroding faith in the institution. It will be a shame if the allegations are not investigated.

It begs asking, if in case the resignation comes, will the new inhabitant of the hallowed seat in the “sacrosanct” institution and soldiers of the politically divided lawyers’ association rally to reform the Court? Or will the bickering continue, in old-new forms, under old-new slogans, while drowning in amnesia about the fragile fiction that helps the public imagine the Court as sacrosanct institution instead of an “ivory tower” of justice?

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