Did Rijiju’s run-ins with judiciary led to his exit from law ministry?

Rijiju however has dismissed suggestions that he was moved from the Law Ministry to relatively low-key Ministry of Earth Sciences because his outspokenness had not gone down well with party brass. He, instead, attributed the shuffle to PM Modi’s vision. A report by Mudit Mathur

Union Minister Kiren Rijiju was unceremoniously shunted out from Law and Justice Ministry as a firefighting measure amid ongoing tug of war of supremacy between the executive and the  judiciary. The charge he held earlier has now been assumed by Arjun Ram Meghwal, Minister of State who comes from the Dalit community of Rajasthan.

The sudden change in belligerent temper of Modi government became evident after spectacular defeat of BJP in Karnataka assembly elections and political setback from apex court over series of contentious issues including unilateral appointment of election commissioners of its choice, stringent remarks over the brazen toppling of Shiv Sena government in Maharashtra, faceoff over losing its intruded rights to transfer and posting of IAS officers in National Capital Region against the federal structure of democratic governance.

In his farewell tweet, Kiren Rijiju summed up his stint as, “It has been a privilege and an honour to serve as Union Minister of Law & Justice under the guidance of Hon’ble PM Shri @narendramodiji.” “I look forward to fulfilling the vision of Hon’ble PM Sh @narendramodi ji in the Earth Sciences Ministry with the same zeal and vigour I have imbibed as a humble karyakarta of @BJP4India.” Thus, he made it clear that he followed his master’s guidance and will continue fulfilling his vision with the same zeal and vigour.

The nation witnessed over indulgence of the Modi government in running spat with the Supreme Court, through trusted frontier Kiren Rijiju, former Union law minister. His unbridled utterances outraged people not only in judiciary and legal fraternity but in the bureaucracy and civil society at large over the free speech and expression including dissenting views and criticism of the government which allegedly was sought to be branded as “unpatriotic” or “anti-India” constitutionally.
In 2022, Kiren Rijiju had called the collegium system, where sitting judges appoint new judges to constitutional courts, “opaque” and “alien to our Constitution”. “I am not critical about the judiciary or the judges, but I state a fact which is the reflection of the thinking of the common people of India… The Collegium system is opaque and is not accountable. Judges and lawyers too believe this,” he had said last November.

He had further implied that the higher judicial appointments were made based on personal associations, asserting that “the fittest” should be appointed and not those known to the collegium. The Supreme Court bench hearing a contempt petition over deliberate delay in appointment of judges after apex court collegium reiterated its recommendations in many cases expressed its displeasure over his utterances.
While participating in a conclave of leading media house on March 18 this year, Rijiju said, “It is a few of the retired judges, few – maybe three or four – few of those activists, part of that anti-India gang. These people are trying to make the Indian judiciary play the role of the opposition party. Some people even go to court and say that and please rein in the government, please change the policy of the government.”
When the moderator asked Rijiju if he was alleging that a senior MP of being part of the “tukde tukde gang” he bobbed his head in agreement. He said the government had insights about foreign funding enabling a “calibrated attack” on India, from outside and within. Replying to what measures the government has taken against the “tukde tukde gang”, Rijiju said, “Actions will be taken, actions are being taken as per law. The agencies will take action as per the provisions of the law. Nobody will escape. Don’t worry, nobody will escape. Those who have worked against the country will have to pay a price for that.”

While condemning hectoring and bullying remarks in unambiguous terms, more than 300 lawyers from across the country on March 29, wrote an open letter, demanding Union law minister Kiren Rijiju to withdraw his comment that a few retired judges are “part of an anti-India gang” which are unbecoming of the high office held by the minister.

“The allegations of anti-nationalism against people who have dedicated their lives to upholding the rule of law, and the naked threat of reprisals against them, marks a new low in the public discourse of our great nation,” the letter said. “By bracketing the critics, that too without naming them, as an ‘anti-India gang’, the minister has transgressed all limits of constitutional propriety by claiming that the members of this ‘anti-India gang’ wanted to “make the judiciary play the role of the opposition,” it added.

The letter further said: He pointedly threatened these retired Supreme Court judges that “no one will escape” and “those who work against the country will pay the price.” “By threatening retired judges, the law minister is clearly sending a message to every citizen, that no voice of dissent will be spared.”

Deprecating the unwarranted attack launched against retired judges of the Supreme Court of India by Union Law Minister Kiren Rijiju, lawyers practicing in diverse courts around the nation observed, “We may remind the minister that criticism of the government is neither against the nation, nor unpatriotic, nor ‘anti-India’. He must remember that the government of the day is not the nation, and the nation is not the government,” the letter emphasised.

“We are compelled to remind Shri Rijiju that as a Member of Parliament, he is sworn to uphold and bear true faith and allegiance to the Constitution of India, and as Minister of Law and Justice, it is his duty to protect the judicial system, the judiciary and the judges, both past and present. It is not part of his duty to single out some retired judges with whose opinion he might disagree, and to issue public threats of action by law enforcement agencies against them,” the lawyers asserted.

An association of lawyers in Mumbai has approached the Supreme Court challenging the Bombay high court’s dismissal of its petition seeking action against vice president Jagdeep Dhankhar and Union law minister Kiren Rijiju for their remarks on judiciary and the collegium system for appointment of judges.

While it is unclear which statements the petition is referring to, Rijiju has repeatedly criticised the collegium system. Dhankhar, meanwhile, has questioned the landmark Kesavananda Bharati (1973) verdict, which established the basic structure doctrine.

The Bombay Lawyers Association, in their special leave petition before the top court, argued that the duo has “disqualified themselves” from holding constitutional posts by showing a “lack of faith” in the constitution and attacking its institution, i.e., the Supreme Court, “and showing scant regard for the law laid down by it”.

A group of former civil servants on March 30 wrote an open letter in response to the comments made by Union law minister Kiren Rijiju, saying that he is “confusing the government with the country, construing criticism of the government as disloyalty to the country”.

“You seem to believe that if a person disagrees with the views of the government, that is enough to permanently label him or her as “anti-national”. Using that label, the government then initiates all manner of punitive action, and attempts to suppress dissent of any kind,” the letter signed by 90 former civil servants, who are part of the Constitutional Conduct Group, said.

After assuming charge as Earth Sciences Minister, Senior BJP leader Kiren Rijiju dismissed suggestions that he was removed as minister of law and justice due to some wrongdoing. “Don’t ask questions related to the previous ministry as they are no longer relevant,” Rijiju said to queries of media persons whether he was shunted out for his frequent run-ins with the judiciary?

“Where is the wrongdoing? (Galti thodi hua hai?)  Do you feel this has happened because of some wrongdoing,” Rijiju countered to questions on whether his sudden departure from the law ministry was due to some wrongdoing.

“These changes and assigning different responsibilities are the way a government functions. It is the prerogative of the prime minister to assign responsibilities as per his thinking. Why do you feel that something is amiss,” he further added.

Rijiju, a three-term Lok Sabha member from Arunachal Pradesh, has served in the Modi government as Minister of State for Home, Minister of State for Minority Affairs, and Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Youth Affairs and Sports before being elevated to the Cabinet rank as Law Minister in 2021.