India’s new champion of civic equality

After a rise in Hindu nationalism and suppression of minority rights, a new Supreme Court justice may ensure all individuals are protected by the constitution.

The Indian Supreme Court building in New Delhi

India will soon become the world’s most populous country, yet it is already one of its most diverse – by religion, ethnicity, and caste. Civic equality may be enshrined in the constitution, but that has not stopped Prime Minister Narendra Modi from pushing a kind of Hindu nationalism over eight years that has led to widespread discrimination, which includes women and civil society.

Now, however, the Supreme Court has appointed a new chief justice – a champion of equality for minorities – who might correct India’s direction. For one, the new top jurist welcomes criticism.

“Dissent is the safety valve of democracy,” Justice Dhananjaya Yeshwant Chandrachud, who had been an associate justice, said in a 2020 speech. “The silencing of dissent and the generation of fear in the minds of people go beyond the violation of personal liberty and a commitment to constitutional values. It strikes at the heart of a dialogue-based democratic society which accords to every individual equal respect and consideration.”

In India, chief justices are elevated by peers rather than political appointment. Justice Chandrachud is young enough that his tenure will not be curtailed by mandatory retirement (at the age of 65) before Mr. Modi’s current term expires in 2024. The son of a former chief justice, he holds two law degrees from Harvard University. His past decisions and dissents mark a sharp divergence from Mr. Modi’s attempts to rein in or redefine rights pertaining to citizenship, gender, and group identity.

“The craftsmanship of a judge,” he told students at the National Law University in Delhi last month, requires “not overreaching the actual problem you are deciding, but yet laying the groundwork for a much broader recognition of rights.”

During his tenure as an associate justice on the high court, he argued ardently against laws that violate personal privacy, upholding the universal basis for individual dignity. “Every judge in the country has an immense power to do good and with it comes a duty to serve society with compassion,” he said last month. “Our institutions are vital to preserving the rule of law.” The coming court cases in India may help define the country’s identity for decades.

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