Madras HC Sets Bad Precedent On VIP Culture By Demanding Separate Lane For Judges At Toll Nakas

Madras HC Sets Bad Precedent On VIP Culture By Demanding Separate Lane For Judges At Toll Nakas A toll plaza on the Delhi-Faridabad highway. (Arijit Sen/Hindustan Times)
Snapshot
  • Judges cannot claim exemptions from the ordinary law whenever it suits them, and this includes payment of tolls at highways.

    The Madras High Court is setting the wrong precedent by demanding special lanes for judges at toll nakas.

Try as one might, the demand for VIP treatment never seems to ebb in status-conscious India.

The latest to join the queue for special status are Madras High Court judges, who have demanded a special lane for themselves and other VIPs at highway toll booths. A two-judge bench comprising justices Huluvadi Ramesh and M V Muralidharan has threatened the relevant authorities with contempt of court if they are not given separate lanes.

Their lordships were apparently incensed at having to wait in long queues at toll plazas, and forced to produce identity documents to prove they were judges, making them mere mortals using these highways. The bench has asked toll operators and the National Highways Authority of India (NHAI) to take “serious note” of the need to “provide separate lanes for vehicles of VIPs, including sitting judges.” It warned that “any violation of the order by NHAI will be viewed seriously.”

The order speaks volumes for the sense of entitlement judges feel about not being put in the same lane as ordinary citizens. Sadly, this attitude will do nothing to reign in the VIP culture that is the bane of our democratic republic.

It was not a very long time ago that the Supreme Court tried to roll back VIP culture. A bench headed by Justice R M Lodha (since retired) railed against the use of red beacons by vehicles of “high dignitaries”. The bench asked: “from where did we get this culture? Every office holder in a republic is supposed to serve the people. Then how some are high dignitaries and constitutional functionaries? Such usages are an anathema to the notion of a republic. Is it necessary to use expressions like high and low?”

But, clearly, the message is not getting through even to the judiciary, leave alone political and bureaucratic bigwigs. One can hardly blame other VIPs from developing a sense of entitlement in public spaces when judges are going to demand special lanes at toll plazas, among other things.

To be sure, one wonders why high court judges even need to be exempted from toll payments, when the payments can well be reimbursed by the state whenever they travel on official work. Moreover, if the idea is to give them a free pass, why can’t all high court judges be given a permanent Fastag, where all payments are done centrally, and no individual judge is forced to prove he is a judge by flashing some form of identity document.

Also, one wonders whether by demanding a special lane the judges will not be inconveniencing others. Given the limited width of most highways, keeping separate lanes for VIPs and judges means either these lanes will be underused, or other cars will anyway use them when they are free, creating queues when their lordships arrive.

At a more basic level, one may also ask why judges or VIPs should not be asked to prove their identities when the word “Judge” is not written on their foreheads. How is any toll operator to know that someone is a judge, and travelling on official work? Judges cannot claim exemptions from the ordinary law whenever it suits them, and this includes payment of tolls at highways.

In a country whose constitution promises to strive for liberty, equality and fraternity, judicial officers should be the first ones to show the way by not demanding special treatment. We already have a long list of VIPs who will not be frisked at airports, including High Court Chief Justices, but not other judges. We will now have the same inequality staring at us at toll nakas too.

The Madras High Court is setting the wrong precedent by demanding special lanes for judges at toll nakas.

Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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