Wednesday, January 27, 2021
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Work is Worship. But what if it’s either work or worship?

Justice Joseph

By Harshmeet Singh

The recent exchange of letters between H.L. Dattu, the Chief Justice of India and Justice Kurian Joseph, a Supreme Court judge gave birth to a bitter debate which engulfed many a trivial issue ranging from work ethics to the secular framework of our country. As with any other controversy, this too cries for an answer to the question – ‘Was this really called for?’

In his letters, Justice Joseph expressed angst at the official meeting of the Chief Justices of the state High courts and the Chief Ministers which was called on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. His letter read, “I may with deep anguish bring to your kind notice that such an important conference shouldn’t have been held when some of us, who are otherwise expected to be part of the event, are otherwise committed on account of the holy days when we have religious ceremonies and family get- together as well.”

Celebrated to commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, Good Friday is a religious holiday for the Christians around the world. Notably, Good Friday isn’t a federal public holiday in the USA, where 76% of the adult population follows Christianity. Only 12 states out of the 50 have individually earmarked the day as a state holiday. The same point was stressed upon by retired Justice Thomas in a recent interview when he took a strong stand against Justice Joseph’s argument.

The CJI responded to Justice Joseph with a strongly worded letter that said “The question that I have to ask myself, perhaps I can’t ask you, is whether it is institutional interest or individual interest that one should give preference to. As far as I am concerned I would give priority to the former and not to the latter…” As soon as the CJI rejected an advocate’s plea to adjourn the conference, it was clear that the matter won’t end quickly.

Our craving for a religious holiday

The allegations of ‘hurting religious sentiments’ by keeping the conference on Good Friday and Easter Sunday seem to be quite exaggerated. Rather, a better perspective of looking at this issue would be the loss of productivity due to holidays. Indian calendars are filled with a flurry of holidays. With this in mind, shouldn’t the CJI be applauded for working on a ‘gazetted holiday’? We can easily do with placing all the religious holidays under the ‘restricted holidays’ list. As the practice currently goes, an employee can choose any five off days from the list of these restricted holidays and let his preference known in advance, so that his replacements are arranged and the business goes on as usual.

Imagine calling the fire brigade during an emergency and getting a response like this – “Sorry! It’s a religious holiday today! We are on off. Please try tomorrow!” As you go up in the hierarchy and handle more responsibilities, your work hours become permeable. You need to be available 24×7 to perform your rightful duty. Can the court be taken as an exception in this regard? Apart from the honourable judges who were called for the conference, a number of people from the support staff would have also been called to make the necessary arrangements. It is hard to imagine any of them writing a letter to their senior and expressing ‘anguish’ over being called to work on Good Friday. We have conveniently overlooked such questions so far. Why? Because they are lower ranked! They don’t even matter, do they?

CJI’s solution

The CJI, in his response, suggested Justice Joseph to bring his family to Delhi so that he can perform his duties towards his family as well as his institution simultaneously. This solution from the CJI highlights the lack of religious understanding on the part of Justice H.L. Dattu. The obligations of Good Friday wouldn’t have allowed the judge to take this path. Keeping in mind the fact that the Supreme Court has the authority to intercede in religious matters, Justice Dattu’s limited knowledge about Good Friday is rather disheartening and disappointing. One can only hope that the judges are better trained to understand the intricacies of religious festivals across all religions.

Institution or Individual?  

The common logic says that in a battle between the individual good and the collective good, it is the collective good that must be given the preference. But what if that demands violation of a personal principle which is so cherished by the individual? Till the time the individuals are forced to submit, rather than voluntarily choose for the greater collective good, the voices of dissent won’t dry out. “To what extent is the violation of personal freedom justified for the institutional good” is a valid question to debate.

By asking the Judge to bring his family to Delhi, the CJI laid out a clear message – ‘it is the individual who needs to adjust and comprise and not the institution.’ One wonders if the CJI thought of other ideas such as taking consent of the participants before reaching to the final date, which is the usual method for ensuring maximum participation. An individual’s love for his / her institution only becomes stronger if the institution is flexible enough to accommodate its individual’s interests.

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