Book Review: ‘Supreme Whispers: Supreme Court Judges, 1980-90’ by Abhinav Chandrachud

By Nirjhar Bhattacharya

Students studying law have a perennial source of interesting and acclaimed books that not only educate and provide knowledge to them but also hasten the process of critical thinking that is required in all fields of life.

Over time, certain books are considered by the students to be extraordinarily valuable and ‘Supreme Whispers’ by Abhinav Chandrachud is one such book that is definitely an unputdownable read.

The author relies on the typewritten interviews of more than sixty-six judges of the Supreme Court of India conducted by the American scholar, Professor George H. Gadbois.

Prof. Gadbois had conducted detailed interviews of the judges during the 1980s and had managed to get gripping narratives and deep insight regarding the lives these judges led, their work environment and relationships, rivalries and their thoughts regarding issues they could not have spoken about publicly during their service in the court.

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The readers are taken through a fascinating journey of the inner workings of the Supreme Court while trying to fathom the heavy burden of responsibility that rests on the shoulders of these judges.

Gadbois had diligently prepared for each interview and they were a massive success as the judges were brutally frank in their answers.

George H. Gadbois

Often through deduction and cross reference, Gadbois learnt of interesting details that shaped not only the judicial scenario in India but the political as well. The author mentions that during these interviews, some of the judges may not have necessarily been telling the whole truth and it might very well have been their side of the story.

However, Gadbois himself noted such instances during the interviews, as in the case of Chief Justice A.N. Ray who has perhaps received the highest amount of criticism from the legal fraternity in India.

Readers learn of the judicial rivalries between imminent judges such as Chief Justice Chandrachud and Justice Bhagwati among many others. These rivalries were the result of intense professional, ideological and personal differences with one another, often between the chief justice and the most senior judge of the court.

Such rivalries are seen in the court today as well. A strange phenomenon that is seen, is that despite the rivalries, there was a lack of dissent in the day-to-day decision making of the court and judgements were delivered per curiam (unanimous) most of the time and not seriatim (separate judgements).

This was majorly due to the fact that over forty percent of the court’s time was spent on hearing admissions of ‘special leave petitions’ and some of the judges simply did not have enough time to pen down their own judgements. The readers are a provided with a riveting account of the impact this had on the personal lives of the judges.

The Supreme Court offers a grand position in terms of work and yet there are those who have declined the offers of elevation to the court. Highly successful lawyers and jurists turned down these offers often due to personal reasons and also due to the fact that judges of the Supreme Court were not paid handsome salaries as compared to the advocates at the Bar or Supreme Court judges of other countries.

Gadbois does not fail to show that there was executive interference in the judicial appointments between 1950 and 1971, contrary to popular belief. The government would favour those judges who shared the same political views and ideologies and use tactics such as supersessions and transfers to intimidate the judges who tried to function according to their respective ideals and beliefs.

Gadbois recorded how welcoming and courteous the judges were to him during these interviews, often as a disguise to get their point across in a subtle manner. Many judges had a very high opinion of Gadbois and often referred to his studies in their judgements.

Justices P.B. Gajendragadkar and M. Hidayatullah referred to his study of the dissenting patterns of the judges in their autobiographies as well. He managed to interview reluctant judges such as Justice V.D. Tulzapurkar solely on account of his academic credentials and good reputation with the judges of the Supreme Court.

Abhinav Chandrachud

Supreme Whispers is a storehouse of information that provides a fascinating account of the judicial and political sphere of India during 1950-1990.

The readers are amazed by the meticulous research done and captivating details revealed, all the while knowing that it is just the tip of the iceberg that they are being told about. The author has done a marvelous job in keeping the readers hooked till the very end while providing a steady, yet not overwhelming, source of knowledge through data, facts and conversations with the esteemed judges.

Being a law student is definitely not an easy task. There are loads to study and a plethora of books and papers to read, which can often make life seem quite monotonous. However, books such as these never cease to show us just how intriguing the world of law can be.

The reader is taken on an entertaining journey of revelations and facts through Gadbois’ interviews which are coupled with the eloquent strokes of the author regarding the prevalent political and judicial landscapes of the time that creates a stunning legal masterpiece.


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