The Exception: Ferdino Rebello and a Call for Help

My first post for this blog was about Indian judges who had previously served in state and Central legislatures. At that time, I noted that despite the fact that no Supreme Court judge appointed since Baharul Islam has held parliamentary office prior to their judicial service (to the best of my knowledge), this has not similarly been the case on the High Courts’. This overstated the case. To the best of my knowledge, one High Court judge appointed since Baharul Islam left the Supreme Court in 1983 had previously served in Parliament: Ferdino Rebello, former member of the Goa Legislative Assembly (1977-1980), who served on the Bombay High Court (1996-2010) and as Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court (2010-2011). Appointments of Indian ‘politicians’ (serving or former) as judges have always been rare, and have all but vanished altogether; Rebello hence represents an interesting exception to an otherwise ironclad rule.
 

 

Rebello was born in 1949 in Goa and was admitted as an advocate in 1973; he was also a trade union leader. He was elected to the Goa Legislative Assembly in 1977 for the Janata Party, representing Cuncolim. At one stage in his youth, Rebello was reportedly jailed for violating Section 144 of the Indian Penal Code (IPC) in the ramponnkar (traditional fishermen’s) movement’; he subsequently played a significant role in the Konkani language movement in the 1980s.[1] In 1989, Rebello ran unsuccessfully for the Lok Sabha for South Goa as a Janata Dal candidate. A mere seven years later, he was appointed as an Additional Judge of the Bombay High Court; this appointment was made permanent in 1998. Despite his political antecedents, his appointment as Chief Justice in Allahabad drew bipartisan approval in the Goa Legislative Assembly.
 

 

Reflecting on his decision to abandon elected politics, Rebello called himself an unfit politician’:

I may have been a social activist, but I was not a politician. For me it was more of beliefs in matters of society, people’s rights. It was a very strange way that I landed in politics. I was a trade union leader at that time and they had even threatened to put me inside. I was organizing a sports contest in Cuncolim when some of my friends came and said, ‘you must contest the elections.’ I was given a ticket and I won. I spent no money. At that time people worked for you, people spent money from their pockets for you. I had no money at that time as I had just entered the profession. In 1989 I had not planned to contest but then the election was countermanded and I contested that election. After that I took a conscious decision not to get into politics.


This passage obviously has to be read carefully in light of hindsight and spin; there are an awful lot of politicians who claim that they are not ‘really’ politicians. But it may nonetheless shed light on why Ferdino Rebello alone was able to break the trend. He was elected at a time of exceptional turmoil within India’s political system, in the immediate aftermath of the Emergency and the end of one-party Congress dominance. The breakdown of an old political order, prior to the ascension of the new, may have made it possible for someone like Rebello – a political activist without strong partisan ties – to enter politics without patronage and at an age (28) when he could still go on to return to his legal career. (Even though prominent lawyers have, of course, continued to play prominent roles in Indian politics – Arun Jaitley, Kapil Sabil, P. Chidambaram, etc – most have been first elected at ages that make subsequent returns to legal practice and then appointment as judges implausible. Rebello had the advantage of essentially completing his period in elected office prior to the bulk of his legal career.) That is, whereas an age of stronger parties and a more settled cursus honorum might have meant that someone like Ferdino Rebello would have had to ‘choose’ between political and legal life, the precise circumstances of his ascension made it possible to move fairly seamlessly between worlds.

But at this point we encounter limits. As High Court judges go, there is a reasonably substantial amount of information online about Ferdino Rebello, who has also been relatively willing to express his views in press; the indented quote above comes from an illuminating interview with Alexandre Moniz Barbosa of O Heraldo. But (especially for a researcher living in Australia) there are limits to what bare accounts of Rebello’s career, even accounts by Rebello himself, can tell in terms of his significance. Rebello’s reputation, for example, cannot just be gauged from the fact that the Goa Legislative Assembly passed a vote of congratulations on his appointment to the Allahabad High Court (he was, after all, only the second Goan to be appointed as a Chief Justice and such a vote may hence be expected); it requires insights from lawyers, politicians, activists and ordinary citizens who witnessed or were party to his work as a lawyer, politician and judge. Estimates of this kind (about any individual Indian judge, not just Rebello) are very difficult to gauge from online sources and even from the Indian press as a whole – both because of a relative paucity of scholarly judicial biography in India and given the limits on critical commentary and debate of individual judges imposed by rigid laws of contempt.

So this post ends with a call for help. I can be contacted at douglas.mcdonald7190 at gmail.com (with an @ and no spaces instead of “ at “). If you are willing to share insights about Ferdino Rebello, his career, his work or his significance, whether anonymously or on the record, please email me; I’d very much appreciate any of your thoughts or even any information you have to offer. Chief Justice Rebello has had a fascinating career that has defied much of the conventional wisdom about what Indian judicial careers look like; we can only work out why if we work together.

[1] Jason Keith Fernandes, Citizenship Experiences of the Goan Catholics, available at https://repositorio.iscte-iul.pt/bitstream/10071/6582/1/%2BPost%20defence%20Thesis%20for%20submission.pdf, pp 140, 142.

2 comments

  1. Justice Krishna Iyer had served as a minister in the first democratically elected Communist government in the World.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Krishna Iyer Fan! Yes, Krishna Iyer was ‘an exception among exceptions’ in terms of the length of his political experience and the political heights to which he rose (as Law Minister, among much else, in EMS Namboodiripad’s government). Interestingly, his tenure overlapped with that of Justice Lionel Murphy in Australia, who had a similar career (as law minister in a rapidly reforming, controversially dismissed government) prior to his appointment to Australia’s final court of appeal – however, while the controversy that surrounded Murphy’s appointment and tenure on the court may have contributed to appointments like his ceasing in Australia, Krishna Iyer is so lauded in India that it’s hard to say he served a similar role in stopping appointments like him. So structural explanations (a shift in who appoints judges) seem to have stopped India from having judges with careers like Krishna Iyer (or even, except in this one case, like Ferdino Rebello), rather than political explanations. It’s an interesting thought to pursue and I might turn it into a post!

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