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‎The Dharmic Judge

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Justice V R Krishna Iyer (1914-2014) was a tireless champion of fundamental rights
There are a few judges who never retire and Krishna Iyer is one. The growth and evolution of Indian Jurisprudence has its seeds in the thoughtful decisions from the Bench of Krishna Iyer during his tenure over a couple of decades in the High court of Kerala and the Supreme Court. The Indian political system has to have the inevitable interface with the judicial decisions of Krishna Iyer at every juncture and many a times the ruling class is made incapable of bearing their fangs. Whatever is pronounced by Krishna Iyer makes a beginning, keeps unravelling the complexities from time to time. We have a dark period of national emergency in history to which every sign of political fascism is equated and Justice Krishna Iyer has a pivotal role in the same. The declaration of emergency came on the very same night on which he had pronounced the historic judgment of Indira Gandhi’s election case. Justice Krishna Iyer was one among the pioneers who opened the Pandora box of Public Interest Litigation in the country by which every administrative decision is questioned and being brought to judicial review by any one interested. The legal question of locus standi has become no more a big deal by liberating the courts from the conservative English etiquette and transcending the same into the radical instrument of democratic dynamism.

His judgments are being elaborately quoted by the courts in the country at every juncture where fundamental rights are at stake. Any judge dealing with a question of right to life and personal liberty cannot go ahead ignoring his decision in Maneka Gandhi vs. Union of India that widened the scope and ambit of Article 19 and Article 21 of the Constitution. In this case that challenged the confiscation of Maneka Gandhi’s passport, J. Krishna Iyer makes this observation: “The watershed between a police state and a people's raj is located partly through its passport policy. ... The policing of a people's right of exit or entry are fraught with peril to liberty unless policy is precise, operationally respectful of recognised values and harassment proof."

In PUDR vs. Union of India, Krishna Iyer is asking whither goes the fundamental rights of the down trodden against whom the rights of sugar lobbies and Alcohol kings are exercised. The judgment asks: “If the sugar barons and the alcohol kings have the fundamental right  to carry out business and fatten the purses of the consuming public, have the chammars belonging to the lower strata of society no fundamental rights to own an honest living?”. The workers of the countless number of hospitals in the country would not have had brought into the spectrum of rights ensured by the Industrial disputes Act if Justice Krishna Iyer had not been there on the Bench (The Bangalore Water Supply case). In Sunil Batra Vs Delhi Administration, Krishna Iyer categorically affirmed that the quality of a society can be judged by the quality of its prisons. He did not stop speaking against death penalty after the prolific judgment in Ediga Annamma Vs State of Andhra Pradesh, voiced at every instance for those who are standing under the gallows.

Even the ongoing debates around the independence of judiciary-whether judicial commission or collegium- cannot go ahead without taking cues from what Krishna Iyer said on what judiciary should be: “Appointment of Judges is a serious process where judicial expertise, legal learning, life’s experience and high integrity are components, but above all are two indispensables — social philosophy in active unison with the socialistic articles of the Constitution, and second, but equally important, built-in resistance to pushes and pressures by class interests, private prejudices, government threats and blandishments, party loyalties and contrary economic and political ideologies projecting into pronouncements. (Mainstream Weekly, November 22, 1980)”

Krishna Iyer’s hundredth birth day was celebrated a week back. He was a Marxist who believed in life after death. He ‘used to talk’ to his wife who passed away long back in 1974. Kerala has the unique honour to have such a versatile person to have its first  minister in the cabinet of the first elected communist Government handling the port folios of law, home affairs and revenue.

Justice Iyer got the appetite for law from his lawyer father V V Rama Iyer. He took the degree in law from Madras Law College. After the collapse of EMS Government, Krishna Iyer resumed his legal practice and had become a judge of the Kerala High Court in 1968 and elevated to the Supreme Court in 1973. The country could not stop listening to Krishna Iyer even after 1980, the year in which he formally retired. At every instance when the rich versus the poor and democracy versus dictatorship, the country turned to Krishna Iyer and listened to his voice.

Reminding the tough time in which he received a call from A R Antulay, the law minister in Indira Gandhi’s cabinet, a day before her election case (precisely, a day before the proclamation of Emergency), Krishna Iyer who turned down the invitation to meet the minister wrote:  “The Dharma of a judge is daily put to the test in every docket of dispute which seeks his adjudicatory wisdom and integrity, conscious and commitment to the values enshrined in the Constitution. My experiments with truth on the Supreme Court Bench have been a challenge - moral, social and spiritual. Have I utterly failed or substantially measured up to the obligations of my oath?  Time alone can tell and history too, perhaps”.

Yes, the answer is clear.