Justice Verma possessed that rare and lonely virtue: courage
Prior to his elevation to the Supreme Court,I did not know Justice J.S. Verma. Nor had I had any occasion to appear before him. I knew of his reputation as a brave judge who discharged his judicial functions fearlessly during the June 1975 Emergency.
It was a pleasure to appear before him in the Supreme Court. He was quick in understanding the facts of the case,had a sharp intellect and also a sharp tongue,if counsel were ill-prepared. His judgments were crisp. There was no ostentatious display of erudition and lengthy quotations from judgments of foreign courts. They were impelled by the desire to do substantial justice and to give meaningful relief to victims of human rights violations.
Of his many outstanding judgments,three deserve special mention. In Vineet Narain vs Union of India,Verma forged the judicial tool of continuing mandamus to meet the menace of corruption by ensuring proper investigation in corruption cases,and issued several directions whose aim was to insulate the CBI from political influence and interference. He made it clear that these directions would hold the field till requisite legislation was passed.
The same thinking is reflected in his landmark judgment in Vishaka vs State of Rajasthan. There was persistent and rampant sexual harassment of women at the workplace and there was total absence of legislation to cope with this societal evil. Verma,as the presiding chief justice,issued certain orders and directions defining sexual harassment,enacting the machinery to cope with it and the penalties to be imposed on the perpetrators of sexual harassment after holding an inquiry. Critics have said that the judgment,though laudable in intent,was tantamount to ad hoc judicial legislation. It is overlooked that the Supreme Court made it explicit that the directions it issued would be binding and enforceable in law until suitable legislation is enacted to occupy the field. The beneficial effects of this judgment have been substantial. Incidentally,the judgment was delivered in August 1997,and no law has yet been enacted on the subject.
Another significant judgment related to Jamaat-e-Islami Hind,which was declared an unlawful association under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act,1967. The associations contention was that it was not given the statements and other material on which basis it was declared unlawful,and thus the principles of natural justice had been violated. It was apparent that if the identity of the persons who made the statements was disclosed,they were likely to be harmed or even bumped off. What was the solution? Verma ruled that in such a situation,the principle of natural justice must be tailored to safeguard public interest,as well as the interest of the affected organisation and its members. Therefore,although information that the government considered sensitive and confidential could not be disclosed to the party,the same should be disclosed to the tribunal or court,which would consider the credibility of the material and such a course would satisfy the minimum requirement of natural justice tailored to suit the circumstances of each case and would protect the rights of the association and its members,without jeopardising public interest. This is a landmark judgment in our administrative law that has been relatively unnoticed.
After his retirement from the Supreme Court,Verma did not hanker after fame or fortune. By a self-denying ordinance,he declined to engage in the lucrative activity of arbitration or giving opinions to clients by charging fat fees. Under his chairmanship,the National Human Rights Commission acquired added stature and was much appreciated in international circles. Former human rights commissioner Mary Robinson told me of her admiration for him. After he stepped down from the commission,he occupied himself in activities for improvements in the justice delivery system and for evolving mechanisms for ensuring transparency and accountability in the judiciary without compromising its independence.
It was characteristic of him that before death,like a veritable thief in the night,snatched him away from our midst,he,along with fellow committee members Justice Leila Seth and senior advocate Gopal Subramanium,authored a path-breaking report on sexual violence against women within the appointed time of four weeks,a truly heroic achievement at the age of 80.
All said and done,what is so great about Verma? Simple. He possessed that rare and lonely virtue,courage,which he displayed in all his actions. He called a spade a spade without fear of consequences. He fully endorsed Benjamin Franklins thinking that they who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty or safety.
I shall sorely miss our telephonic conversation on Saturday mornings,when we surveyed the national scene and bemoaned the growing commercialisation of the legal profession and its politicisation,and the overall collapse of values in our national life.
Good night,good judge,and may a host of angels hasten you to your heavenly abode from where you may keep your watchful benevolent eye on our endeavours to fulfil the Verma legacy.
The writer is a former attorney general for India