With the passing of Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer, who had just entered his 100th year, the world has lost one of the greatest judges and jurists of all time and also a fine human beings. He used his extraordinary juristic and intellectual gifts to help everyone he could and to address all forms of human suffering.
Fortunately, he was brought to the Supreme Court soon after his appointment to the high court. Had judges to the SC been selected only on the basis of seniority, India would have lost the opportunity to have its greatest judge in the apex court and, therefore, also deprived of some of the remarkable juristic principles that emerged from his judgments, which have made the judicial system more humane. He correctly understood that the task of a judge, endowed with extensive powers by the Constitution, is to protect the rights of the people, particularly the weak and the disadvantaged, to ensure that the instrumentalities of the state remain within the limits of their powers and act in the public interest, and that people get justice with equity.
To this end, Iyer gave a purposive interpretation to the Constitution, law and rights. He gave an expansive interpretation to the right to life and liberty guaranteed by Article 21, and held it to include the right to life with dignity. He forbade the handcuffing and mistreatment of prisoners. It was his judgments that laid down the principle that, for undertrials, bail must be the rule and jail the exception. He further laid down that individuals could not be deprived of their liberty by just any procedure, and that such a procedure must be fair and reasonable. He also enunciated the principle that many judges often forget — that judicial procedure cannot and must not be allowed to come in the way of justice. In another example of purposive interpretation of the law to protect labour rights, he laid down that the word “industry” in the Industrial Disputes Act would include all undertakings, including schools, hospitals, shops etc.
But apart from his judgments, it was his advocacy of many causes in the public interest through his speeches, books and writings that have also had a profound influence on society and the judiciary. He wrote and spoke against the death penalty, for environmental justice and, indeed, against myriad forms of injustice that pervade our society. He was unique among the judiciary in speaking out against judicial corruption and seeking judicial accountability. His relentless advocacy for the last man, and against multiple forms of injustice, continued almost till his last breath. He would readily agree to participate in any people’s tribunal, workshop or seminar and agree to speak if he felt the organisers were doing something for the benefit of the poor and in the public interest. He thus participated in many such initiatives, including, most notably, the citizen’s tribunal against communal violence in Gujarat (whose report contained a scathing indictment of the Narendra Modi state government), the independent initiative to check electoral malpractices (started at his initiative in 1989, well before any such movement had become popular).
I remember the first time I met him. In 1984, we had organised a small seminar on environmental law. I rang him to request him to deliver the keynote address. To my pleasant surprise, he readily agreed to come all the way from Kerala. He did not even accept payment for his return ticket, which he said was being arranged by another organisation, whose programme he was also attending. His speeches were full of wisdom, showing a vast and deep understanding of society and the law and always reflecting enormous compassion. The language in his judgments was inventive and sometimes contained phrases not to be found in the English lexicon. Some people found his use of complex and sometimes obscure phrases irksome and wished he would use simpler language, but only he, with his complete command and mastery over the language, could carry it off.
He was a judge’s judge and many judges, including giants like late Justices J.S. Verma and Chinnappa Reddy, turned to him for counsel when faced with controversial questions. Every visit of mine to Kochi would include a pilgrimage to his simple home. He would invariably show interest in important developments in the judiciary and society and would listen attentively. He was virtually blind in the last few years. I can never forget the handwritten note he sent me a few months ago, praising and “saluting” me for taking up the bail case of Abdul Nasser Madani, a paraplegic who had been incarcerated for the Bangalore blasts for four years, with his health deteriorating, while his trial went on and on. I thought of what an enormous effort it must have been to write that note in his own hand. What a man! I doubt we will see another like him in our lifetime. But as has been said, “Rather than mourn the absence of the flame, let us celebrate how brightly it burned. “
The writer is a lawyer and founding member of the Aam Aadmi Party