No judge of any Supreme Court in the world has left his mark on humanitarian jurisprudence as Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer did in the short span of a little over seven years in the Indian Supreme Court. Appointed to the Supreme Court in July 1973, within a few months of the Union government’s supersession of three judges of the Supreme Court for their verdict against the government and Parliament in the Kesavananda Bharati case, the general public expected that Justice Iyer would toe the government line. At the same time, because of his earlier communist association in Kerala, his appointment was looked upon with deep suspicion by the legal fraternity. But with his unshakeable independence and commitment to the common man and human rights, Justice Iyer disappointed the government and surprised his critics, who later became his admirers.
He developed in his judgments a creative jurisprudence in which the hallmarks were his passion for the common, helpless and indigent man. His decision in Sunil Batra vs Delhi Administration in 1978 to reform the jail conditions of convicts remains a landmark. His profound humanitarian approach to the death penalty in Rajendra Prasad vs Uttar Pradesh in 1979 was followed by Lord Leslie Scarman in the Privy Council case of Riley vs Attorney General of Jamaica in 1982.
Immediately after his appointment, he resisted governmental pressure to impose an unconditional stay of the Allahabad High Court judgment in 1975 disqualifying Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. This judgment has been described as the finest hour of the Supreme Court by his most vehement critic, H.M. Seervai. Many years later, Justice Iyer revealed the pressure under which he was put to decide in favour of Indira Gandhi. On the day of the high court judgment in June 1975, then Law Minister H.R. Gokhale telephoned him and wanted to personally meet him, obviously to influence him to grant an unconditional stay of the judgment of the high court. Justice Iyer told him on the phone that as the prime minister had engaged an advocate (later N.A. Palkhivala), the appeal should be filed in the Supreme Court registry and there was no need to meet him. It was the conditional stay order of disqualification made by him that led, among other factors, to Indira Gandhi’s drastic step of imposing the Emergency.
Justice Iyer’s method of writing judgments with deep passion and flowery language irritated many persons, including judges of the Supreme Court like Justice V.D. Tulzapurkar, who criticised his language as being “prefaces, perorations, sermons and philosophies which have no proper place in judicial pronouncements”. To others, however, his judgments were a breath of fresh air from a crusader in the name of the poor and depressed.
His great admirer, Justice Michael Kirby of the Australian High Court, has said: “One is left with the strong conviction that this is a man who throughout his long life remained forever young. He still champions the causes of justice even after retirement with the optimism and idealism of youth. I can say without hesitation that such deep wellsprings do not always endure over so long with distinguished legal and judicial journey.”
This writer initially doubted that Justice Iyer had judicial impartiality because of his background. But over the years, I was fascinated by the sincerity in his judgments and several meetings I had with him after his retirement. In June 2009, he inscribed his book, The Majesty of the Judiciary, to me with the moving words, “Fight for justice till the last breath. I will be with you strong though old — V.R. Krishna Iyer”.
The writer, senior advocate, Supreme Court of India, is former solicitor general and advocate general of Maharashtra