A year after his death, J.S. Verma’s legacy lives on in the struggle for individual rights.
If those eyes were not twinkling when looking at you, that meant trouble. Justice J.S. Verma had that near-mischievous glint in his eyes most of the time, except on the rare occasions when he was angry. Those same eyes could look cold and hard and the person facing them knew for sure that this was judgement day.
I have seen those eyes quell representatives of big industrial houses, TV anchors with giant reputations, politicians with make-believe charisma and senior editors, too. If any of them had done something wrong and that matter came up for Justice Verma’s consideration, they could expect no kindness, only justice. But, if there was room for clemency, Justice Verma would be the first to hand it out.
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I had the privilege of working under his leadership in the News Broadcasting Standards Authority (NBSA) for roughly six years, and what a great period that was. I saw professional integrity at close quarters, learnt what it meant to give dignity to citizens and realised how important it was to look for the best in others. While I was still trying to consolidate all of these traits in me, Justice Verma passed away and, that was unjust.
On one occasion, we were to discuss the complaint of a leading business magnate when we found a stranger in our midst. He happened to be the emissary of this corporate big-shot, bringing a letter of apology from his boss to Justice Verma. The letter was not accepted and the person was politely told to leave, with the admonition that in future, the organisation he represented should behave more professionally.
It was much later that I realised that the night before, the industrialist actually had the gall to telephone Justice Verma at his house to explain his side of the dispute. Justice Verma sized up the situation instantly and asked his caller if he thought so poorly of judges that he felt a chat was necessary barely 24 hours before his case was to be heard. It was to repair this damage that the boss had sent his deputy with an apology letter that afternoon, which Justice Verma did well to turn down and, in the process, hopefully taught him a valuable lesson.
A senior editor once told me that Justice Verma had reneged on his principles by not allowing a certain matter to be heard by the NBSA. I thought he was being unfair and protested against his interpretation, but made absolutely no headway. This compelled me to call Justice Verma immediately and hand over the phone to this reputed journalist. In less than a minute, I heard the gentleman apologise profusely to Justice Verma. I don’t know what Justice Verma might have said, but I do know that the scribe in front of me was expressing the deepest regret. Justice Verma was that quick in sorting people out.
We all know of his landmark Vishaka judgment, which he delivered while he was still chief justice of India. After this verdict, sexual harassment at the workplace had a concrete definition, which even meant that a number of innuendos could no longer pass off as harmless tomfoolery. If women are gaining ground outside their homes today, it is because Vishaka has given them the muscle to fight, and fight they have on a number of occasions. Today, this judgment is the cornerstone of nearly all office and business procedures in major public and private organisations.
At the NBSA, we were once faced with a complaint by some sex workers that their privacy had been invaded. I was mildly amused at what I thought was the irony behind it all. Sex workers complaining about privacy? That did seem a little contrived. Justice Verma, on the other hand, took the matter very seriously and demanded an explanation from the channel that had done a sting operation on them. In his unqualified view, dignity was everybody’s right and the right to privacy was an important and essential ingredient of that dignity. He did not have a moment’s hesitation in passing the strictest stricture against the channel and I said to myself: “Call yourself lucky, you have just learnt an object lesson.”
Likewise, Justice Verma had no hesitation in upholding the rights of gay people. Once again, it was about individual rights. He did not refer to them as “beautiful” people, or something equally fetching, nor was he overflowing with patronising generosity. For him, it was simply a matter of human dignity, that nobody has the right to trample on it in the name of the majority. If he had been alive today, his voice could not have been ignored by the Supreme Court and Section 377 would have been history by now.
It was this same disdain for majority passions that led Justice Verma to weigh in against the government of Gujarat after the 2002 massacre. At that time, he was chairperson of the National Human Rights Commission, and he spoke against the Gujarat government’s handling of the mass killings most unambiguously and unequivocally. He even upbraided Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee for not doing enough to halt the killings in Gujarat. As Justice Verma said, Vajpayee did not issue directives to the Gujarat authorities and, what is more, “he did not even comment”. Vajpayee is now portrayed as a bit of an avuncular figure by both the right and the not-so-right, but his double talk during 2002 was not helpful at all.
Justice Verma, rest in peace and may those eyes twinkle in the night sky.
The writer is member of the NBSA, on the board of directors of RBI and NABARD, and distinguished professor, Shiv Nadar University, Greater Noida