Justice Chinnappa Reddy was among the few judges who fought to protect the freedom of citizens during the Emergency
Justice Chinnappa Reddys death last week did not garner much media attention,perhaps due to his own characteristic taciturnity,but he was one of the rarest of rare judges in India. He was endowed with a sharp intellect,admirable secular perception and indomitable courage. When he was chosen as a judge of the Andhra Pradesh High Court,little did the Bar elsewhere realise that this was a judge who would eventually decorate the judiciary with his contributions.
During the dark days of the Emergency,when most judges buckled and genuflected before the executive,Justice Reddy was among the few judges who did not bend. He fought to protect the freedom and liberty of citizens and refused to submit to the commands of the establishment. He did not treat emergency provisions as overriding the guarantees enshrined in the Constitution. The establishment viewed him as a defiant and unpliable judge. He was in the first batch of judges to be uprooted from their high courts and transferred. After the Emergency,the new administration offered him a return to the parent HC and to make him chief justice. Justice Reddy declined,and opted to remain where he was. No wonder he was elevated to the Supreme Court.
In his initial years at the apex court,he came out with new standards in appreciating evidence,particularly in criminal cases. He accorded a ceremonial burial to the conventional anathema towards chance witnesses,interested witnesses and ahostile witnesses. He informed the Bar that the minutes of the court proceedings regarding what transpired in open court would be sacrosanct and even conclusive,and not even the most respected counsel would be heard to canvass before the superior court whether he or his counterpart in the subordinate court made concessions on any point.
Those who believed that tax avoidance is a permitted phenomenon in fiscal jurisprudence were informed by him (through his judgment in McDowell vs Inland Revenue Commissioners) that colourable measures for avoidance of tax by making suitable arrangements in commercial transactions must be discouraged,and that the statutes should be so construed as to disfavour tax evading that it is high time to desist from the alluring logic of tax avoidance and disfavour the ingenious attempt to rationalise and legitimates the same.
He was an atheist,but nevertheless exhibited judicial zeal in safeguarding the religious faith of citizens,however miniscule the membership of the denomination to which the faithful belonged. This was highlighted by his most famous judgment in the Jehovahs Witnesses case. Three children in a government school in Kerala who refused to sing Jana Gana Mana were expelled. The Kerala HC upheld the action of the school authorities,but a bench headed by Justice Reddy in the SC set it aside. In the celebrated Bijoe Immannuel vs State of Kerala judgment,he dealt with the question of whether the refusal to sing the national anthem,as it would be perfidious to their faith,was genuine. He found that members of that community,wherever they are,adopt the same approach to the national anthem of those countries. He held that they had a right to adhere to their religious faith as long as they did not show any disrespect to the national anthem,and that our Constitution would protect such a right. His reasoning is summed up thus: We do endorse the view… that the question is not whether a particular religious belief or practice appeals to our reason or sentiment but whether the belief is genuinely and conscientiously held as part of the profession or practice of religion. Our personal views and reactions are irrelevant. If the belief is genuinely and conscientiously held,it attracts the protection of Article 25 but subject,of course,to the inhibitions contained therein.
The judgment also said,famously,that We only wish to add our tradition teaches tolerance; our philosophy teaches tolerance; our Constitution practises tolerance; let us not dilute it.
After retirement,he seemed to have a busy schedule heading different commissions. I got the opportunity to spend some time with him,and he impressed me as a man with a fine temperament. The SC Bar was full of praise for the way he disposed of his cases not with cryptic orders,but with well reasoned analysis. He was a judge with a difference and India cannot afford to ignore his contribution to constitutional and jurisprudential growth.
The writer is a former judge of the Supreme Court