With the passing away 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 one of the finest human beings. He used his extraordinary juristic and intellectual gifts for helping every human being that he could and for addressing 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 Supreme Court been selected only on the basis of seniority, India would have lost the opportunity of having its greatest judge in the apex court, and therefore also been deprived of some of the remarkable juristic principles which emerged from his judgments, which have made the judicial system more humane. He correctly understood that the task of a judge, endowed with the extensive powers vested 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 public interest, and that the people get justice with equity.
To this end, he gave a purposive interpretation to the Constitution, the law and rights. He thus gave an expansive interpretation to the right to life and liberty guaranteed by Article 21, and held it to include the right to a life of 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 an exception. He further laid down that persons 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 which 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 on the bench, it was his advocacy for many causes in public interest through his speeches, books and writings, which have also had a profound influence on society and on the judiciary. He wrote and spoke against the death penalty, for environmental justice and indeed against myriad forms of injustices that pervade our society. He was virtually unique in 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 virtually till his last breath. He would readily agree to participate in any people’s Tribunal, workshop, seminar etc. and agree to speak if he felt that the organisers were doing something for the benefit of the poor, the weak and oppressed and in public interest. He thus participated in hundreds of such initiatives, including most notably the Citizen’s Tribunal against communal violence in Gujarat (whose report eventually contained a scathing indictment of the Modi government), the Independent Initiative to check electoral malpractices (which was started at his initiative in 1989—well before any such movements had become popular).
I remember the first time that I met him. In 1984, we had organized a small seminar on environmental law. I rang him up 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 organization whose function he was also attending. His speeches were always full of wisdom, showing a vast and deep understanding of society, and the law, and always reflecting an enormous compassion for the weak and the oppressed. The language in his judgments and articles was inventive and sometimes contained phrases which were not to be found in the English lexicon. Some people found his use of complex and sometimes obscure phrases irksome and wished that 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 Justice J.S. Verma and Justice Chinappa Reddy turned to him for counsel when facing controversial questions. Every visit of mine to Cochin would include a pilgrimage to his simple and austere home. He would invariably show interest in the important developments in the judiciary and society and would listen attentively (even while lying down, in the last years of his life). He was virtually blind in the last few years. I cannot ever forget the handwritten note that he sent me a few months ago praising and “saluting” me for taking up the bail case of Abdul Nasser Mahdani, a paraplegic who had been incarcerated for the Bangalore blasts and had been in jail for 4 years with deteriorating health, while his trial went on and on. With tears in my eyes, I thought of the enormous effort that it must have taken him to write that note with his own hand. What a man! I doubt if we will see another like him in our lifetime.
But as has been said, “let us not mourn the dying of the flame, but celebrate how brightly it burnt”.