Justice. V R Krishna Iyer the great humanist judge
By Adv. George Merlo Pallath, President, The Ernakulam bar Association
We inherited the judicial system set up by the British for preserving their control over India and to keep us Indians subjugated. It was always meant to favour the ruling elite at the cost of the toiling masses. Then when we finally became independent we gave to our self the Constitution of India which was an amalgam of the constitutions of USA, Britain, Russia, France and Canada. The founding fathers including B R Ambedkar took note of the great disparities existing in our society which was caused by 400 years of British colonization and exploitation and before that the caste system of our forefathers.
The primary focus of the Constitution of India was to wipe away these inequalities and the disparities and make our society more justice oriented and creating equality amongst all. This is well defined in the constitution in Article 14 which states that all citizens are entitled to equal protection of law and equal rights. The single biggest development is that we gave to our self a constitution which gives wide powers to the Indian Judiciary unparalleled anywhere in the world.
It is in these circumstances that Justice V R Krishna Iyer was born and brought up. He has seen all the failings of the system and experienced the travails of the downtrodden right from his childhood days in the small village at Palghat. After becoming a lawyer, he started his practice at Thalassery. Malabar, became a trade union leader, was jailed, then was a sympathizer of the leftists who were sincere and stood up for the masses during the early period of the leftist movement.
Without doubt he was a brilliant lawyer who had a thorough understanding of the plight of the masses and the Indian society. He also had the rich experience as a young minister in the first leftist government of Kerala which took charge in the year 1957. As a young minister of Irrigation and power, he went from village to village to implement innumerable small and medium projects. He was instrumental in the passage of many path breaking bills during his tenure as minister. The most important being the Kerala Education Bill, Agrarian Relations Bill, Agricultural debt relief bill, Kerala Dowry Abolition Act, Land Reforms Act was formulated during the tenure of Smt. Gowri Amma, Justice. V.R Krishna Iyer played an important part in its formulation. Even though many people refers to him as a leftist, it is safer and more correct to label him as a great humanist who understood the feelings of the masses.
When he was elevated as a judge of the High Court of Kerala, he obtained a real opportunity to do something about all this inequalities which existed and he started a new saga of making his judgments bring about social change in all spheres. He can truly be said to the foremost justice who used his tenure ship for bringing about social change and to dramatic effect.
Till his retirement, we were treated to a sumptuous feast of judgments which were all path breaking and created new inroads in the evolution of law and in the justice rendering system. These are just some of his path breaking judgments which brought about momentous changes in the whole judiciary and administrative set up of this country. In Maneka Gandhi vs Union of India, he wrote a separate judgment upholding the right to freedom of movement of a citizen. In C.B Muthamma vs Union of India AIR 1979 Sc 1868, he ruled against gender discrimination. He struck down a provision in the Indian Foreign Service which mandated that women IFS officers must resign on marriage. He was always against death sentence. He stated that death sentence must be ordered only in the rarest of rare case. It was V R Krishna Iyer who forged the concept of Public Interest Litigation (PIL) which has become the most potent weapon for the benefit of weaker sections of the community. He expanded the concept of state to include corporations and other instrumentalities of the state. As a minister of prisons, the practice of handcuffing of prisoners came to an end . It was followed by a judgment Sunil Batra vs Delhi administration AIR 1978 SC 1675 which brought untold relief to the prisoners all over India. In another decision of far reaching consequences which is reported in AIR 1980 SC 1622 ( Ratlam Municipal Council vs Vardhichand , he ruled that financial inadequacies of a municipality would not absolve it of carrying out its public duties and abatement of public nuisances. This decision is significant in 4 aspects. (1) it enabled social justice by giving procedural justice. The people must have access to the courts to enforce public duties. (2) that public nuisances occasioned distributive justice. (3) Industries cannot profit at the expense of public health. This is an early precursor to the polluter pays principle now very commonly used by the courts to fine polluting industries. (4) the municipalities and corporations were obliged to comply with their public duties to abate public nuisance regardless of their financial health.
In short no other judge has contributed more to the jurisprudence of compassion than our great Justice Krishna Iyer. In Bangalore Water Supply case, wherein he observed that a worker oriented statute must receive a construction where conceptually, the keynote thought must be the worker and the community.
But the real feather in his cap came soon after his elevation as the Supreme Court Judge in July 1973 when an appeal filed by Indira Gandhi disqualifying her came before him. He did not flinch under the intense political pressure and refused to grant blanket stay to the then prime minister which was reported in AIR 1975 SC 2299. Even his most vehement critic Sr. Adv. H M Seervai who described it as the finest hour of the Supreme Court of India.
Even after 35 years, the judgment Moti Ram vs State of Madhya Pradesh by V.R Krishna Iyer on liberating stringent conditions while granting bail to an accused still reverberates in the courts rooms today. He wrote more than 500 judgments within 8 years as a supreme court judge which is phenomenal in that all these judgments have had far reaching effect on all the aspects of jurisprudence, rendering justice to the poor and under privileged. Apart from all his judgments, he has written innumerable articles, essays and books which even now we find extraordinary. In 1998 he wrote an article heavily criticizing the VIP syndrome. In his words, the very concept of VIP is anathema to a socialist democracy like India. In 1998 he agreed with the suggestion of Manmohan Singh that the line of control may be turned into a line of peace. He castigated the state of Kerala calling it the most drunken state in India. In 2005 about the commercialization of education he wrote “commercialization of the right to education may tend towards cadaverisation of the constitutional right to life in dignity. We have to salute his wisdom, vision and above all his love of people.
Normally after retirement, judges tend to fade into oblivion. But not Justice V R Krishna Iyer. He became the most vocal voice of the downtrodden and always had the knack to stay in the limelight. One may safely say that Justice V R Krishna Iyer became more potent and effective after his retirement and always remained an effective voice everybody listens. In fact future students of law will have to study the law as it existed before V R Krishna Iyer and after his lifetime just like AD & BC.
I can only compare him to a great river of justice and compassion which flowed without interruption till his death on 4th of December 2014. In his death India has lost one of its finest sons. He may be called the most complete judge India has ever seen who lived ahead of his time. I can only lament that we have lost a great humanist judge who gave importance to human life and dignity by adopting compassion and humanly approach in his judgments and all his actions. Justice V R Krishna Iyer was called the living legend. He will remain a legend in eternity. Pranaam.
Dated this the 9th day of December 2014.