Justice Krishna Iyer, who enters his hundredth year today, took the Supreme Court in a new direction while evolving radical principles
Justice Vaidyanathapuram Rama Iyer Krishna Iyer was born on November 15, 1915, was sworn in as a judge of the Supreme Court on July 17, 1973 and retired at the age of 65 on November 14, 1980. He now starts his journey to complete a century.
Justice Krishna Iyer’s elevation to the Supreme Court raised eyebrows and scepticism in many legal circles. I must confess that my scepticism soon turned into admiration.
Several judicial activists reached the Supreme Court of India in the mid-seventies. Justice Krishna Iyer wielded considerable influence on the thought processes of his colleagues such as Justice P.N. Bhagwati (later Chief Justice of India) and Justice Chinnappa Reddy. They were articulate, sensitive and had a strong desire to translate the vision of the constitution makers into reality.
A new direction
By 1980, Justice Bhagwati and Justice Krishna Iyer became senior justices and took the Supreme Court in a new direction while evolving radical principles. Justice Krishna Iyer, a revolutionary at heart, principally triggered this internal revolution in the thought processes of his colleagues — a movement vigorously carried forward by Justice Bhagwati and Justice Chinnappa Reddy.
A new public interest jurisprudence was fashioned, the old ‘locus standi’ rules were jettisoned, epistolary litigation was encouraged and a strategy was evolved for giving relief to the disadvantaged and underprivileged. Procedural ‘due process’ was restored to centre stage, overruling earlier decisions. Consequently this radical transformation gave high international stature and visibility to the Supreme Court. It was an explosive enlargement of the court’s jurisdiction. It carved out a niche in the common citizens’ heart whose respect and adoration for the higher judiciary reached glorious heights.
Justice Krishna Iyer’s prolific judgments, his gentle and disarming demeanour as a judge, his unrivalled grasp of facts and law, his empathy for the disadvantaged, and his courtesy and consideration for the young lawyer appearing before him was a unique blend of judicial virtues.
Justice Krishna Iyer’s interim order of June 24, 1975 — a day before the Proclamation of Emergency on June 25, 1975 — in the Indira Gandhi case has a historical significance. Mrs Gandhi lost her election case and was disqualified. He did not give Mrs Gandhi, the serving Prime Minister, an unconditional stay despite huge media hype. She was allowed to function as Prime Minister, attend the House, but without a right to vote following well-settled precedents.
H.M. Seervai, the great constitutional lawyer but no uncritical admirer of Justice Krishna Iyer, wrote: “As the historian turns from the High Courts to the Supreme Court his task will be harder, for the history of the Supreme Court during the Emergency is a history of two different periods: the first began a day before the Emergency and ended with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s Appeal in the Election Case; the second began with the Habeas Corpus Case and ended with the revocation of the Emergency by a defeated Mrs Gandhi, unwilling to put into the hands of her opponents a weapon she had forged and used against them. Of the first period, the historian will say that the Supreme Court moved towards its finest hour, a day before the Proclamation of Emergency, when, on 24 June 1975, Krishna Iyer J., following judicial precedents, rejected an application made by Mrs. Gandhi that the Allahabad High Court’s order, finding her guilty of corrupt election practices and disqualifying her for 6 years, should be totally suspended. In the best traditions of the judiciary, Krishna Iyer J. granted a conditional stay of the Order under appeal, although he had been reminded by her eminent counsel, Mr. N.A. Palkhivala, “that the nation was solidly behind (her) as Prime Minister” and that “there were momentous consequences, disastrous to the country, if anything less than the total suspension of the Order under appeal were made”.”
“He spurned the lure of pelf and power and governmental patronage and became an unrivalled champion of social justice, constitutional values and the rule of law.”
Justice Krishna Iyer earned the unintended, unforeseen and doubtful distinction of having judicially fathered the Emergency leading to preventive detention of many opposition leaders including Jayaprakash Narayan, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L.K. Advani and Morarji Desai.
He recalls in his book Off the Bench how the then Law Minister H.R. Gokhale, a good friend, expressed a desire to meet him at his residence after Mrs Gandhi’s disqualification by the Allahabad High Court judgment in connection with her appeal. He politely refused to see him and indicated that the correct way was to file the appeal in the Registry which would be taken up promptly.
Justice Krishna Iyer’s crowning glory and finest hour were after retirement. He spurned the lure of pelf and power and governmental patronage and became an unrivalled champion of social justice, constitutional values and the rule of law. He blossomed into an iconic and inspirational figure both nationally and internationally.
The renowned Australian Judge Michael Kirby, a former President of the International Commission of Jurists, described him as “incontestably one of the great spirits of the common law of this century.”
Justice Krishna Iyer’s services to the nation, the rule of law, the judiciary and the disadvantaged and underprivileged give him a stature comparable to many who have been honoured with a Bharat Ratna. Many believe that his unique, lustrous and incomparable contributions earn him the sobriquet of Nyaya Ratna.
(Anil Divan is a senior advocate of the Supreme Court.)