Associate Editor, Raghul Sudheesh met the most referred to name in Indian Constitutional law - None other than His Holiness Sri Keshavananda Bharathi Sripadangalavaru! Read on to find out about Raghul’s unique journey and fascinating conversation with this celebrity petitioner of the Fundamental Rights case.
Think ‘Constitutional Law’ and it is very likely that the first case that comes to your mind is ‘Keshavananda Bharathi v. State of Kerala’. This landmark judgment, which runs into several hundred pages, is famous for several reasons. It is the biggest hurdle in the lives of young students as well as the most experienced minds in the sphere of Constitutional Law. The judgment laid down the foundation of the judiciary’s power to review and strike down amendments to the Constitution of India and also laid down the extent to which the Parliament can restrict the right to property. What further sets it apart is that it was delivered by a thirteen judge bench at a time when there were only thirteen judges serving in the Supreme Court. In no other matter have thirteen judges sat together either before or after the Keshavananda Bharathi case.
The importance of the judgment is indeed well known, but few people pause and think about the man behind this judgment, His Holiness Keshavananda Bharathi Sripadangalavaru. My curiosity about the real person behind this landmark case took me on an unexpected and fascinating journey.
My quest for information began with me contacting my mentor and teacher of Constitutional Law from law school, Shanmugham D. J. He told me that he has met Bharathi, and informed me that Bharathi lives at a Mutt called Edneer Mutt, in a remote place near Kasargod. That was all I needed to make up my mind that I will meet Bharathi. A few days and phone calls later, I was on a bus to Mangalore, en route to Kasargod to meet His Holiness Sri Keshavananda Bharathi Sripadangalavaru!
I arrived at Mangalore early in the morning and then took a train to Kasargod, which is a pleasant sea side town. I then took a bus to Edneer, where Bharathi’s mutt is situated. The lush greenery and beauty of the Mutt and its surroundings were really captivating. The mutt is situated on the banks of the Madhuvahini river. It is a pleasant building with two schools situated on the site, as well as a school for Vedic Studies. All these centers of learning, I was told, are run by Bharathi.
Bharathi is referred as ‘His Holiness’ as he is a peetadhipati (chief patron of a religious sect) and heads the Edneer Mutt (pictured) which was started by devotees of Sri Adi Sankaracharya. The mutt has been headed by Bharti since he was 19 years old. From the moment I got an appointment with Bharathi, I knew that it would be a million-dollar moment. My excitement knew no bounds when I finally arrived at the mutt.
There was a pooja taking place at the mutt when I arrived. When the pooja was done by around 6 in the evening, I met Bharathi for the first time and had a very brief conversation with him. I couldn’t believe that I was standing in front of the most referred name in Constitutional Law. Bharathi was very cordial and friendly. He asked me about my whereabouts and said he would speak to me at length the next day. He extended an invitation for me to stay at his guest house until then.
I woke up early next morning, all set to meet Bharathi. On entering the main building, I saw that there was a group of people who were visiting the mutt. On seeing Sri Keshavananda Bharathi enter, they immediately dropped to their knees to greet him. It struck me just how much this man was revered and respected; he actually has devotees! Before meeting him, I had a conversation with one of his disciples, who made me aware of the fact that people would give offerings to Bharathi and seek his blessings when they meet him. I followed suit and bought some fruits to give as an offering.
Due to some unexpected visitors, I had to wait for an hour to meet him. On finally meeting him and speaking to him at length, I realized that for this man, the case was merely an event in his life that happened to have taken place thirty years ago. I was lucky to listen to some of his songs which were sung by him for his unexpected visitors. It is a less know fact that, he is a great singer and lover of Carnatic music. It was quite interesting to learn that either he wasn’t aware of, or didn’t attribute much importance to, his contribution to Indian law. After the conversation was over, he gifted me some books and CD’s about the mutt and also took down my contact details, fulfilling his role of a gracious host. At the end of the day, even though he played down his own importance in the legal world, the trip was quite a unique experience for me.
Below are excerpts from my conversation with him.
Raghul Sudheesh: To begin with, tell us something about your personal life.
H. H. Keshavananda Bharathi: I come from a family that has been running this ashram for generations. At the age of 19, I succeeded Sri Ishwarananda Bharathi Swamiji as head of the Mutt as family custom dictated so. I continue to do the good work of my guru and perform the poojas and upasana (rituals) of Sri Dakshinamurthy and Sri Gopalakrishna, the presiding deities of the Mutt. I am actively involved with religious, art, social and cultural activities. I love listening to Carnatic and Hindustani music in my free time.
Raghul Sudheesh: What are your memories and experiences regarding the case?
H. H. Keshavananda Bharathi: I don’t remember much about fighting the case. The entire thing was handled by lawyers, who I think did a good job. I was in my late twenties or early thirties when the case came up before the Supreme Court. All our property was about to be acquired by the Government, and we could not afford that to happen. The money we needed for running the mutt was being generated from this property. We approached Mr. M. K. Nambyar, who was a renowned lawyer. He prepared the initial files for the case. Later, Mr. Nambyar introduced us to Nani Palkhiwala. Of the judges, I don’t remember all of them. However, I do remember Justice H. R. Khanna and Justice K. S. Hegde well.
Raghul Sudheesh: What were the difficulties faced by you after the enforcement of the land acquisition law?
H. H. Keshavananda Bharathi: We lost all our property. Prior to the enactment of the law, we had enough revenue from the property and could run the mutt without any difficulty and also do various charitable activities. However, now, we don’t have enough money to run the institution and have to depend upon donations. Our income has reduced considerably and our expenses have increased very much.
Raghul Sudheesh: Do you think that the decision to acquire land was part of vote bank politics practised by the Kerala Government, which happens to be the world’s first democratically elected communist government?
H. H. Keshavananda Bharathi: I do not think so. The Congress government brought this law into effect in Karnataka. Many other state governments also enforced the land acquisition law. And though the Kerala Government was a Communist Government, Temple or Mutt-owned property was exempted from the Government acquisition unlike in other States. It is only because of this exemption that we have at least some property left with us now.
Government rules do cause difficulty to people at times. We have to abide by it and cannot say whether it is right or wrong. We approached the court only when we felt that the government encroached upon our rights.
Raghul Sudheesh: Why did you approach the Supreme Court directly?
H. H. Keshavananda Bharathi: It was the course of action that was advised by the lawyers, as they felt that approaching the Supreme Court would have the required impact.
Raghul Sudheesh: What was your first reaction upon hearing the judgment?
H. H. Keshavananda Bharathi: I didn’t feel much, because I am not an emotional person. I believe that it was all God’s decision. After all, the property is not mine, it all belongs to the mutt and I am only someone who is managing it. So the loss or the gain is actually the mutt’s. I am a neutral person, only a servant of God. I felt that God would be happy with what I did as I was successful in my duty of protecting the mutt.
However, it’s a fact that many people have benefited from the judgment. The fact that the case is quoted so many times in the Supreme Court is proof that many people are being benefited from our fighting this case.
Raghul Sudheesh: Did you expect that this judgment would become such a landmark judgment?
H. H. Keshavananda Bharathi: No, I never thought so. It happened unexpectedly. Also, I never knew the legal complications as it was well managed by the lawyers. I never even went to court to witness the proceedings.
Raghul Sudheesh: Do you still often think of the judgment today?
H. H. Keshavananda Bharathi: No, the judgment is just a memory now. I only remember it when I am asked to comment about it. I heard that a book about the judgment has recently been released. People have been asking me if I was approached by the authors of the book, but I wasn’t. I wonder how they released a book about it without informing me, or asking me about the details of the case.
Raghul Sudheesh: What are your future plans for the mutt?
H. H. Keshavananda Bharathi: We are facing a lot of difficulties in running the mutt as we don’t have much revenue. However, we are trying our best to run it. I will eventually hand it over to my successor.
Raghul Sudheesh is Associate Editor at Bar & Bench. You can follow him on Twitter.