Justice AK Sikri: The Professor Judge of India

Bar & Bench March 22 2019

Undertaking the task to pen our views about a Supreme Court Judge is daunting, not least because Justice AK Sikri was one of the most respected and admired judges of the nation, but also because we realize that the words that adequately describe his nature, humility, integrity, and intelligence may be misconstrued as treading into obsequiousness.

But his story is one for the ages, one that demands to be told. We, as his law clerks, only attempt to contribute a drop in this vast ocean. The opportunity to write this is indeed a particular honor. For as much as Hon’ble Mr. Justice AK Sikri has touched the life of the law, he has touched the lives of those around him and in ways that hold rich lessons of their own.

We all have had those extraordinary moments when particular incidents provide us a glimpse about the decisions that have brought us to this very minute and how our actions continue to unravel our future and impact all that is around us. These moments are insightful, rare and valuable. While for most of us these moments occur infrequently, there are a few exceptional people who are capable of seeing the world with such a viewpoint.

Crossing paths with such exceptional people is often regarded as a blessing, because they are capable of lifting us up, providing us with a mindset that enables us to see new perspectives. We, as Justice AK Sikri’s law clerks, consider ourselves to be extremely fortunate, as we had the opportunity to not only cross paths with him, but also to share intensive years and a lifelong bond with a man who has that gift and has continuously shared it with those who he has come in contact with.

To clerk for Justice AK Sikri was an opportunity to serve an institution that we venerate. The approach adopted by His Lordship has been unique because while he is the most forward looking and adaptable judge, his insight is rooted in history, the Constitution and an unparalleled appreciation for the Rule of Law. His lectures and judgments insightfully present an amalgamation of the past and the present. His primary focus is not only to appropriately resolve the dispute at hand, but also to contribute effectively towards the constant evolution of law so that similar conflicts seldom crop up.

A thinker, a philosopher, a teacher, Justice AK Sikri has always believed in the richness of the Indian jurisprudential thought, which is lately becoming disjointed from our modern jurisprudential thought. Quoting Justice AK Sikri,

“There is a wrong perception, which even we, the people of India, carry that human rights are the gifts of the West to the rest”.

It has been his endeavor to look back at the tides of time to find the genesis of our modern laws and legal thought in our ancient scriptures and teachings, thereby connecting modern legal thought with ancient Indian jurisprudence.

Giving Human Dignity a meaning the world craved

“Human rights are not granted by the people nor can they be taken away by them.”

Reinforcing that Human Rights are universally recognized as belonging to every person, Justice KS Radhakrishan along with Justice AK Sikri penned the historical judgment, granting legal recognition of gender identity whether it be male, female or third gender.

Holding that “the Constitution is a living entity and its interpretation must be dynamic", the judgment paved the way for a more accepting and equal society. The “human” element of the judgment was further highlighted when Justice AK Sikri referred to an article that appeared in a magazine “Eye” that narrated the story of a person born as a boy but with trappings of female. Emphasizing the difficulties faced by the person compounded by our society’s discriminatory behavior, Justice AK Sikri’s words stirred empathy in the minds of the readers, an outcome he was hoping for.

Many judgments of Justice AK Sikri laid emphasis on the "human element"

In the Jeeja Ghosh matter, Justice AK Sikri began the judgment by quoting this phrase from the book No Pity by Joseph Shapiro,

“Non-disabled Americans do not understand disabled ones”.

This one line encapsulated the underlying issues that the case brought to the fore. Stressing upon the indispensable aspect of human dignity, Justice AK Sikri classified the constitutional value of human dignity into three essential categories: 1) Theoretical Model; 2) Philosophical Model; 3) Constitutional Model.

He seamlessly merged this with the case at hand - the requirements of indisputably treating people in all respects with absolute dignity, and not merely sympathy.

In the Constitution Bench judgment concerning Passive Euthanasia, Justice AK Sikri unfolded the complexities surrounding the controversial issue. He went on to state.

“In the context of euthanasia, ‘personal autonomy’ of an individual, as a part of human dignity, can be pressed into service…In addition to personal autonomy, other facets of human dignity, namely, ‘self expression’ and ‘right to determine’ also support the argument that it is the choice of the patient to receive or not to receive treatment.”

As a judge of the Delhi High Court, Chief Justice of the Punjab and Haryana High Court, and eventually judge of the Supreme Court he has tried to remind us to safeguard the freedoms we enjoy. Through his judgments, speeches and even discussions with us, he would stress on the issues that we as a nation are facing and how we must as young professionals evolve with the constantly changing legal and political dynamics.

Justice AK Sikri showed us with the power of his pen, the vital role the judiciary has in ensuring our Constitution, our structures, and our government are respected, relevant and accessible. He stressed that it is the people’s respect for the rule of law, the faith in our institutions, and the integrity of those who serve them that will protect the liberties and rights we know.

It is believed that judges of today ought to be ones who are “sensitive to the climate of the age, not the weather of the day or the weather of the year.” When we look at the climate of this day, we can describe it as one that demands increasing sensitivity towards human rights and human dignity.

At the very outset, based on all that he stands for and all he has propounded, Hon’ble Justice AK Sikri has been not merely a part of the climate of our age but largely responsible for bringing it into existence. In the Maharashtra Dance Bar judgment, Justice AK Sikri balanced the competing interests, respecting the dignity of those associated. His judgment diluted certain provisions and brought about the much-needed regulation in the industry aimed at curbing the exploitation of the dancers.

For him, human dignity was not just words on a paper, or something that should be preached emptily. The words that he wrote and spoke about were words that he lived by, believed in with all his heart, holding it on the highest pedestal, whether it was in his judgments, speeches or interpersonal interactions. Despite having presided over numerous criminal cases and issues concerning human rights, cases with a blatant disregard for human dignity would leave him distressed and he would assume responsibility in ensuring that similar issues do not repeat itself. It was this characteristic of his that truly set him apart.

New disputes, new resolutions

Justice AK Sikri has been mindful of the issues that Indian courts grapple with, including the huge caseload. He has also been someone who has strongly felt that the courts need to encourage alternative methods for the resolution of disputes and must strive to limit interference in matters concerning arbitration.

In A Ayyasamy. he clarified that allegations of fraud could be arbitrable if not complicated or serious. Whether it is mediation in matrimonial cases or arbitration in many commercial matters, it has been his view that this is the way forward as long as justice is done.

Placing emphasis on the non-adversarial characteristic of mediation he has aptly said,

“Mediation brings us from I to We, or Me to We. However the only reason behind mediation is not to take the burden off the courts but to deliver justice and stay true to the law. Mediation talks about what is right whereas the judicial system talks about who is right.”

Additionally, he has strongly believed that the court process should only strive to assist arbitration and not hamper it in any which way. He has always thought of India one day being the “future hub for neutral arbitration”, and the need for India to aspire to be so, “since most people have tremendous faith in this system of resolution”.

His contribution to this field of law has been remarkable. Often he would speak to us about different mediation techniques that he has seen being used by mediators around the world in various matters and how each was pertinent and unique. He would narrate stories to us and tell us about the importance of truly understanding the conflict in order to determine what method ought to be employed in its effective resolution.

The Teacher in Him

Some of us interned with Justice AK Sikri during law school; for a young law student, orally briefing a Senior judge of the Supreme Court could, quite appear to be an intimidating task. However, to our pleasant surprise, even during such briefings, the teacher in Justice AK Sikri would come out and he would slowly explain legal concepts pertaining to the case.

Justice AK Sikri

Justice AK Sikri with his clerks and research assistants

Not once did he raise his voice, or lose his calm, which made our first steps into the profession extremely smooth and full of warmth. He was Justice AK Sikri for the world, but more importantly, he was a friend who his students or staff could approach at any given time and he would always take out the time to hear them out, no matter who it was. Justice AK Sikri is not an individual, he is an institution and his extremely successful career and legacy will always be celebrated and cherished by future lawyers for years to come.

Humility personified

When we look back, all of us still vividly remember the first time we walked into his chamber at his residence. There were so many thoughts running through our heads, for we were about to meet a judge of the Apex Court, someone whose judgments we grew up hearing about in the news and whose opinions we studied throughout law school.

Upon walking in - on different occasions for all of us over a span of a few years - we all felt a sheer sense of warmth dawn upon us. It was on that very moment of that very day, that we realized that fate had brought us to the perfect boss, the perfect Guru - welcoming towards his juniors and always open to conversation about almost anything under the Sun.

Growing under his guidance has been a truly enriching experience for us, not only as young lawyers but also as human beings. Looking back today, all of us collectively believe that there could have been no better way for us to start our professional journeys into the field of law than under Justice AK Sikri’s most able guidance.

It has been two weeks since his retirement, and his absence in the Supreme Court can be felt. The way he worked day and night, reminded us that it was impossible to achieve any success without perseverance and hard work. He often told us about the importance of young lawyers in the constantly evolving world. He would share numerous motivating and inspiring stories with us over a cup of coffee. While discussing the different cases he would narrate anecdotes that would constantly encourage us to be even better than our capabilities permitted. Working for him has been an honour, for he is sincere, modest, humble, intellectually thorough, and extremely generous.

As former law clerks, current advocates, and proud Indians, we are extremely grateful for what Justice AK Sikri has taught all of us about the law and life. He has left an indelible impression on his law clerks, the advocates who appeared before him, his colleagues, the Court, and the Bar. Just as he has inspired us, he will continue to inspire the future lawyers and judges to serve justice, stand for the truth, defend the rule of law. and to support and uphold the Constitution.

Written by Justice AK Sikri's former Law Clerks–cum-Research Assistants.