Remembering the People's Judge: The Judicial Philosophy of Justice Krishna Iyer

Bar & Bench December 4 2018
Justice VR Krishna Iyer

Tariq Khan

Harish Salve in his article ‘Justice V R Krishna Iyer: Man who rescued Supreme Court from supreme shame has quoted eminent Professor Upendra Baxi and pithily put it that “the Supreme Court of India was Krishnaiyerised to become the Supreme Court for Indians”. In a similar vein, Dushyant Dave, in a full court reference, remembered Justice Iyer as “one of the greatest sons of India” and “a legend, a phenomenon, a one-man army against injustices and upholder of all just causes and above all a great humanist”.

Justice VR Krishna Iyer (1915-2014) was a multifaceted personality with inimitable qualities of judgeship, and is often referred to as a conscience keeper of justice in India. He was at the Bench of the Supreme Court for a tenure of almost eight years where he reformed the Indian justice system and stood up for the poor and underprivileged.

As a prolific writer, he authored various books, articles and delivered many prestigious lectures. His style of writing judgments was inimitable and his vast knowledge and command over the language reflected in them. Justice Iyer’s contribution to the development of Indian jurisprudence makes him one of the greatest judges of all time.

The following are excerpts from some of his judgments:

Standing for Fundamental Rights

In Som Prakash Rekhi v. Union Of India & Anr, he expanded the definition of state for enforcing the fundamental rights and held as under:

“The conclusion is impeccable that if the corporate body is but an ‘instrumentality or agency’ of Government, then Part III will trammel its operations. It is a case of quasi- governmental beings, not of non-State entities. We have no hesitation to hold that where the chemistry of the corporate body answers the test of ‘State’ above outlined it comes within the definition in Art. 12. In our constitutional scheme where the commanding heights belong to the public sector of the national economy, to grant absolution to government companies and their ilk from Part III may be perilous. The court cannot connive at a process which eventually makes fundamental rights as rare as ‘roses in December, ice in June’.”

Technicalities in Law

In State of Punjab And Another v. Shamlal Murari & Anr, Justice Iyer emphasized on the need of ignoring the technicalities to give way to justice in the following golden words:

“We must always remember that processual law is not to be a tyrant but a servant, not an obstruction but an aid to justice. It has been wisely observed that procedural prescriptions are the handmaid and not the mistress, a lubricant, not a resistant in the administration of justice. Where the non- compliance, tho’ procedural, will thwart fair hearing or prejudice doing of justice to parties, the rule is mandatory. But, grammar apart, if the breach can be corrected without injury to a just disposal of the case, we should not enthrone a regulatory requirement into a dominant desideratum. After, all Courts are to do justice, not to wreck this end product on technicalities.”

Liquor Ban

In PN Kaushal Etc v. Union of India, while dealing with writ petitions filed against a rule declaring a two-day ban on the sale of liquor, Justice Iyer opened the judgment in the following words:

“What are we about? A raging rain of writ petitions by hundreds of merchants of intoxicants hit by a recently amended rule declaring a break of two ‘dry’ days in every ‘wet’ week for licensed liquor shops and other institutions of inebriation in the private sector, puts in issue the constitutionality of section 59(f)(v) and Rule 37 of the Punjab Excise Act and Liquor Licence (Second Amendment) Rules, (hereinafter, for short, the Act and the Rules). The tragic irony of the legal plea is that Article 14 and 19 of the very Constitution, which, in Article 47, makes it a fundamental obligation of the State to bring about prohibition of intoxicating drinks, is pressed into service to thwart the State’s half-hearted prohibitionist gesture. Of course, it is on the cards that the end may be good but the means may be bad, constitutionally speaking. And there is a mystique about legalese beyond the layman’s ken!”

Social Justice

Justice Iyer’s attitude towards a variety of issues was predictable. If it was a labour matter, his sympathies would always be with the workmen. In fatal accident cases, Justice Iyer was in favour of strict liability. In State of Haryana v. Darshana Devi, Justice Iyer dismissed the special leave petition filed by the State of Haryana and observed as under:

“Here is a case of a widow and daughter claiming compensation for the killing of the sole bread-winner by a State Transport bus; and the Haryana Government, instead of acting on social justice and generously settling the claim, fights like a cantankerous litigant even by avoiding adjudication through the device of asking for Court fee from the pathetic plaintiffs.”

Respect for Personal Liberty

His deep and abiding respect for life and liberty is reflected in many of his judgments. He was always concerned for prisoners and their right to life. In Prem Shankar Shukla v. Delhi Administration, he ruled that handcuffing of under-trial prisoners is permissible only in very exceptional situations.

Capital Punishment 

In Rajendra Prasad Etc. v. State of Uttar Pradesh, Justice Iyer reiterated his belief in Yoga:

“Yoga in its many forms seems to hold splendid answers. Meditational technology as a tool of criminology is a nascent – ancient methodology.  The State must experiment. It is cheaper to hang than to heal, but Indian life- any human life – is too dear to be swung dead save in extreme circumstances.”

In Dalbir Singh v. State of Punjab, Justice Iyer reiterated the principles laid down in Rajendra Prasad’s case and then concluded:

“Modern neurology has unravelled through research the traumatic truth that aggressive behaviour, even brutal murder, may in all but not negligible cases be traced to brain tumour. In such cases cerebral surgery, not hanging until he is dead, is the rational recipe. This factor is relevant to conviction for crime, but more relevant to the irrevocable sentence of death.”

Bail or Jail?

In Gudikanti Narasimhulu v. High Court of Andhra Pradesh, Justice Iyer opened his order with the poser:

Bail or Jail?” and held: “Heavy bail from poor man is obviously wrong. Poverty is society’s malady and sympathy, not sternness, is the judicial response.

Unfailing Courtesy to the Counsel

In State of Punjab v. Gurdial Singh, he praised the conduct of the Government Counsel and observed as under:

“Counsel in Court are ‘robed’ representatives, within the parameters of the adversary system, geared to the higher cause of justice, not amoral attorneys paid to ventriloquize the case of the principal.”

Inimitable Style of Writing

The following excerpt from his judgment in Charles Sobraj v. Superintendent, Central Jail, serves as a sample to his unconventional language:

“Contemporary profusion of prison torture reports makes it necessary to drive home the obvious, to shake prison top brass from the callous complacency of unaccountable autonomy within that walled-off world of human held incommunicado. Whenever fundamental rights are flouted or legislative protection ignored, to any prisoner’s prejudice, this Court’s writ will run, breaking through stone walls and iron bars, to right the wrong and restore the rule of law. Then the parrot-cry of discipline will not deter, of security will not scare, of discretion will not dissuade, the judicial process.

For if courts ‘cave in’ when great rights are gouged within the sound-proof, sight-proof precincts of prison houses, where, often, dissenters and minorities are caged, Bastilles will be re-enacted. When law ends tyranny begins; and history whispers, iron has never been the answer to the rights of men. Therefore, we affirm that imprisonment does not spell farewell to fundamental rights although, by a realistic re-appraisal, courts will refuse to recognise the full panoply of Part III enjoyed by a free citizen.”        

An Appeal to Parliament

In his article titled “Who will judge the judges?” published by The Hindu, Justice Iyer made an appeal to Parliament in the following words:

Parliament should wake up and implement glasnost and perestroika in the judiciary. In the name of independence, we cannot have judicial absolutism and tyranny.”

Lastly, it would be appropriate to quote from a resolution passed by Mr. Fali S Nariman and some other senior advocates at a dinner that termed Justice Iyer as a humane judge. The resolution said:

“…No words of prosaic prose would be adequate to encompass your vitality and versatility — not even if we drew upon and borrowed from the hoarded wealth of a vast vocabulary you are known to possess. We shall therefore crave your indulgence to supplement the record by those profounder feelings, which the language of the lexicon cannot communicate and which are best conveyed by the language of the heart.”

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