Remembering Justice V R Krishna Iyer: A larger than life hero

Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer (1915-2014) was a multifaceted personality with unique qualities of judgeship, statesmanship and leadership. His colourful legal career is an inspiring and motivating factor for many in the legal profession. He began his legal practice as an advocate in 1937 at Taluk level trial court in Tellicherry (now Thalassery), Kerala and on his sheer sincerity, hard work and commitment to the cause of common public, he got elevated to the Supreme Court.

He appeared, argued and defended for A. K. Gopalan and many other popular leaders in the trial and appellate courts. He also had a rare privilege to serve as a minister in the first democratically elected Communist government in the world. Krishna Iyer was Minster for Home Affairs, Irrigation, Prisons, Law and Electricity in the EMS Namboodiripad ministry in the newly formed State of Kerala, after its bifurcation from the Madras presidency. Having acquired experience in the art of drafting recommendations and reports while serving as a member of Law Commission (1971-1973), he also had the privilege to witness the pre and post constitutional courts, adjudicatory process and legal developments. Perhaps, for the first time in the annals of history, he along with two other Judges of Supreme Court visited Tihar Jail, the largest prison complex in South Asia and  laid foundation for the prison reforms, a grossly neglected post-judgment arena of criminal jurisprudence.

He adorned the Bench of the Supreme Court for a tenure of less than eight years. However, with the kind of versatility he had, he pronounced more than 700 judgments of which a greater number were progressive and had set a new trend in the judicial governance. Interestingly, he had never delivered any dissenting verdicts and had not struck down any of the major provisions of law as null and void. Even in Muthamma case, a legal literature on misogyny, he raised a question Him can – Her Cannot –How?. And thus, removed the gender inequality by  declaring a Rule in the Indian Foreign Service as void and unconstitutional. Abolition of the practice of hand-cuffing and foot-cuffing of the prisoners and solitary confinement are two tremendous achievements that humanized the Indian prison jurisprudence. The segregation of under trail and convicted prisoners is  a greatest prison administrative reform initiated by him through the  landmark decisions in the Sunil Batra (II), Prem Shankar Shukla cases  in 1979 and 1980.

His judicial products consist of unusual words in an uncustomary style for which he had been grimly criticized. In 1974, he penned a separate but concurring judgment in Shamesher Singh case.  Even after four decades of myriad changes in politics and governance, this remains as a report sketching clearest exposition of the cabinet government in Indian polity.  For the beautifully crafted verdict,  as Judgement-maker, he received appreciation from his home maker. His wife, who heard the dictation, appreciated him, which he recorded in his auto-biography as a greatest honour.

Interestingly, Justice Krishna Iyer, a celebrated former judge of the Supreme Court, whose verdicts are followed as precedent and law of the land by the High Courts and Subordinate Courts and considered as tools of trade by the legal fraternity, has also become a litigant and faced contempt proceedings. The power of contempt conferred under Articles 129 and 215 of the Constitution of India respectively, upon the Supreme Court and High Courts is a rigor and rare punitive jurisdiction.The Courts have absolute discretion to prescribe the punishment as it is not suggested by the framers of the Constitution.

It is pertinent to mention that Kerala High Court had earlier in 1968 rigorously slapped a fine of Rs 1000  or simple imprisonment for one month against the former chief minister EMS Namboodiripad, for his alleged utterances on judiciary and judges. Later in appeal, the Supreme Court has reduced the fine to Rs 50 but upheld the conviction.

In October 1981, on the eve of the silver jubilee celebration of the Kerala High Court, he delivered a speech in a symposium, which was chaired by Justice G. Viswanatha Iyer, the then sitting judge of Kerala High Court. An Advocate Vincent Panikulangara, who heard the speech, described it as scandalisation and obtained sanction from the Advocate General and initiated contempt proceedings against Justice Krishna Iyer. The Division Bench of the Court did an academic exercise to define the contours of permissible criticism. It drew a line between well-informed criticism and ill- informed criticism and held that Justice Krishna Iyer, the contemnor has spent years or perhaps most of his life time as part of the judiciary. Therefore, the comments made by him are not of a person who is vituperative or who wants to bring disrepute to the judicial system. His speech had alerted the audience to bestow serious attention to the concurring issues at hand. This piquant incident in his life is also an equally important event in the judicial history.

The judgement on Justice Krishna Iyer, in the contempt proceedings by the High Court of Kerala remains as an unprecedented – precedent in the law journals. He was the only party to the contempt proceedings who was not only spared from a sentence but also received a testimonial compliment from the Bench.

Justice Krishna Iyer’s post-retirement life was an anthology of unique events. Even till his last days, he remained dynamic and productive. As a prolific writer, he has authored more than 100 books and delivered many prestigious lectures.He also faced an electoral battle for the apex constitutional office of the President of India and lost in it. He was also the first and only judge who appeared in the silver screen through the movie, Virumandi,  produced by Kamal Hassan, to campaign against prison torture and cruelty.

To conclude, it would be apt to quote George H. Gadbois’s words from his book Judges of the Supreme Court of India, “V.R. Krishna Iyer as a truly iconic figure who is larger than life.”

V. R. Krishna Iyer’s image by Bharat S. Raj (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Chief Judicial Magistrate serving in the Tamil Nadu State Judiciary. He has authored the book ‘The Voice of Populist Jurisprudent- The Progressive Pronouncements of Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer’ in the year 2014. Email: sathiyamurthy2000@gmail.com. Views expressed are personal of the author and does not reflect those of The Indian Jurist.

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