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The 'Bhishma Pitamah' of Indian Justice

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Last updated on: December 08, 2014 16:29 IST
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His approach to issues once prompted jurist Fali S Nariman to declare, 'When Krishna Iyer speaks, the nation listens.'

Justice V R Krishna Iyer, whose pathbreaking verdicts humanised the law, was a revolutionary judge of the Supreme Court at a time when India was in political and legal tumult in the 1970s.

Vaidyanathapura Rama Krishna Iyer, who earned fame and recognition for his judgments, for his way of writing his verdicts and for his mastery over the English language, made the unusual journey from politician to the judiciary. He was an MLA, minister and a judge in Kerala before being elevated to the apex court in 1973.

Justice Krishna Iyer put citizens at the centre of his focus and was a living legend for his knowledge of law that prompted a Chief Justice of India, Justice A S Anand, to refer to him as the 'Bhishma Pithamah' of the Indian judiciary. He retired from the apex court in 1980.

Justice Krishna Iyer had interpreted the guarantees given by the Constitution like Article 21 (the Right to Life and the Right to Personal Liberty) for a new age and fashioned new instruments to deliver justice.

His judicial remedies were sought through the instrumentalities of public interest litigation and broader concepts of locus standi.

As a social activist, he championed several causes for the welfare of the people.

His approach to burning issues once prompted jurist Fali S Nariman to declare, 'When Krishna Iyer speaks, the nation listens.'

Some of his landmark judgments, including the banning of routine handcuffing of prisoners and the Shamsher Singh case which interpreted the powers of the Cabinet vis-a-vis the President, earned him a place among renowned legal scholars like Earl Warren, the former chief justice of the United States supreme court, and Lord Denning.

His interim order of June 24, 1975 not giving then prime minister Indira Gandhi an unconditional stay of the Allahabad high court verdict -- which had declared as void her election to the Lok Sabha -- won him massive appreciation as well as criticism. A state of Emergency was clamped the next day.

Justice Iyer rejected Indira Gandhi's application that the verdict finding her guilty of corrupt election practices and disqualifying her for six years should be totally suspended.

The Supreme Court allowed Indira Gandhi to function as prime minister, attend the Lok Sabha, but without a right to vote.

H M Seervai, the noted Constitutional lawyer and no uncritical admirer of Justice Iyer, wrote that historians would say that the Supreme Court moved towards its finest hour after Justice Iyer rejected Indira Gandhi's application for an unconditional stay that changed the history of the nation.

'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", Seervai noted.

Justice Iyer had excellent command over both English and Malayalam. Whatever he had to say, he would say beautifully and emphatically. He pleaded, he urged, he demanded and he warned, using his huge vocabulary as a sabre.

After retirement from the Supreme Court where his judgments have stood the test of time, Justice Iyer spurned the lure of power 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.

It was felt that his services to the nation, the rule of law, the judiciary and the disadvantaged and underprivileged gave him a stature comparable to many who have been honoured with the country's highest civilian honour, the Bharat Ratna.

Born on November 15, 1914 at Vaidyanathapura near Palakkad in Malabar, he began his legal career in 1937 working under his father V V Rama Ayyar, a leading criminal lawyer.

Krishna Iyer had a tryst with politics when he became an MLA from then then Madras assembly constituency in 1952 and was appointed a minister in E M S Namboodiripad's Communist government in Kerala in 1957. He was an important force behind key decisions in the state's history like the land reforms law.

After he lost the election in 1965, Krishna Iyer concentrated on his legal practice and was elevated as a judge of the Kerala high court in 1968 and to the Supreme Court in 1973. He retired from the Supreme Court on November 14, 1980.

He delivered as many as 400 judgments during his tenure as a Supreme Court judge.

Justice Krishna Iyer, a recipient of the Padma Vibhushan, wrote about 70 books, mostly on the law, besides four travelogues. He served as a member of the Law Commission from 1971 to 1973 and also headed the state Law Reform Commission.

In 2002, he was part of a citizen's panel probing the Gujarat riots along with retired Justice R B Sawant and others.

He unsuccessfully contested the Presidential election in 1987 in which Ramaswamy Venkataraman was his main opponent.

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