Everything in the world has either a price or a dignity,” said Immanuel Kant. As we cease to see human beings as things in the natural world and construe them as similar to machines, we abandon dignity in favour of price: we lose a sense of distinctly human value, and reduce everything to instrumental value, forgetting that where everything has instrumental value, nothing has dignity at all. If anyone in Indian jurisprudence had so passionately adhered to this Kantian notion, it was Justice VR Krishna Iyer. Unquestionably, he belonged to a genre of jurists who respected human dignity as much as the dignity of the natural world.
Justice Iyer was a legendary figure in Indian jurisprudence. Throughout his life, he envisioned the future of the nation through a social justice prism. It may seem a strange coincidence that in less than 24 hours after the Supreme Court decided to have a social justice bench, this messiah of the oppressed masses bid farewell to the world. Perhaps, Justice Iyer’s long-lasting wish got materialised, albeit in his absence.
India does not have a long list of such legal luminaries who would make a claim that post-retirement life is a life with a mission. For him, this mission was a “vigorous wonder of pursuit of public causes, willing to battle against harsh ground realities and diehard social injustices”.
Justice Iyer, who turned 100 a few days before his demise, carried the stature of the British jurist Lord Alfred Denning, who also died a few weeks after his 100th birthday. One wonders if Justice Iyer also had fallen in line with Lord Denning’s thinking that “limitation is not a matter of justice” but “a rule of public policy which has its origin in history and its justification in convenience”. Denning was only underscoring the critical role of jurisprudence. But Iyer extended it to a wider realm of social intervention.
Justice Iyer began his professional life way back in 1938 in the erstwhile Malabar, which was then under the Madras High Court. An active public intellectual that he was, Iyer could not but become a “moral rebel against human injustice”. Within a short time, he emerged as a leading lawyer with sharp but critical social insights into both civil and criminal laws. His advocacy of the poor and downtrodden later got him into trouble. For a month in May 1948, he was in police custody and prison on fabricated charges. This did not deter him from coming into close contact with progressive and revolutionary leaders of the time. Iyer’s interventions in aid of the nationalist cause, striking workers and struggling peasantry also earned him a name in the wider political realm.
Public interest questions continued to attract his attention in spite of the professional commitments. This led to his victory as an independent candidate from Tellicherry during the election to the Madras Legislative Assembly in 1951. Iyer’s shift from judiciary to legislature strengthened his acumen and thereby helped him master the art of parliamentary discourse. He realised then and thereafter the importance of the legislative process for social transformation. His election to the Kerala Assembly in 1957 was a turning point. By becoming a minister in charge of home, law, justice, prisons, social welfare, etc. in the EMS Namboodiripad government, Iyer positioned himself as part of the executive. However, the dismissal of the government was a decisive moment for him. Having returned to his profession in August 1959, Iyer earned a reputation as one of the leading lawyers of the state. Though he contested again in the election held in 1965, he was defeated. This transformed his course of engagements; yet Iyer chose to remain in public life with his renewed vigour in the legal profession.
As a lawyer he excelled in diverse spheres, besides being the champion of the oppressed and marginalised classes. As a public intellectual, he held several positions in people’s organisations, arts societies, sports councils and cultural groupings. This included his position in the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, All India Peace Council, human rights organisations, workers’ and peasants’ movements and the list could be much longer as his age advanced. Iyer’s championing of the rights of construction workers, Dalits, women, children and the elderly constituted his social world of critical engagements.
Iyer’s stature grew considerably when he became a member of the Law Commission. As chairman of the expert committee on free legal aid to the poor, he brought out a report that became the first comprehensive document on free legal aid in India. Iyer’s change of role from the Law Commission to the Supreme Court (1973-80) became a significant trajectory in Indian jurisprudence. His democratic credentials apart, the people-oriented/social justice-oriented verdicts of Iyer made him a jurist extraordinaire. Perhaps, the nation never witnessed a stature of this sort before when he performed multifunctional roles in the legislature, executive and judiciary.
The most challenging legal-political question Iyer ever addressed in his tenure was the one related to Indira Gandhi when the Allahabad hc disqualified her. The appeal petition was handled by Iyer in the most careful manner, which brought him fame years later. Though the Emergency was the natural outcome of this judicial dispensation, it subsequently raised several questions of constitutionality, fundamental rights and democratic propriety on which Iyer had his firm position. His most enduring advocacy of the rights of undertrial prisoners resulted in fundamental changes in the jurisprudence of bail. Public interest litigation, jail reforms, etc. were the other subjects on which he had a distinctly different vision.
Similarly, the abolition of death penalty was the constant theme of his endeavours in the realm of human rights. Justice Iyer argued that no civilised State had any “authority to inflict death penalty even in the rarest of rare cases, lest it be condemned as guilty of barbarity and devoid of humanity”. Justice Iyer used to remind his colleagues that the “universal respect for human rights commands absolute abolition of capital punishment” as no State “can stultify or demolish the right to life of any human being”.
Justice Iyer’s social intervention agenda never missed any critical subjects of contemporary concern. He was sceptical of nuclear programmes and argued that the “high priests of the nuclear religion are specialists in the art of misleading public opinion”. While supporting the people’s agitation in Koodankulam, he wrote to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa, requesting her to put the programme on hold and address the concerns raised by the local people.
Likewise, his advocacy of the rights of the Tamils in Sri Lanka led him to call the IPKF the “Indian Peace Killing Force” and see the 1987 Indo-Sri Lanka Accord as fundamentally flawed.
The people of Kerala always looked upon him as the voice of ingenuity and wisdom. Generations will remember him for having played a leading role in the Kerala Land Reforms Act, 1963, a legislation that changed the state’s socio-political landscape. Iyer’s powerful lexicon had always sustained the sharpness of a social weapon, which he used with care and commitment. Even in the last days, his mind appeared to be that of a conscious social critic.
Justice Krishna Iyer will go down in history as the voice of the voiceless, the inveterate defender of human rights and the trailblazer of social liberation through unceasing secular democratic struggles.
KM Seethi is director, School of International Relations and Politics, Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala