We are shocked and deeply saddened to hear of Justice Verma’s sudden death. The MKSS has had a long association with Justice Verma, in which he has tirelessly supported us in our many battles for justice and the rights of the poor and marginalized. We have always looked to him for support on diverse issues such as RTI, minimum wages, bonded labour, accountability laws such as Lokpal, Judicial Accountability and others.
Justice Verma was an institution, and singularly upheld the highest standards of judicial probity and Constitutional values. The MKSS will miss him dearly.
Aruna Roy, Nikhil Dey and Shankar Singh for the MKSS
Vrinda Grover: For the Justice Verma Committee Report, we had requested Justice Verma to allow women’s groups, academics, lawyers, activists from across the country to make depositions to him. He was very generous with his time; the entire committee heard us for two days, over a weekend. Respectfully and patiently, they heard testimonies from Kashmir, from the Northeast, from Dalit groups, from people of different sexual orientations, from the working class. He absorbed all that and reflected it in his Report.
When it came to issues of sexual violence against women, he did not put any barriers on what he was going to accept. Unlike people who only speak about rape cases in Delhi, he spoke about Dalits, about what’s happening to women in conflict areas, about people of different sexual orientations. That’s the kind of person who is able to respond and think about law, legislative change, policy change, systemic change, attending to the concerns of people of different classes, castes and communities. That’s really the test of a man. Not only had he occupied the highest judicial office in this country, but he remained open, attentive and sensitive to the issues and concerns of everyone.
What was path breaking was that he located the violence against women in context of patriarchy and discrimination. Whether it was his judgment on Vishaka or his Report, on each occasion he went back to Constitutionalism. He said that if you want to understand why this is happening, look at the Constitutional Rights of these people as citizens. He treated different constituencies of citizens and said that if you’re not going to give these people rights then this kind of violence will emanate. The link that he made between Constitutional Rights and violence was a very important one that we saw both in the Vishaka judgment and the Justice Verma Report.
It’s also very important that the man who chaired the Bench that upheld the validity of the AFSPA, in the MHRF (Manipur Human rights Forum) judgment – a judgment that a lot of us civil liberties activists have had a lot of dispute with where he upheld the Constitutional validity of AFSPA. But in the Verma Committee report, after hearing the voices of women from Kashmir, from the Northeast states, he sought a review of the AFSPA.
Flavia Agnes: Justice Verma was a very simple person; he didn’t have any airs about him. Because of the Vishaka judgment, complaint committees were set up in government offices, the issue of sexual harassment in workplaces got attention and women could ask for some remedies. That was a very bold step on his part. That was like judicial lawmaking. The government did not bring the law till now. There was no law and he made a law. Judges are not supposed to do that. There was a lot of criticism of overstepping his powers, of judicial activism. But he said that the government has not done anything, so I have to do this.
Then of course, there is the Verma Committee Report. He was fearless and forthcoming, and made time for everybody to depose before him. Someone of his age and stature didn’t have to do that, but he met all activists from different parts of the country. Three-four days after the deposition, the report was out. Within one month’s time they brought out the report, something hat has not happened in our country before. He also criticised the government that had appointed him. The government didn’t give suggestion and worked at the last minute. He also spoke about the Report at the women’s rights conclave organised by Indian Merchants Chamber on 9 March. He never shied away from question about the Report. He was a role model as to what retired judges can be. None of us expected him to pass away so suddenly. But he passed away with a sense of accomplishing something great.
Prashant Bhushan: His role must be seen as that of a judge, as well as NHRC head and public interest elder statesman, who talked often about the need for probity and integrity in the judiciary. He distinguished himself by being honest, clear headed, bold, hard working and competent. He was responsible for many of the important judgements of our times, starting with his role in the celebrated Habeus Corpus case of 1975, when he was a High Court judge, to the judgement in the Hawala Case as Chief Justice of India, which led to much-needed police reforms.
As chair of the NHRC, he again did seminal work. His tenure was, in fact, the golden period of the NHRC, especially for his role during the Gujarat riots, when he worked to indict Modi and protect public order and Muslim life and property. Even after retiring, he spoke out often, especially against judicial corruption. Personally, he was a warm-hearted person, devoted to his two daughters and grandchildren.
Mukul Sinha: If anybody made an impact as the chairperson of the NHRC, it would be Justice Verma. He displayed great courage in bringing out his report on the Gujarat riots, which accused the Gujarat government of inaction and asked the prime minister to step in. He did not give up his position after saying something, and both the Bilkis Bano case and the formation of the SIT were results of initiatives taken by him. Though we had differences over some of his judgments — most notably his statements about introducing the Uniform Civil Code and Hindutva being a way of life — his tenure in charge of the NHRC was exemplary, and the commission has not had a chairperson like him since.
Kavita Krishnan: It is extremely remarkable that at his advanced age, on his 80th birthday, he was able to submit his report. I only met him for the two days when he held meetings with activists for suggestions. We were all struck by his patience and dedication to the cause at the age that he was! I remember that once the meeting, which was scheduled to get over by 5, ended at 8 instead. And even then, he sat and patiently listened through every presentation made by the activists. The report shows his social commitment which is a very rare quality to be found, even in the judiciary. When we made our presentations in front of him and Justice Leila Seth, it did not at seem like we were sitting in front of judges. They even mentioned that this was a journey for them too and they learnt a lot from. Their humility and patience really moved all of us.
If the Justice Verma Report was his last labour of love, then the only thing that I would like to emphasise is that the government not pay empty tributes to him. The people in power have just read a few pages of the report, only to subvert it. It is an excellent report and they should read and take the adequate steps for its implementation. And further, the Bill of Right for women should made mandatory reading in our schools and should be put on hoardings in the local languages for everyone to read.
Aruna Roy: I think his death is a great loss for people who have struggled for justice and equality in this country. His voice gave strength to all our struggles. Although he came from another background — dissociated from activism — he showed concern and belief in the principles that we held very dear. For us, therefore it is a great loss.
I see Justice Verma, not just in association with women’s rights and spearheading a campaign against violence, but also see him in the context of many rights for citizens. The RTI Campaign received a lot of support from him. The constituency I represent, that of rights for the people on the margins, got immense support from him. I also remember how he used his position as Chairman of the National Human Rights Commission, to listen to the voices of people suffering from genocide in Gujarat.
Justice Verma was very correct in his public presence and public articulation. He was always clear that he spoke as an ex-member of the bench. Very often, he did not agree with the activists’ position. Nevertheless, he came willingly to many of our seminars and meetings. He also expressed his point of view with clarity even when differences occurred and were stated, we continued to work with him. This is, perhaps, the most healthy way a democracy can function. His death is a huge loss to democratic processes, particularly in today’s India.