Jurist par excellence and doyen of civil liberties VR Krishna Iyer died in Kochi on Thursday.
The former Supreme Court judge had turned 100 on November 15, this year. A crusader for social justice and causes even at the final days of life, the legal luminary was admitted to the hospital in November 24 in connection with age-related ailments. The end of a unique phenomenon that influenced the legal system and common mass alike came at 3.30 pm due to multiple organ failure. Cremation would be held in Kochi on Friday afternoon. People from all walks of life mourned the death of the crimson sun of justice.
Born in Palakkad in 1914, Iyer studied law from erstwhile Madras and practising at Thalassery in the erstwhile Malabar region of Madras state. In 1948, he was imprisoned for a month on charges of giving legal aid to Communists.
In 1952, he won to Madras Legislative Assembly from Thalassery as a Communist-backed independent. In 1957, he contested from the same constituency and won to become a minister in the first communist government in Kerala. Iyer handled the portfolios of home, law, prisons, social justice and irrigation. He had left indelible imprints of a visionary administrator in every department he had handled for a short period of two years.
As law minister, Iyer had been instrumental behind brining in several revolutionary people-centric steps in ensuring justice and free legal aid to the poor. He initiated jail reforms incorporating the rights of prisoners. He started more courts for speedy justice when fast track courts were far away from a vogue.
After the Communist government was dissolved in 1959, Iyer turned to legal profession and starting practice in Kerala high court. He contested to the Assembly in 1965, but lost the battle in which Iyer pitted himself as an independent without Communist support. He had then refused to accept the Communist symbol in the election. In 1968, he became a judge of Kerala high court. In 1971, he was made member of the Central Law Commission. As a member of the central law commission, Iyer drafted the first comprehensive free legal aid report in India. The report on legal aid drafted under the leadership of Iyer later become the bedrock for free legal aid movement in the country.
From the Law Commission, he was elevated as the judge of the Supreme Court in 1973. He retired as SC judge in 1980. Justice Iyer’s short period of seven years at the country’s apex court heralded an era of judicial activism, public interest litigation. He still continues as an inspiration for the legal fraternity and his judgments as text books for generations to follow.
Iyer had made several landmark judgments, which late become beacons of the judicial system. A secular and socialist, Iyer had been instrumental in infusing hope for justice in the minds of common people through his ingenious and imaginative verdicts. His historic judgments and interpretations of the Constitution had redefined the criminal justice system in the country by directing the government to provide free legal aid to an under trial. Iyer believed in reformative theory than the deterrence theory.
Iyer had humanised the concept of bail, making a lasting impact on the rights of the under-trials. He had always advocated against death penalty.
“The Constitution of India belongs to We, the people of India. This mean that even the criminals and condemned to death have to be governed by it,’’ Iyer wrote.
He had imposed stern conditions in making death penalty a rarity. His approach towards reformative theory had attracted international attention even Iyer was serving as a Supreme Court judge. In an International Conference on abolition of death penalty, he was invited to Stockholm to deliver an inaugural address by the “Amnesty International” in 1977. One of his rulings on death penalty in the case of Rajendra Prasad Singh verses State of UP was followed by Lord Scarman in the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in Westminster. Iyer had been credited with several epoch-making judgments. In 1974, Iyer had a dissenting judgment interpreting the power of the cabinet and the president.
While urban waste management is still uphill task, Iyer directed the Municipality of Ratlam “the budgetary constraints did not absolve the municipality from performing its statutory obligation to provide sanitation facilities’’.
As a member of the SC bench that considered the first PIL, Iyer had taken a pro-active role in encouraging public to file PILs. Converting a prisoner’s letter from Tihar jail into a writ petition, Iyer had set another benchmark for the fight for human rights.
Iyer would also be remembered for his verdict in the election case of the former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Iyer stayed the Allahabad high court verdict which had nullified Gandhi’s election. The SC verdict allowed Gandhi to continue as prime minister. Later, when she declared emergency, Iyer was blamed for it.
If as a judge Iyer lived in the book of law, his post-retirement life was dedicated for common man’s rights. In a departure from the tradition of his fellow judges, Iyer was not just known to the bench and the bar. He raised the sane, impartial, erudite voice on every issue affecting society.
His house at Kochi was open for all. He had championed the cause of the poor, marginalized and the victimized sections in society. He had been reckoned as a last resort for those who had been denied justice.
Iyer had an active life delivering power-packed speeches and bringing out prolific writings on many topics. His integrity, erudition and sympathy won the hearts of everyone. In Kerala, had been a patron for several organisations, giving them a stamp of credibility. He had been a rare personality who was loved and revered by all political party leaders. Even in the last lap of life, the jurist in him was awake. A few years back, Iyer had made revolutionary recommendations to the state government as the chairman of law reforms committee. He was conferred with scores of honours, including Padmavibhushan. Russia had conferred on him the honour ‘the Order of Friendship’, the highest civilian award for a foreigner.