Legacy of Justice VR Krishna Iyer
When the Chief Justice of India, HL Dattu, on Thursday last set up a special bench of the supreme court dedicated to the pursuit of social justice and related causes, little did he realise that he was penning down a most remarkable coincidence and a fitting tribute to Justice VR Krishna Iyer. Coming as it does just a day before the demise of legendary former Supreme Court Justice Krishna Iyer, this move constitutes a fitting tribute to the memory of man who shall be remembered as much for his dedication to upholding the cause of the downtrodden in the country – evident in a judgeship strewn with some of the highlights of Indian judicial history – as he will be for a relatively short but luminous political career in the Kerala legislative assembly and the cabinet of EMS Namboodiripad, where he helped realise several important pieces of social legislations. Justice Iyer served the cause of the underprivileged with distinction throughout his stellar career, and was renowned for his use of law as an instrument of social engineering.
It would not be an exaggeration to state that his personal contribution to shaping the human rights jurisprudence of the country overrides that of any of his peers or successors, with the possible exception of Justice PN Bhagwati. The range of issues to be dealt with by the newly constituted bench, due to start operation on 12 December, includes access to food for drought-hit people and prevention of premature deaths caused by lack of nutrition. The right to health figures on the agenda with the mandate to make access to medical care a reality irrespective of people’s financial capacity. The bench will also determine availability of night shelters for the homeless and the destitute. The move is expected to expedite the hearing of public interest litigations as the bench will exclusively deal with them, giving ample time to focus on issuing directions to the states and centre on various issues, and monitoring their implementation.
To understand the need for and implications of a development such as the institution of a separate social justice bench, historical context must be taken into view. The genesis of India as a republic and a democracy lay in the idea of a country that, by way of the institutions established under its constitution, would provide for the people under its mandate a social environment of the kind that would enable each individual to live a fulfilling existence. This meant providing citizens with equal opportunity in all aspects of life, whether social, economic, cultural or otherwise.
Under difficult circumstances, the judiciary took it upon itself to realise the ideology of the country’s founding fathers. The approach of the judiciary towards matters of social justice must be studied in the context of its evolution alongside that of the country’s economy, an approach that became popular in no short measure due to Justice Iyer’s efforts. This gave rise to the phenomenon known as ‘judicial activism’ that can be described as a mechanism to curb legislative adventurism and executive tyranny. It was best exemplified by Justice Iyer’s creative re-interpretation of the texts of both the constitution and the other laws in order to serve the needs of contemporary society. Again, it was his achievement in no small part that the apex court has developed the concept of distributive justice out of Article 46 and observed that the constitutional mandates the state to provide socio-economic justice to minimise inequalities in opportunities and status by positively charging the state to distribute its largess to the weaker sections of the society. Aiding this endeavour is the structure of the constitution, wherein the precepts of social justice can be drawn from the preamble, fundamental rights, fundamental duties and the directive principles of state policy.
His landmark judgement in the Shamser Singh case has interpreted the powers of the cabinet vis-à-vis the president, and the governors. The judgment held that president and governors are bound to act on the aid and advice of the council of ministers except in certain situations, a principle that has since become a guiding light in delineating the boundaries of executive power and duty.
Another major judgment was in reference to the Maneka Gandhi case that expanded the scope of Article 21 of the constitution (the right to life) to include the right to travel. This case laid down a fundamental principle that “procedure prescribed by law has to be fair, just and reasonable, not fanciful, oppressive or arbitrary”, a principle that has helped bring many ancillary rights within the framework of fundamental rights.
Justice Iyer’s judgment in the Ratlam municipality case, in which Article 21 was interpreted as including the right to a wholesome environment, changed the whole approach of the courts in matters concerning environment. The first few instances of such activism on part of the judiciary came with the Golak Nath case, where the supreme court, by a majority of six against five, laid down that the fundamental rights as enshrined in Part III of the constitution are immutable and beyond the reach of the amendatory process, thereby taking away the power of parliament to amend any provisioning Part III of the constitution.
Justice Iyer’s tireless efforts led to the enshrining of civil liberties and social justice into the heart and soul of administering justice. The condition of those affected by the Bhopal gas disaster, Uphaar Tragedy, 1984 riots and the hundreds of victims of ‘development’ in its many shades required special care in handling their concerns, which prompted the supreme court to set up the social justice bench. This could not however have been better timed, coming a day before the crusader of social justice breathed his last . We could say that Iyer waited to witness such a development, before he could depart in peace. Rest in Peace Justice VR Krishna Iyer!