Justice Vaidyanathapuram Rama Iyer Krishna Iyer (15 November 1915 – 4 December 2014) referred to as a conscience keeper of justice in India, was a visionary and a pathbreaking judge, who reformed the Indian criminal justice system with bold changes to jails & police stations, and forged new tools to dispense social justice & justice in the public interest, which stood not just the test of time, but had a profound impact on justice delivery in India in the decades which followed. He pioneered the legal-aid movement in the country. Before that, he had pioneered land reforms law as a state minister & independent politician, which became a model for the rest of the country. He stood up for the poor and the underprivileged and was jailed for this once, as an activist lawyer. He zealously guarded human-rights regardless of finding himself isolated. He was a crusader for social action & the environment, and a champion of civil liberties, throughout life. A sports enthusiast and a prolific author, he was conferred with the Padma Vibhushan in 1999. Judges in India and around the world continue to cite his judgments in their decisions in court.
Vaidyanathapuram Rama Ayyar Krishna Iyer was born in 1915 in Vaidyanathapuram village in Palakkad, which was the part of the then Malabar region of the then Madras State, to a lawyer father, named Rama Iyer. He inherited from his father the qualities of taking an avid interest in the community around and using the law for the benefit of those more in need. He studied law from Madras, and started practice in his father's chamber in 1938 at Thalassery, Malabar. In 1948, when he protested the evil of torture by police for interrogation, he was imprisoned for a month on a fabricated charge of giving legal assistance to communists.
He was elected to the Madras Legislative Assembly in 1952, from Thalassery as a non-party, independent candidate. He became the first minister of law, justice, home, irrigation, power, prisons, social welfare and inland navigation in the first communist government in Kerala headed by E. M. S. Namboodiripad that came to power in 1957. He initiated legal-aid to the poor, jail reforms incorporating the rights of prisoners, and set up more courts and rescue homes for women and children. He got several labour and land reform laws passed. He resolved an inter-state water dispute between the newly formed neighbouring states, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. When this government was dismissed by the central government, he resumed legal practice in August 1959. He lost the 1965 assembly election, which he again contested as an independent candidate.
He was appointed a judge of the Kerala High Court in 1968. He was a member of the Law Commission from 1971 to 1973 where he drafted a comprehensive report, which would lead to the legal-aid movement in the country. He was elevated as judge of the Supreme Court of India in 1973.
In June 1975, the Allahabad High Court had unseated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi from the Parliament and barred her from it for another six years. Rebuffing favour-seekers, he heard a challenge to this order in the Supreme Court. He was both blamed for granting a conditional stay and praised for refusing an unconditional stay. Interpreting this as losing the popular mandate to rule, the Opposition called for her resignation. The next day she declared a state of Emergency in the country.
A thinker ahead of his time, he would go on to write landmark judgments:
"Dogs may bark, but the caravan (of justice) passes"
paraphrasing an immemorial Arab proverb.
He brought in safeguards against custodial excesses. He made bail conditions humane and directed the government to provide free legal-aid to detainess in prisons facing charges, once ruling that:
"Bail is the rule, and jail, the exception"
Rejecting special courts to try people with influence or "in towers of power" for their excesses, he cautioned against retribution against them in a knee-jerk response, even as he commented on their violations, quoting an English verse thus:
"The law locks up both man and woman, who steals the goose from off the common; But lets the greater felon loose, who steals the common from the goose."
He believed in correction and not retribution or vindictiveness in dealing with prisoners. He recommended that meditation methods of Yoga which he practiced, and which he observed in the prisons in the Americas and Oceania, could be introduced in the Indian justice system to help transform not just criminal tendencies in prisoners, but also help judges keep their mental poise invoking their higher values to have a better judgement of a case at hand. He introduced values of international covenants of human rights into Indian jurisprudence. Outlawing solitary confinement and fetters on prisoners as inhuman, he treated a prisoner’s letter posted from jail as a petition, commenting:
"Freedom behind bars is part of our constitutional tryst...If wars are too important to be left to the generals, surely prisoners’ rights are too precious to be left to the jailors"
Along with Justice P. N. Bhagwati, he introduced the concept of PILs (Public Interest Litigations) or "people's involvement" in the country's courts with a series of cases. This revolutionary tool, initially used by public-spirited citizens to file PILs on behalf of sections of society unable to on their own, continues to bring in unheard changes in the day-to-day lives of the people even now, decades later. Observing this, he states:
"To transform the Supreme Court of India into the supreme court for Indians was the challenge...When the history of the judiciary in India comes to be written, PIL will be glorified as the noblest ally of the little Indian"
With an eye on evolving the law for the future, he would often put in a dissenting note in majority judgments, even as he strove for consensus with his brother judges on the bench. Sitting on the bench and away from it, he would reiterate time and again a guiding principle that laws must reflect justice, and justice in turn, must reflect life as lived by the people, stating:
"The law of all laws is that the 'rule of law' must keep pace with the 'rule of life'"
by climbing down from its high pedestal, shedding its static and sterile inertia, to ascertain ground realities for meeting the needs and aspirations of the people in an ever-changing society.
He retired as a judge on 14 November 1980 but, continued to advocate the cause of justice, on every forum and through his writings, participating in street protests, and his house would always remain open, bustling with all who sought his help or advice. He stood for the nation's President in 1987, as the Opposition's candidate against R. Venkataraman, the ruling Congress's nominee who won. In 2002, he inquired into the Gujarat riots as part of a citizens' panel, with retired Justice P. B. Sawant among others. He also headed the Kerala Law Reform Commission in 2009. He had been active, almost till a few weeks before his death, when ill-health and advancing age took their toll on him.
He died on 4 December 2014. and was cremated with state honours. His wife, who would listen to him talk about his work, when on occasion he would change his mind after she gave her opinion on it, had predeceased him.
He has to his credit 70–100 books, mostly on law, and four travelogues. He has also authored a book in Tamil, Neethimandramum Samanvya Manithanum. Leaves from My Personal Life is his autobiography. There are around five published books by other authors about him.
|Name of the book||Year||Publisher|
|Law and the People||1972||Peoples Publishing House, Rani Jhansi Road, New Delhi.|
|Law, Freedom and Change||1975||Affiliated East West Press Pvt. Ltd., 5, General Patters Road, Madras|
|Law India, Some Contemporary Challenges||1976||University College of Law, Nagpur.|
|Jurisprudence and Juris-Conscience à la Gandhi||1976||Gandhi Peace Foundation, 221/3-Deen Dayal Upadhyaya Marg, New Delhi-2|
|Social Mission of Law||1976||Orient Longmans Ltd., 160, Anna Salai, Madras-2|
|Law & Social Change and Indian Overview||1978||Publication Bureau, Panjab University, Chandigarh|
|"Leaves From My Personal Life"||2001||Gyan Publishing House|
|Social Justice and the Handicapped Humans||1978||The Academy of Legal Publications, Punnan Road, Trivandrum-695001|
|The Integral Yoga of Public Law and Development in the Context of India||1979||The Institute of Constitutional & Parliamentary Studies, Vithal Bhai Patel House, Rafi Marg, New Delhi|
|Of Law & Life||1979||Vikas Publishing House Pvt. Ltd., 20/4 Industrial Area, Ghaziabad, U.P.|
|A Constitutional Miscellany||1986||Eastern Book Company|
|Life After Death||2005||DC Books, Kottayam|
|Wandering in Many Worlds||2009||Pearson Education|
|The Indian Law (Dynamic Dimensions of the Abstract)||2009||Universal Law Publishing|
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