Justice Vaidyanathapuram Rama Iyer Krishna Iyer (15 November 1915 – 4 December 2014) referred to as a conscience keeper of justice in India,[1] 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.[citation needed] He stood up for the poor and the underprivileged and was jailed for this once, as an activist lawyer.[2][3] He zealously guarded human-rights regardless of finding himself isolated.[4] He was a crusader for social action & the environment,[5] and a champion of civil liberties, throughout life. A sports enthusiast and a prolific author,[6] 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.

Birth, early life and work in politics

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.[7] He studied law from Madras, and started practice in his father's chamber in 1938 at Thalassery, Malabar.[3] 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.[6]

He was elected to the Madras Legislative Assembly in 1952, from Thalassery as a non-party, independent candidate.[3] 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.[3][6] 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.

Work as a judge

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.[3] 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.[8] 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.[9]

A thinker ahead of his time, he would go on to write landmark judgments:

  • Shamsher Singh case which interpreted the powers of the Cabinet with that of the President.
  • Maneka Gandhi case which paved the way to read the plain words "right to life" and "personal liberty", to mean many human rights now, thus expanding Article 21 of the Constitution.[10][11] That the government of the day cannot put fetters on the rights of citizens,[12] nor, should courts get unduly alarmed,[13] when both of them are reacting to a fear of facing all manner of hostile comment, was what he tersely reminded them:

"Dogs may bark, but the caravan (of justice) passes"

paraphrasing an immemorial Arab proverb.

  • Ratlam Municipality case, where he started a trend for judges to leave the courtroom and go out and see,[14] the situation on the ground.[15] Moreover, this case would be a forerunner of cases which would be decided later on, on the concepts of "precautionary principle", "polluter pays" and "sustainable development".[16]
  • Muthamma's case, where he broke through the 'glass ceiling' with gender parity in traditional practices in public employment.
  • His lonely crusade against the death penalty would later on, make the court impose it only in the "rarest of rare" cases.[17][18]

He brought in safeguards against custodial excesses.[19] He made bail conditions humane and directed the government to provide free legal-aid to detainess in prisons facing charges,[3] once ruling that:[20][21]

"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,[22] 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.[23] He introduced values of international covenants of human rights into Indian jurisprudence.[1] Outlawing solitary confinement and fetters on prisoners as inhuman, he treated a prisoner’s letter posted from jail as a petition,[24] commenting:[4]

"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.[25] 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.[26] Observing this, he states:[27]

"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,[28] to ascertain ground realities for meeting the needs[29] and aspirations of the people in an ever-changing society.[30]

Public life post-retirement and death

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,[31] and his house would always remain open, bustling with all who sought his help[32] or advice.[33] 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.[34][35] 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,[36] 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.[36] 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[37] 2005 DC Books, Kottayam
Wandering in Many Worlds 2009 Pearson Education
The Indian Law (Dynamic Dimensions of the Abstract) 2009 Universal Law Publishing

Awards and distinctions

  • Soviet Land Nehru Award, 1968.
  • Sri. Jehangir Gandhi Medal and Award for Industrial Peace, 1982.
  • Distinguished Fellow, Indian Law Institute, New Delhi.
  • The Kumarappa – Reckless Award, 1988. (The Indian Society of Criminology) [38]
  • Baba Saheb B.R. Ambedkar National Award by the Bharatiya Dalit Sahitya Akademi.
  • Ramasramam Award 1992.
  • Title of 'Living Legend of Law' awarded by the International Bar Association in 1995 in recognition of outstanding service to the legal profession internationally and for commitment to the Rule of Law.
  • M. A. Thomas National Human Rights Award for 1998.[39]
  • Padma Vibhushan Award by the President of India in 1999 (the Highest Award next to Bharath Ratna).
  • Recipient of Vyloppilli Award 1999 for the meritorious service in the fields Human Rights, law, administration etc. The Award was given in February 2000 by the Sahrudaya Vedi, Thrissur.
  • 'The Order of Friendship', by President Putin in October 2000, Russia's high state honour for personal contribution in strengthening the ties of traditional and time-tested friendship, co-operation and everlasting affection between the two nations.[40]


  1. ^ a b "V.R. Krishna Iyer – The Super Judge (1st VRK Memorial Lecture by Fali Nariman)". Live Law. 2016-10-28. Retrieved 2017-08-06. 
  2. ^ "A voice for the poor and deprived fades away". The Hindu(Kochi Bureau). 4 December 2014. Retrieved 6 December 2014. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f Philip, Shaju (5 December 2014). "Former Supreme Court judge V R Krishna Iyer dead". The Indian Express (Thiruvananthapuram). Retrieved 6 December 2014. 
  4. ^ a b Dam, Shubhankar. "Criminal Rights and Constitutional Wrongs: A View from India (page 718)" (PDF). Singapore Academy of Law Journal. (2013) 25 SAcLJ: 714–735. Archived from the original (PDF) on 19 December 2014. Retrieved 8 December 2014. 
  5. ^ Preston, Hon. Justice Brian J (5 August 2013). "A précis of Justice Krishna Iyer 's contribution to the environmental jurisprudence of the Supreme Court of India" (PDF). The Land and Environment Court of New South Wales, Australia. Retrieved 7 December 2014. 
  6. ^ a b c "The Many Lives of Justice Krishna Iyer". The Indian Express. (News Bureau). 5 December 2014. Retrieved 8 December 2014. 
  7. ^ Kylasam Iyer, Deepa; Kuriakose, Francis (July 2016). "Balancing Power: Analysing Socially Transformative Jurisprudence of VR Krishna Iyer through New Genre Leadership Theory (Working Paper)". ResearchGate. Retrieved 2017-08-06. 
  8. ^ Andhyarujina, T. R. (6 December 2014). "Justice for the helpless". The Indian Express. Retrieved 10 December 2014. 
  9. ^ Ananth V. Krishna (1 September 2011). India Since Independence: Making Sense Of Indian Politics. Pearson Education India. p. 149. ISBN 978-81-317-3465-0. 
  10. ^ Ghouse, Mohammud (1978). "Constitutional Rights -1 (Fundamental Rights)" (PDF). Journal of the Indian Law Institute. 14: 397. 
  11. ^ Sudhanshu Ranjan (21 March 2014). Justice, Judocracy and Democracy in India: Boundaries and Breaches. Taylor & Francis. pp. 63–. ISBN 978-1-317-80977-7. 
  12. ^ "Maneka Gandhi v. Union Of India". (page 115 of 154 - Supreme Court of India). [1978 AIR 597] [1978 SCR (2) 621] [1978 SCC (1) 248]. 25 January 1978. Retrieved 11 December 2014. 
  13. ^ "Re: S. Mulgaokar". (page 12 of 28 - Supreme Court of India). [1978 AIR 727] [1978 SCR (3) 162] [1978 SCC (3) 339]. 21 February 1978. Retrieved 11 December 2014. 
  14. ^ Sudhanshu Ranjan (21 March 2014). Justice, Judocracy and Democracy in India: Boundaries and Breaches. Taylor & Francis. p. 69. ISBN 978-1-317-80977-7. 
  15. ^ Preston, Hon. Justice Brian J (5 August 2013). "A précis of Justice Krishna Iyer's contribution to the environmental jurisprudence of the Supreme Court of India" (PDF). The Land and Environment Court of New South Wales, Australia. p. 8. Retrieved 7 December 2014. 
  16. ^ Thomas Greiber (2006). Judges and the Rule of Law: Creating the Links : Environment, Human Rights and Poverty : Papers and Speeches from an IUCN Environmental Law Programme (ELP) Side Event at the 3rd IUCN World Conservation Congress (WCC) Held in Bangkok, Thailand, 17-25 November 2004. IUCN. p. 28. ISBN 978-2-8317-0915-4. 
  17. ^ "Lethal Lottery The Death Penalty in India: A study of Supreme Court judgments in death penalty cases 1950-2006 (pages 63-72)" (PDF). Amnesty International India and People’s Union for Civil Liberties (Tamil Nadu & Puducherry) May 2008. pp. 1–244. Retrieved 14 December 2014. 
  18. ^ Venkatesan, V. (2014-12-24). "Justice at heart". Frontline. Retrieved 2017-08-06. 
  19. ^ Ghouse, Mohammud (1978). "Constitutional Rights -1 (Fundamental Rights)" (PDF). Journal of the Indian Law Institute. 14: 411. 
  20. ^ Raghavan, R. K. (former Director, CBI) (26 November 2011). "Reversal of a dangerous trend". The Hindu. Retrieved 8 December 2014. 
  21. ^ "State of Rajasthan v. Balchand". [1977 Air 2447] [1978 Scr (1) 535] [1977 Scc (4) 308]: 1. 20 September 1977. Retrieved 9 December 2014. 
  22. ^ "In Re: The Special Courts Bill, 1978". Supreme Court of India. 1 Dec 1978. pp. 66 of 88. 
  23. ^ V. R. Krishna Iyer (2009). Wandering in Many Worlds: An Autobiography. Pearson Education India. pp. 267–68. ISBN 978-81-317-1835-3. 
  24. ^ Forster, Christine M. (University of New South Wales, Sydney); Jivan, Vedna (University of Technology Sydney, Sydney) (2008). "Public Interest Litigation and Human Rights Implementation: The Indian and Australian Experience (page 16)" (PDF). Asian Journal of Comparative Law. The Berkeley Electronic Press: 0–32. Retrieved 8 December 2014. 
  25. ^ Preston, Hon. Justice Brian J (5 August 2013). "A précis of Justice Krishna Iyer 's contribution to the environmental jurisprudence of the Supreme Court of India" (PDF). The Land and Environment Court of New South Wales, Australia. p. 7. Retrieved 7 December 2014. 
  26. ^ Andhyarujina, T. R. (6 August 2012). "Disturbing trends in judicial activism". The Hindu. Retrieved 8 December 2014. 
  27. ^ Krishna Iyer, Justice V. R. (1 February 2003). "A democratic demand". Frontline. 20 (3). Retrieved 10 December 2014. 
  28. ^ Iyer, V. R. Krishna (21 September 2006). "Law and justice in an independent nation". The Hindu. Retrieved 4 November 2015. 
  29. ^ 1974 AIR 994, 1974 SCC (4) 305 (page 8 of 46). "State Of Punjab v. Amar Singh". Retrieved 4 November 2015. 
  30. ^ 1974 AIR 710, 1974 SCR (2) 282 (page 26 of 38). "Baradakanta Mishra vs The Registrar Of Orissa High Court". Retrieved 4 November 2015. 
  31. ^ "Vaiko shocked over Krishna Iyer's participation in Human Chain stir". webindia123.com. 11 December 2011. Retrieved 2017-08-07. 
  32. ^ "Keralites with Bengal connection cautioned". Indian Vanguard. 2008-01-28. Retrieved 2017-08-06. 
  33. ^ Baxi, Upendra; Bhushan, Prashant (6 December 2014). "...their respective articles on Justice Krishna Iyer". The Indian Express. Retrieved 10 December 2014. 
  34. ^ "Former Supreme Court judge V R Krishna Iyer passes away at 100". NetIndian. Retrieved 4 December 2014. 
  35. ^ "Leaving a light, Justice Krishna Iyer passes away". Retrieved 4 December 2014. 
  36. ^ a b V. R. Krishna Iyer (2009). Wandering in Many Worlds: An Autobiography. Pearson Education India. p. 189. ISBN 978-81-317-1835-3. 
  37. ^ "The Hindu : Book Review / Language Books : Life after death". hindu.com. 
  38. ^ "Awards". Indian Society of Criminology. Retrieved 11 December 2014. 
  39. ^ "M.A. Thomas National Human Rights Award". (Vigil India Movement). Retrieved 12 December 2014. 
  40. ^ "President Vladimir Putin awarded the Order of Friendship to prominent Indian public and political figures". Russian Presidential Executive Office. 4 October 2000. Retrieved 15 December 2014. 
  • "Muslim Law- An analysis of the judgments rendered by Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer" By. Sebastian Champappilly, Southern Law Publishers, Cochin-22
  • "Muslim Women ( Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act" By Justice V.R.Krishna Iyer, Eastern Book Company, Lucknow.

External links