A tribute to Justice Khanna … and much more

Today’s Hindu carries a piece where Justice Iyer pays tribute to his colleague, Justice HR Khanna. Unlike other tributes (some of which were featured on this blog earlier), Justice Iyer mentions those actions of Justice Khanna which did not meet with his approval, making for a more balanced, less hagiographic account. By emphasizing these mistakes, Justice Iyer humanizes the memory of Justice Khanna, making him seem more fallible, and therefore, even more inspiring to ordinary mortals. This reminded me of the experience of reading Rajmohan Gandhi’s excellent biography of his grandfather – exposing the warts and all of the Mahatma made him, at least for me, a more human, immediate and real presence than the saintly depictions I was fed on while growing up. Legal scholars and historians of the Supreme Court will find much in this piece to interest them. Justice Iyer mentions his own role in the events that led to the declaration of Emergency by Indira Gandhi, which in turn resulted in Justice Khanna’s famous dissent in the ADM Jabalpur case. While praising Justice Khanna, Justice Iyer draws a sharp contrast with what he sees as the dominant traits among contemporary judges: We have in this country, and elsewhere, pliable ‘brethren’ with pusillanimous loyalties, hidden communalisms, class biases and noxious overbearing and jejune jurisprudence on the Bench. Their social perspectives are malleable and high-brow, their character dubious and performance sicklied by the dependencia syndrome. Some judges do not write judgments at all, or delay their delivery for years. Khanna was a paradigm of judicial promptitude and probity. … Khanna would not bend or bow before executive supremacy although opportunism did appeal to a few senior progressives on the high bench. He was free from the imbecilities of assertive ego and the arrogance of Bench bravado. Those who read between the lines, will also get a clear picture of what Justice Iyer thought of some of his contemporaries, especially the more famous ones. I will freely admit that of late, I have become less enthusiastic about Justice Iyer’s public writings, which adopt a shrill tone along predictable lines, reiterating a larger critique which he has drummed home for several years now. While I admire his dogged campaign for these issues, the message had started sounding stale. Here, he shows how even at his advanced age, the old fires are still burning bright. I, for one, will certainly await his next piece with enthusiasm.

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Suresh
Suresh
13 years ago

With all due respect, I disagree with you. Reading through the article twice, I did not find anything about Justice Khanna that had not already been expressed by others.

I would have loved to know something about Justice Khanna’s judicial philosophy: how it came out in various opinions culminating ultimately in his famous dissent. Surely, that dissent did not come out of the blue.

What we do get are a couple of anecdotes, nothing more. And, of course, claims that Justice Iyer himself was of impeccable integrity: We are told how he (Justice Iyer) refused the then law minister’s request for a personal interview etc. etc.

Notwithstanding his (Justice Iyer) claims to have “…a people-oriented social philosophy” – words that he attributes to Justice Khanna – the article is full of words and phrases like “logomachic” “ukase” “jejune” “pachydermic indifference” etc. Nothing if not highbrow, Justice Iyer 🙂

Probably I am being unfair. As with you, I respect Justice Iyer’s campaign for human rights but I really do not care for his economic or political views. I’ll leave it at that.

And while we are at it, can we know something more about Justices Ray, Chandrachud, Beg and Bhagwati who formed the majority opinion?

Towards the end of the article, Justice Iyer says “Also, why did he, at an advanced age, accept lucrative arbitrations when doing justice to the office needed all your faculties?” What is being implied here? That Justice Khanna was senile? Anyway, if both parties to a dispute are willing to accept Justice Khanna as an arbitrator, then what is Justice Iyer’s problem?

Vivek Reddy
Vivek Reddy
13 years ago

No doubt, there has been a big chnage from judging of the eighties era to judiging right now. Krishna Iyer is undoubtedly a great judge, but he is a strong ideological judge. I find his criticism usually directed at judges sho do not share his ideology. It is not a judicial critique, but more of an ideological critique.
If Justice Iyer can bend the Constitution to suit his ideology, so can other judges to suit their own ideology. Therein lies the virtue of adhering to some form of strict textual interpretation.

Vikram Raghavan
Vikram Raghavan
13 years ago

I enjoyed reading Justice Krishna Iyer’s tribute, which I generally found to be warm and personal. However, I thought it was a bit disingenous of him to suggest that Justice Khanna’s arbitral practice was a blemish on an otherwise most compelling judicial career. Another reader has pointed to the awkward phrasing that Justice Krishna Iyer used to make this point. What does “advanced age” have to do with the capacity to arbitrate effectively? Moreover, aren’t arbitral tribunals supposed to aid the legal system by resolving disputes that would otherwise clog the courts?

Dilip Rao
Dilip Rao
13 years ago

Is the constitution value-neutral as Seervai says or does it subscribe to a particular philosophy as J.Iyer seems to believe? Does the addition of the word ‘socialist’ to the preamble enjoin the judiciary to slant its interpretations in a particular direction? It would be interesting to know what people think of this.

Samar Bansal
Samar Bansal
13 years ago

Since the issue of opinions about the much feted Krishna Iyer arose in various comments, I thought the following extract may be of some interest.

Its from an excellent book called “Crisis in the Indian Judiciary” by Justice K.S. Hegde, published in October 1973. The book was written as a response to Mohan Kumaramangalam’s disingenuous justifications for Indira Gandhi’s packing of the Supreme Court with pliable judges, put forth in his own book, “Judicial Appointments”. This is what Hegde had to say about Iyer, J.:

“Protests from the Bar, the opposition parties and the public appear to have had little effect on the Government. The Government does not appear to have altered its policy to have ‘committed’ judges in the Supreme Court. One of the recent appointments to the Supreme Court has been adversely commented upon by some of the members of the Bombay Bar. In a letter written to the press, they stated –

“Justice Krishna Iyer’s career is well known and for facility of reference it is set out on the jacket of the collection of his articles published by the CPI’s publishing concern, People’s Publishing House. Justice Iyer was Minister for Law, Home, Irrigation and Power in the first Communist Ministry in Kerala (1957 to 1959) and has been deeply involved in democratic movements such as the Peace Council, Democratic Lawyer’s Association, Indo-Soviet, Indo-GDR and Indo-Cuban friendship organisations” (these are all well known communist front organisations)

While on the Bench, he, in an article published in a Pro-CPI Journal, took it upon himself to support the 25th Amendment in breach of settled norms of judicial propriety. Sitting Judges are expected to refrain from commenting on particular legislations, lest their remarks embarassed them in the discharge of their judicial function. Such improprieties should be regarded as qualifications for promotions.

It is understood that Chief Justice Sikri had objected to the appointment of Justice Iyer to the Supreme Court. It is strange that Justice Iyer’s appointment was first announced to the Press not from Rashtrapati Bhavan, but by the Chief Minister of Kerala. The Chief Minister appeared to have told the Press that before appointing Justice Iyer, he as well as the Governor of Kerala had been consulted, a procedure for which there is no support in the Constitution. All these show the way the wind blows.”

In all fairness, I must admit I’m no fan of either Commies or their poster boys, but my own biases notwithstanding, I find it strange that while nowadays its fashionable to sing paeans of Krishna Iyer and his “people-centric approach”, there’s very little research or analysis about his political activities and manner of rise to the SC with CPI backing in the heyday of Indira’s most totalitarian phase – Samar Bansal