India’s most original judge, a man who married law and literature, in an epic style unmatched anywhere in the English- speaking world, shuffled off his mortal coil on Thursday in his 100th year. Born on November 15, 1914, Justice Vaidyanathapura Rama Krishna Iyer has merely ceased to be a living legend. He is now truly the stuff of immortal legend. A journalist, lawyer, a politician, an administrator, a judge, a conscience keeper, a legend, an enigma, a seeker are but some of the many roles that he played through the century of his life.

Born into a Palakkad Brahmin family, to a father, who was a successful practitioner in the district courts, Krishna Iyer pursued English literature at the Annamalai universiity and completed his law degree in Madras. Though he started off as a journalist, he gravitated into the profession of law where he soon made his mark as a fighter for the poor and less fortunate. He was rewarded for his activism in 1948, when he was preventively detained by the Madras police for political activities and spent a month in Kannur jail.

His activism lead him to politics and communism. Though Krishna Iyer was elected as an independent MLA, when EMS Namboodiripad formed the world’s first democratically elected communist government in Kerala, the lawyer was made a minister with the seven portfolios. As a minister, he is credited with the revolutionary Kerala Land Reforms Act that ensured legal protection to the actual tiller of land. All land reforms legislation in other states, owe their inspiration to this law. The only flaw that unkind critics could point to was an exception made for trust properties, to which refuge some knowledgeable persons had resorted to ahead of the passing of the act.

The dismissal of the EMS government in 1959 saw him return to his legal practise and his work as a social activist. In 1968, Iyer was called upon by Chief Justice MS Menon to serve in his true role as dispenser of justice for the republic. Five years later, amidst calls for a committed judiciary, his friendship with the leftist Mohan Kumaramangalam, saw him being elevated to the Supreme Court. His elevation was marked with apprehensions expressed by several lawyers, including Soli Sorabjee. He went on to disprove all apprehensions as mere premature adjudication.

His judgments soon had people scurrying for dictionaries and thesaurus. But it was not mere words of learned length and thundering sound designed to amaze the gazing rustics ranged round. His judgments were right in law, had heart in them and were based on human experience. His grand style, his extended simile and his great imagery, make his judgments seem to be almost works of literature in the heroic mould of John Milton in Paradise Lost.
To cite an example, in Chitan J. Vaswani & Anr vs State Of West Bengal & Anr 1975 AIR 2473, he brings a film script quality to describing an excise raid.
“The scene is the Isias Bar, 15, Free School Street, Calcutta. A hall of enchantment extends nocturnal invitation to have a nice time with svelte sylphs. The entrance fee is but a paltry Rs. 15/- per man and inside is served animating liquor. Scantily clad female flesh of sweet seventeen or thereabouts flit about or sit on laps, to the heady tune of band music. They solicit carnal custom, and the willing male victims pay Rs. 30/-, choose whom they fancy, drink together and, taking leave of decencies, indulge in promiscuous sex exercise legally described as operation prostitution. The stage is busy with many men and girls moving into rooms, lavatories and chambers. The curtain rises and a raiding party of police and excise officers surprise this arotic company drowned in drink and damsels.”

I had to double check for typographical error, the word arotic in the last sentence. The Supreme Court reports certify that arotic is indeed the word used by Iyer, meaning “ of or relating to the aorta (heart artery). A lesser writer would have chosen, erotic but then Krishna Iyer always wrote from the heart.

Another striking example is the riverine imagery used by Justice Iyer, to describe how the Indian constitution is modelled on the British model of the Westminister form of Government, as opposed to the American presidential model. In his concurrence in the seven judges judgment in Shamsher Singh’s case, Justice Iyer wrote:
“What are the basic fabric, the animating spirit, and juridical ideas of our constitutional structure and dynamics ? The law of our Constitution, any student of Indian political history and of comparative constitutional systems will agree, is partly eclectic but primarily an Indo-Anglian version of the Westminster model with quasi-federal adaptations, historical modifications, geopolitical mutations and homespun traditions-basically a blended brew of the British parliamentary system, and the Government of India Act, 1935 and near-American, nomenclature-wise and in some other respects. Not the Potomac, but the Thames, fertilizes the flow of the Yamuna. if we may adopt a riverine imagery.”

On June 23, 1975, Iyer’s moment of truth on the Supreme Court, came as a vacation judge, sitting singly. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s application for a stay of the Allahabad High Court judgment that had disqualified her for electoral malpractice, was listed before him. He heard arguments through the day, sitting as late as 6 pm. The next day he granted a partial stay, which allowed the prime minister to continue as a MP pending a final hearing of her appeal, “minus the right to participate in debates, including voting and drawing of remuneration as a legislator.but without the right to vote”. This partial stay, has ever thereafter been the template for apellate courts admitting election appeals.

Emergency in India was imposed on June 25, 1975, and through the dark days Iyer did what then seemed possible to ameliorate the excesses and abuses of power. It is a moot question as to which way he would have ruled, if he had been on the bench in ADM Jabalpur’s case. However the restoration of democracy after the elections of 1977, saw Iyer and Justice PN Bhagwati in the forefront of the revolution in Public Interest Litigation.

Prof George Gadbois, author of the book, Judges of the Supreme Court of India (1950-1989) was asked the question “who was best Judge india has ever seen?” He said “For the 1980s, the choice is between Justices P N Bhagwati and V R Krishna Iyer. It’s my view that Justice Krishna Iyer was the best of the two. Impeccably honest, a game changer in that he, more than Justice Bhagwati, spoke effectively for the poor. Though Justice Bhagwati fans may disagree, Krishna Iyer was, I believe, the founder of Public Interest Litigation and the liberal expansion of locus standi”.

After retiring from the Supreme Court in 1980, unlike the fashion of today,Justice Iyer returned to Cochin without hanging around for a judicial sinecure in Delhi. He continued with his indefatigable energy, to participate in public life, made forceful interventions in causes of the day and contributed to the discourse on law and life. He was ever forthright in his thought, frank in his opinion and forever charming. Now he belongs to the ages, reunited with his soulmate Sharda, his wife whom he lost in 1973 but continued to commune with in spirit, throughout the rest of his life.