Justice V.R. Krishna Iyer

Around four score and four years ago, November 1, 1915 to be precise, was born in Malabar, as the son of VV Rama Iyer, a great trial lawyer on the West Coast of India, Shri. V.R Krishna Iyer who spiraled up to become, if one may borrow a Supreme Court idiom, (India) one of those rarest of rare individuals, blending in himself, in mellow measure, activism with restraint, politics with principle, scholarship with humanism, and daring with dedication. An able lawyer on the trial and appellate side, successful in the civil, criminal and constitutional jurisdictions, he surpassed as a creative legislator, while sitting on the opposition side in the Madras Legislature and a dynamic member in the Government of Kerala, after the formation of that State, managing with versatile excellence, portfolios so divergent as Law, Justice, Home, Irrigation, Energy, Social Welfare plus. After that ministerial career, he was back at the bar and later, on the Bench he was a unique robed phenomenon imparting new dimensions of compassionate humanism to the rule of law and avant - grade direction to the judicial process, with fine- tuned functional innovations and firmly fixed focus on the humblest, harrowing sector of the Indian people. As minister, his multifaceted talents and administrative mastery gave radical opportunities to magnetise the common people into the centre-stage of participative development. His spiritual vision illuminated his materialist mission and fuelled his tireless striving, geared to good governance and social justice. His stormy ministerial tenure, between 1957 and 1959, facing novel challenges and achieving epic successes, remains unrivalled and, perhaps, is an untold story.

VV Rama Iyer


Leaving the Treasury Bench, he rose to the top at the Kerala Bar and was elevated to the Bench in 1968. His lawyering years made him a dauntless advocate with crimson commitment. Soon on the Bench of Kerala High Court, he began his luminous tenure as Judge and, before long, he arrived in Delhi as a member of the Central Law Commission. The first ever National Project for Free Legal Services to the poor was a Report on Processual Justice to the people by a high-powered committee headed by Justice Iyer.

In the field of legal aid his Committee's report was the first National Presentation of a project for free legal services in the country, way back in 1973.

His trust with destiny had to be redeemed by an ampler national adventure in the service of Indian humanity through nobler hermeneutical radicalism and original strategies of legal process. Indeed, the finest hour of the Supreme Court was then Justice Iyer, along with a companionate team, transformed Indian Jurisprudence and democratised the Judicial Process, what with public interest litigation, processual affirmative action and forensic defence of human rights and lawyers' services at state expense, blossoming in the Justice system.

By interpreting Article 21 of the Indian Constitution Justice Iyer's Bench directed the State to provide free legal services to accused person in custody. Indeed, his profound contribution to prison jurisprudence in a few criminal cases had given shape to rehumanisation of the sentencing system in India. The Reformative theory, in contrast to deterrence theory, become deep-rooted in the criminal justice system in the wake of the Land mark rulings of Justice Iyer. While a larger Bench of the Supreme Court of India had upheld the constitutionality of death sentence, Justice Iyer imposed stern conditionalities making death penalty a sentencing rarity. One of his rulings on the subject (Rajendra Prasad Singh's case) was followed by Lords Scarmen in the judicial committee of the Privy Council in West Minister. The jurisprudence of bail was humanised by Justice Iyer and this has been a lasting contribution to the liberation of under trial prisoners. In an International Conference of abolition of death penalty, he was invited to deliver an inaugural address by the "Amnesty International" in 1977. In the matter of sentencing Justice Iyer's innovative experiments have been acclaimed. Following some decisions of the trial judges of U.S. and emphasizing the importance of the correctional process in making the learned judge even directed convicts to undergo meditational courses.

It is difficult to comprehend or condense his marvelous contributions to our judicature and its vast potential for delivering right justice and commanding the most powerful and corrupt to surrender to justice. "Be you ever so high, the law is above you, be you ever so small, the law will befriend you" - this rule of law and life become a reality during his time. Suffice it to say, there is no Indian judge till date, living or dead, on whom two or three doctoral theses have been written by scholars in different universities. Justice Krishna Iyer has that distinction. The stay order in the Indira Nehru Gandhi Election appeal made his name glow globally and so did his vibrant and humanitarian perspective and socially sensitive perspicacity show up on the high bench in every pronouncement of his charming and challenging diction. This was no judicial serendipity after taking his seat on the Summit Court. It was but a curial application of his life's motto which he has several times emphasised: "I am a human being and nothing which affects any human is alien to me".

His lofty vision is demonstrated by Justice Iyer's ceaseless, militant, variegated involvement in a vistarama of social issues and jural problems without fear or favour or surrender to political pressure. After he retired from the Supreme Court in November, 1980, a new era of nearly two decades of long battle against injustice, corruption, pollution and abuse of power, existing the temptation of judicial commissions, lucrative consultations and other offices and establishment- blandishments, has been his austere post-superannuation sojourn. But he was ever positive, ever constructive, totally secular, essentially socialist, although he once reflected on his own life as the home of lost causes, forsaken beliefs, people-oriented campaigns and spiritually charged mission to make the New World Human Order a wee-bit better. With no inhibitions, he criticised justly, supported the suppressed and made no bones about being opposed to authoritarian, power drunk, party-intoxicated or Big Business bosses, Being wholly conscientious and holistic in his approach to human justice, he hardly hated anyone and few hated him. He touched none, which hw did not adorn. Of him, leading lawyer F. S. Nariman is reported to have once said: "When Krishna Iyer speaks, the nation listens". On another occasion, the same doyen of the Indian Bar, observed: "Some judges are compared to tall oak trees - but it is only the tallest oaks - like a Denning in the U.K., or a Krishna Iyer in India - who can indulge even with some success in that delicate and unpredictable exercise - of laying down the law in accordance with justice". Many great lawyers and judges have showered encomiums on him after his retirement. 

Shri. Soli J. Sorabjee, presently the Attorney General of India, wrote a few years back: 

"Mr. Krishna Iyer has a heart whose natural generosity and glowing warmth would scorch out any trace of malice or meanness. He cannot nurture a grudge towards any one, including unkind critics who have approached him with singular lack of humanity and understanding and who in learned tomes have raged and raged against the spreading of the light. Like Newman's True Gentleman, he had too much good sense to be affronted by insults and was too well employed to remember injuries. 

Nothing rankled more in his kind heart than confronting injustice. To him law was the means, the instrument, to secure justice. And if in this noble quest he crossed the rigid legalistic frontiers, so be it. He is in the good company of Earn Warren and Lord Denning and other bold judicial spirits whose judicial unorthodoxy has ultimately led to the advancement of justice and the promotion of fundamental freedoms".

Corruption, now the worst enemy of Indian Public life, environmental pollution, now the greatest disaster of India's development and political gambles in the most adventurist Bharat, were bete noire for Justice Iyer. He restlessly protested, detested, dissented, whenever a wrong was one anywhere, big or small. That puissant Iyer stream still flows on, regardless of age, and thus he has become a national institution for the Indian victims to reach and fight for justice. 

Justice Iyer has crusaded against exploitation by multinational corporations and continues to do so. His perennial pen and profound tongue are still active. He is president or patron of several social, legal and human rights organizations. Indeed his phenomenal personality is draped in simplicity and sapient Gandhian thought. He lives a lonely life, with all his burning rege against injustice. His great partner Sarada, an integral part of him, passed away 25 years ago and yet poignantly he feels the pain of the wound and looks at life after death as an investigative issue and larger vision. A Rotarian in spirit, every call of his soul is vibrant with the values and ideals of Rotary.