Wednesday, March 19, 2008

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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