Sunday, February 01, 2009

G. Vasantha Pai -- Unsung Pioneer of Judicial Accountability in India

I wanted to reflect on the passing yesterday of a freedom fighter, lawyer, and patriot, who was largely unknown outside Chennai. G. Vasantha Pai was a senior advocate of the Madras High Court and a former member of the now-abolished Tamil Nadu Legislative Council. He is the younger brother of G. B. Pai, the famous labour lawyer and philatelist, who died last year. He was a towering and inspiring figure, and I want to dwell briefly upon his life and accomplishments.

Vasantha Pai joined public life when he was still an adolescent. In his teens, he responded to the Mahatma's call and participated in demonstrations against the British. He was mercilessly beaten at one demostration by an English police officer on horseback. That incident left him with two proud souvenirs: a deep scar on his shoulder blade and a wooden plaque (with Gandhi in the background of an undivided British India) from his grateful hometown of Cochin recognizing his contribution to our freedom movement.

then enrolled as a student of the Madras (now Dr. Ambedkar Government) Law College. His final law exams were scheduled just as Madras was vacated over fears that the Japanese would bomb the city. The lighthouse, which, in those days, was erected over the High Court building, was a choice target. Given its proximity to the Law College, the law students, including Pai (and my late maternal grand-uncle, John D'Souza of Bangalore) were sent to Vorhees College in Vellore. At Vellore, the evacuees endured hostile hostel and hygenic conditions that were hardly conducive to taking a final exam. Pai was the president of the students' union and under pressure from the agitated rank and file, who were unable to adequately prepare for the exam. So, he successfully persuaded the exam invigilators that the students should be allowed to consult bare acts as they were preparing to become lawyers, and lawyers in courts always appeared with books. This was probably the first officially sanctioned "open book" examination at an Indian law school and the class passed with flying colours.

After obtaining his law degree, Pai got his early practical training from his father, Guna Pai, who was a leading commercial lawyer in Ernakulam. Among other things, he learnt the importance of doing your own legal research and legal work. Guna Pai apparently made young Vasanth read every Indian statute from the first section to the last in order to fully understand the structure of the law in its entirety. Years later, Pai passed on that lesson to me. It is one that I use in my own practice when I encounter a new law or legislation that I have to work with.

Pai moved to Chennai in the 1950s and began his practice just as Indian high courts began to explore their new constitutional powers under the writ jurisdiction. He became a well-known authority on election law issues and corporate matters. He appeared in, among other things, the landmark Supreme Court case of National Textile Workers v. Ramakrishnan, where the Court ruled that employees have a stake in winding-up proceedings. Yet, Pai was, by no means, only a hired gun. He filed several cases himself -- some of them are still very important for their legal principles while the impact of others have faded over the years. Pai appeared himself in almost all of these cases.

As the reported decisions reveal, Pai's advocacy of various causes were not always successful. Yet, he was his indefatigable self as an advocate's advocate who appeared before six generations of judges at the Madras High Court and in the Supreme Court. He remained a firm believer in the rule of law and in the judiciary's capacity to administer relief for his clients' causes and his own personal grievances. He was always arguing, pleading, and insisting that the letter and spirit of the law be followed, that procedures be observed, that rules in force be obeyed, and most importantly, that justice be seen and done, and equity fairly administered. He did so with eloquence, force, conviction, and passion, even when outwitted by an opponent or rebuked by an unsympathetic judge. Oliver Goldsmith's description of the Village School Master's skills would aptly apply to Pai: "in arguing too, the person own’d his skill, For e’en though vanquish’d he could argue still."

Pai's greatest, but largely forgotten, contribution to our legal system was his dogged private investigation in the mid-1960s of Ramachandra Iyer, the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court. Pai discovered that Ramachandra Iyer had concealed his real age in order to gain a longer judicial tenure. He found it most intriguing that the judge's younger brother had dispatched invitations for his sixtieth birthday, even though the judge, himself, claimed he was not yet sixty. Determined to get to the bottom of the matter, Pai went to Ramachandra Iyer's birthplace and photographed the original birth registrar (there were no photocopiers in those days). With this evidence, he concluded that the judge had lied about his age. He then relentlessly sought the judge's removal undeterred by the stone walling that he faced from the home ministry and the higher judiciary. Ultimately, the judge was forced to resign at the urgings of the Chief Justice of India, P.B. Gajendragadkar. K.G. Kannabiran, the great doyen of our human rights bar, explains why Pai's efforts to have Ramachandra Iyer unseated were important:

[Ramachandra Iyer] was known to be a competent judge, but competence and ability are not synonyms for ethical or moral conduct. . . . . Really age has nothing to do with a person functioning as a judge. Nor has it anything to do with the administration of justice. But once an age of entry and exit is fixed, misrepresentation of age becomes unethical and continuation on such representation does affect the administration of justice, not because he is past the age but because he misrepresented to extend his tenure.

A key development in ensuring the judge's exit was Pai's writ petition against the judge in the Madras High Court. Seeking a writ of quo warranto, Pai asked the High Court to remove Ramachandra Iyer, whom the petition's cause title described as "Now Holding The Office of the Honourable The Chief Justice of Madras." This, in itself, was a bold and audacious move, especially at a time where there was great deference in the bar to the judiciary, which was seen as infallible and beyond reproach. Although the High Court later dismissed Pai's petition after the judge resigned, the case was an important milestone in ensuring judicial accountability. More importantly, it marked among the first examples of what later became public interest litigation.

Pai was a senior counsel who refused to delegate his preparation and research to juniors. He spent an enormous amount of time preparing his cases. He was up and at his home-office desk as dawn was just breaking -- not in India, but two time zones away in Singapore. He was very fond of reading and he read widely. In the early 1990s, he donated a large collection of his books to the National Law School of India's fledgling library (giving it its first set of Shiva Rao's important papers on our Constitution's framing). He also gave his law reports to the Madras High Court's Women Lawyers Association. He was particularly keen on properly recalling and constantly refreshing one's knowledge of legal first-principles and landmark cases. When I was in my first year of law school, he argued a trade mark case with great erudition. He began his arguments with the Gloucester Grammar School Master's Case, an old rusty decision that one learns and forgets in the first week of the first year of law school. Yet, that antique case vividly and dramatically emphasized Pai's underlying argument that his client could not be sued for a trademark violation. Pai used the case as a rhetorical device to great effect and the judge was considerably impressed by it.

A lot of my early reading on law and legal developments was from books he lent me. Among other things, I read Pai's copy of Setalvad's fascinating autobiography from whose title this blog's name is derived. Pai adored Setalvad with whom he appeared as a junior in several cases. He placed a high premium on professional ethics and was greatly dismayed at what he believed was the rapid erosion of values in the bar. Yet, he had great faith in the legal profession and instituted scholarships for promising young lawyers and created endowments to fund lectures on legal topics.

Although he despised the messy arena of party politics, Pai was a firm believer in parliamentary democracy. He contested and won a seat as an independent in the Tamil Nadu Legislative Council from the graduates constituency. He was a stickler for constitutional traditions and legislative propriety. Even after he left the Legislative Council, he wrote frequent letters to prime ministers, chief ministers, and presiding officers admonishing them for their transgressions or providing them with advice on difficult issues of the day. He never earned much goodwill by these actions. He was greatly reviled for his persistence in advocating a cause and attacked for his stubborn and unbending commitment to a case. One particularly mean adversary of his actually shared with me his rotten (and thankfully wrong) belief that Pai would soon succumb to illness so that he and his henchman would be free to pursue their machinations. In this respect, therefore, the ancient Greek praise for Pericles might well apply to Pai:

He did not so much follow as lead the people because he framed not his words to please them like one who is gaining power by unworthy means but was able and dared on the strength of high character even to brave their anger by contradicting their will.

On a more personal note, "Uncle Vasanth," as we called him was my family's neighbour for more than forty years in Chennai's Gandhi Nagar neighbourhood. As children, we feared his stentorian voice, but we were charmed by his grand-fatherly kindness and limitless generosity. He was hospitable to a fault to all who came to see him. He would leave whatever he was doing -- whether reading the latest law reports or preparing for a case in conference with other lawyers -- and loudly herald the arrival of his unannounced guests, whether young or old, to his beloved wife. Then, he would proceed, himself, to make for his guests a cool drink from freshly squeezed limes of his garden, which offered a welcome respite from Madras's unforgiving humidity. No visit to Uncle Vasanth's home was complete without partaking, at his insistence, nay his most compelling demand, of whatever fruits, sweets, or snacks he had in his larder that day.

It was impossible not to be influenced by his local presence. Many a day began for us with an unsolicited 5.30 am wake-up call from Uncle Vasanth to whomsoever picked up the phone. Pai would vent about whatever had been agitating him for the past three hours since his pre-dawn rising. My father, who often took the call, would respectfully answer the phone and then go back to sleep. If Uncle Vasanth was not satisfied with my father's response, he would pay us a visit at 6.30 am when returning his daily constitutional that consisted of walking three blocks to pick-up that morning's fresh supply of milk. He was at his best during the evening sun-downer of scotch (for years, he preserved every bottle that he opened), which he shared regularly with my father and grand father. With them, he would share war stories about his cases and pursuits while simultaneously dazzling the starry eyed children, who watched in awe as the adults spoke, with anecdotes from his world travels. Those travels were true adventures and to make them he developed ingenious ways to overcome the harsh foreign-exchange restrictions that the Sarkari Raj imposed on traveling Indians between the 1960s and 1990s.

Uncle Vasanth's constant companion through his journeys and adventures has been his loyal and ever pleasant wife, Shantha. She, in her own right, is an important figure in our country's constitutional history. Before she married Pai, Shantha Bai (as was her maiden name) sued the University of Madras in 1957 on the grounds of sex discrimination because one of its affiliated colleges did not admit her. This was among the first cases involving the Constitution's guarantee of equal protection and non-discrimination. However, Chief Justice Rajammannar, one of India's greatest judges, was unconvinced that a writ could lie against the University as he took a narrow view of the term "state" in Article 12. Ultimately, the Supreme Court reversed Rajamannnar's decision in a subsequent case paving the way for a broader application of the fundamental rights in our Constitution.

Finally, Uncle Vasanth was a true-blooded patriot whose love for country was forged through his wounds as a young freedom fighter. He took it upon himself to nurture in us a strong sense of pride in our democracy and founders. He took me to my first Republic Day parade on the Marina beach in Chennai and never ceased to extol the importance of serving one's country through participation in public life. Even in his eighties, Uncle Vasanth unfailingly commemorated Republic Day and Independence Day with a dinner reception at home for his friends and neighbours. Even last weekend, as he spent his fourth week in cardiac intensive care, he was busy drawing up a guest list for an event commemorating the Republic's founding on January 26, which he felt he somehow could pull off by getting better in time for it. Although he never made it out of hospital for Republic Day, we can be comforted that he has now "gone to meet" the Mahatma, Tagore, and India's other founders, whom he adored and emulated in his life on earth, in that freedom's heaven where they reside.
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