Mainstream Weekly

Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2013 > Justice Verma and his Legacy

Mainstream, VOL LI, No 19, April 27, 2013

Justice Verma and his Legacy

Sunday 28 April 2013



by Rajeev Dhavan

No obituary notice can do justice to Justice J.S. Verma. A judge for over 25 years, Chief Justice of India (CJI), Chairman, National Human Rights Commission, (NHRC), Verma Commission on Security Lapses, Verma Commission on Rape Laws. The list is endless. Many judges hanker for post-retirement jobs, Justice Verma did not. A CJI has to chair the NHRC. He did not ask for the job, but did a good job. He earned no money from post-retirement practice or arbitrations. Incorruptible, he left behind little by way of inheritance but a lot as legacy.

His High Court judgments were rarely overturned by the Supreme Court. No one doubted his knowledge across a large canvass of law. He loved to expound it. I used to accompany my trainees to his court simply to hear his clear expositions of the law. Each institution has its politics. The Supreme Court is no stranger to this. In little time, he became the part of a powerful cabal which dominated the business of the court, including Justices Venkatachaliah (another giant in his own right), Sharma, himself and others. The importance of this lay in his majority judgment in the Judges case (1993) which wrested the power of judicial appointments from the executive to locate High Court and Supreme Court appointments in High Court and, eventually, Supreme Court collegiums. In retrospect, it seems that this experiment has gone wrong and is crying for reversal. In the hands of better collegiums it may have worked well. It became an autocracy. Justice Verma expressed to me his doubts on the experiment, but was still wary of political interference which is why a collegium was instituted in the first place.

His most remarkable foray into gender justice was his judgment in Visakha (1997) which signalled three judicial adventures: incorporating international human rights treaties and regimes into Indian law, expanding the role of gender justice in Indian law and, most significantly, creating the actionable wrong of sexual harass-ment and providing for its enforcement at the workplace. This enabled Indian human rights to acquire a universal perspective without losing touch with Indian realities. But he did not step on Parliament’s jurisdiction. Judicial craftsman-ship does not come to all.

It seems ironic that Justice Verma thought President’s Rule (1993) was not judicially reviewable. His views on judicial review are not to be judged by his forbearance in that case. He expanded judicial review but kept it under a tight leash. In the Hawala case in 1998, he decided that the court could ask the CBI to investigate the matter; and, that, the court would monitor the investigation till the charge-sheet was filed by the CBI. Why this procedure? In such a case, political interference could take place. This was not a prescription in all cases but where political interference was likely. In the 2G case, the Supreme Court has lost its reticence both in supervision of the CBI (issuing contempt notices at the drop of a hat) and supervising beyond the investigation stage. This shows the difference between judicial oversight and hands-on supervision, juristic technique and its antithesis. Justice Verma understood the challenges of the time and the need for a measured response to them.

There are many cases he was involved in. An earlier round of the Accelerated Seniority Reservation cases (1996) and innumerable civil liberty ones. It was Justice Verma who appointed me amicus in the Noida cases which led to the criminal case against Neera Yadav IAS and which still continues. While I was not happy with his Babri Masjid majority judgment (1994), because of what he said about Muslim prayer and tilting the status quo in the Hindus’ favour, yet it remains an elaboration of secularism and establishing a status quo. Typically (quoting Swift) he said: “We have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.” A view that ran through his life.

This secular commitment was visible when as the Chairman, NHRC he sent his teams to Gujarat in the aftermath of Godhra. His reports indicted religion-based genocide. He wanted political follow-through which was wanting. At a Karan Thapar programme, I asked why he stopped after the NHRC indictment. He added, wryly, that he could only go up to a point. Compare that with our present NHRC Chairman who does not show any human rights drive and Press Council Chairman who wants to run the country.

It was during the last ten odd years (2003-2013) when Justice Verma became a peoples’ person and resource. With no great love for foreign travel, he responded to invitation from activists, gracing each occasion with thought. The last time I heard him was a Sahmat meeting where he kept the fires of a tolerative secularism alive.

His legacy is a tribute to his life and his life a tribute to all of us—‘Goodbye old friend.’

(Courtesy: The Times of India)

The author is an eminent lawyer.

ISSN (Mainstream Online) : 2582-7316 | Privacy Policy
Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.