A man for all seasons retires: A farewell to Justice V Ramasubramanian

Be it in the context of any constitutional issue, labour issue, social issue or commercial issue, the ultimate winner in Justice Ramasubramanian's court was the public.
V Ramasubramanian
V Ramasubramanian

The expedition of a visionary and Tamil Scholar from humble Mannargudi to courageously chose a career path as a first generation lawyer, and to meritoriously rise to the pinnacle of the profession and retire as a judge of the Supreme Court of India, is an 80s movie script that would inspire audiences to throng the theaters.

One such protagonist who lived the grind, rose to the top and still has a long way ahead of him is Justice V Ramasubramanian.

His Lordship started his practice at the chambers of K Sarvabhauman and TR Mani before catapulting independently in the field of service law at the High Court and Central Administrative Tribunal in 1987. Before being elevated to the bench, His Lordship practiced law before a variety of judicial forums for nearly 23 years, including before the Madras High Court, Central and State Administrative Tribunals, City and Small Causes Court, State Consumer Commission and District Consumer Forum. His Lordship was appointed as an additional judge of the Madras High Court in July 2006, where he went on to become a permanent judge in November 2009.

To anyone who knows Justice Ramasubramanian, his commitment to larger public good is a well-known fact. Be it in the context of any constitutional issue, labour issue, social issue or even for that matter, commercial issue, the ultimate winner in His Lordship’s court was the public. This is evident in the several notable judgments that His Lordship has delivered, both as a judge of the High Courts and the Supreme Court.

In Colgate-Palmolive (India) Limited v. Anchor Health & Beauty Care Private Ltd, as a Madras High Court judge, His Lordship while dealing with a case concerning disparaging advertisements, explained the difference between puffery and disparaging remarks by introducing an angle of consumer protection. In Tamil Nadu Arasu Kooturuvuthurai v. MR Srinivasan, he allowed a writ appeal against a re-conveyance of land acquired by the government, protecting government lands worth 100s of crores neaS Raj Bhavan in Tamil Nadu by giving a creative interpretation to section 80 of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908. In Akash @ Anand v. Vanitha Vijayakumar, His Lordship highlighted the need for developing the concept of shared parenting and the need for shifting from old concepts of custody and visitation rights that belong to a rights regime to the new concepts of company and natural growth that belong to the responsibilities regime. Similarly, in Devas Multimedia Private Ltd vs Antrix Corporation Ltd, His Lordship, writing for a two-judge Bench of the Supreme Court, upheld the winding up of Devas Multimedia in public interest, rejecting technical objections that were raised by the appellant, including one based on a judgment of Justice Ramasubramanian himself, as a sitting judge of the Madras High Court.

His Lordship’s judgments also reflect his ever-inquisitive mind and his extraordinary ability to learn, unlearn and re-learn with changing times. In 2010, His Lordship sitting at the Madras High Court in Consim Info Pvt Ltd v. Google India Pvt Ltd, dealt with ad-words in relation to trademarks, at a time when the concept of Google ad-words was still at its nascent stage. He set the tone for not just other courts in India, but for courts across the globe to deal with seminal issues arising from Google’s ad-words program. Again, in Rajshree Sugars v. Axis Bank, His Lordship penned the first ever judgment delivered in India on the validity of the contract of derivatives, floated by banks for hedging risks involved for importers and exporters in transactions. In Interaccess Marine Bunkering v. KM Alauddin, the admiralty jurisdiction of the Madras High Court was redefined and the small area of doubt created by or left unanswered by the Supreme Court in Mv Elizabeth on the distinction between maritime claim and maritime lien was clarified.

In Dorothy Thomas v. Rex Arul, His Lordship defined the contours of private international law while dealing with the validity of the decisions rendered by foreign courts on matrimonial disputes. The decision in T Rajkumar v. Union of India, dealing with the constitutional validity of Section 94-A of the Income Tax Act, is a locus classicus on the theories of public international law. In AIDQUA Holdings Inc v. Tamil Nadu Water Investment Co Ltd, which arose out of proceedings for oppression and mismanagement under the Companies Act, 1956, the evil effects of privatisation of water was analysed. After tracing the history of privatisation of water from the 18th century New York, the judgment proceeded to analyse the case study of a water dispute between Bolivia and a company which went for arbitration before the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes, which is a mechanism in the World Bank. Similarly, in 2020, in Internet and Mobile Assn of India v. Reserve Bank of India, His Lordship, writing for a three-judge Bench of the Supreme Court, opened up the Indian market to cryptocurrency and trading, by quashing a circular of the Reserve Bank of India. Similarly, in Arjun Panditrao Khotkar v. Kailash Kushanrao Gorantyal, His Lordship recommended the removal of 65B of the Evidence Act, 1872, taking note of the developments in law in relation to electronic evidence.

His Lordship’s court was a junior's paradise, where he encouraged and treated them at par with any senior counsel of extraordinary standing. It was an easy task to gain his appreciation as the only qualities that he respected were merit and hard work. His Lordship’s wit and humour is a testament to the liveliness of the courtroom. The judgments or speeches of His Lordship were always well fed with satire, sarcasm and script-like style of writing that could be understood by all. Just as His Lordship always reveres merit and hardwork, his judgments were rigged to take on the best minds on any case with his independent unparalleled research, giving the case an altogether new dimension, while delivering justice. Most judgments of His Lordship are replete with such instances, with only a few aberrations.

His Lordship’s interest in varied fields beyond law is testament to his personality. A mere sliver of such a display is the book authored by His Lordship in Tamil titled Kambanil Sattamum Neethiyum. He wrote the book when he was a judge of the Madras High Court, despite holding the very heavy portfolio on the commercial/company law side, without compromising on the quality judgments and the rate of disposal. Other than this, His Lordship has also regularly contributed to newspaper columns titled Ariviyalukku Appaal (beyond science) and Sol Vettai (word search). His Lordship is a prolific speaker ever since his matriculation days, and his speeches have a strong and dedicated audience at literary events and music festivals, to name a few.

To paint an unvarnished tale of instances and interesting aspects of His Lordship’s life is not a task that can be reduced to a simple manuscript. I am compelled, however, to narrate at least one. His Lordship’s juniors often quipped that their senior would give money to the client to ensure their passage home in the public transport instead of collecting his professional fee.

As Justice V Ramasubramanian bids farewell to the Supreme Court, he leaves behind a legacy which stands as a testament to his name “RAMA”.

Harshini Jhothiraman is an Advocate practicing in the Madras High Court and a former law clerk to Justice Ramasubramanian.

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