A Marxist in the Supreme Court: Justice Chinnappa Reddy

His outstanding quality was that he never let his personal ideology influence his constitutional duty.
Justice Chinnappa Reddy
Justice Chinnappa Reddy

A man of many adjectives, Justice Chinnappa Reddy was a constitutional moralist, a self-proclaimed Marxist, an intellectual, an idealist, a secular humanist, a wordsmith and, of course, a liberal.

He was a walking anachronism in his time, and in our current times, even the consideration of elevation of a jurist with his unique worldview would be controversial. His outstanding quality was that he never let his personal ideology influence his constitutional duty.

In SP Mittal, while concurring with the majority’s conclusion but dissenting with the reasoning, he began:

“Quite a considerable part of the hearing of the petitions was devoted to a debate on the question, what is Religion? Religion: Everyone has a religion, or at least, a view or a window on religion, be he a bigot or simple believer, philosopher or pedestrian, atheist or agnostic. Religion, like 'democracy' and 'equality' is an elusive expression, which everyone understands according to his preconceptions. What is religion to some is pure dogma to others and what is religion to others is pure superstition to some others.”

With such a stellar opening to his concurrence, Justice Reddy recorded his personal views and why they should not interfere with his role as a judge of the Supreme Court:

“I apprehend I share the views of those who have neither faith nor belief in religion and who consider religion as entirely unscientific and irrational. Chanting of prayer appears to me to be mere jingoism and observance of ritual, plain superstition. But my views about religion, my prejudices and my predilections, if they be such, are entirely irrelevant. So are the views of the credulous, the fanatic, the bigot and the zealot. So also, the views of the faithful, the devout, the Acharya, the Moulvi, the Padre and the Bhikshu each of whom may claim his as the only true or revealed religion. For our present purpose, we are concerned with what the people of the Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic of India, who have given each of its citizens freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practise and propagate religion and who have given every religious denomination the right to freely manage its religious affairs, mean by the expressions 'religion' and 'religious denomination'.

We are concerned with what these expressions are designed to mean in Articles 25 and 26 of the Constitution. Any Freedom or Right involving the conscience must naturally receive a wide interpretation and the expression 'religion' and 'religious denomination' must therefore, be interpreted in no narrow, stifling sense but in a liberal, expansive way.”

Justice Reddy was born on September 25, 1922 in Rayalseema, Andhra Pradesh into a family of lawyers. His father and his grandfather practised in the district courts of Andhra Pradesh.

He completed his BL from Madras Law College in 1943 and immediately enrolled to practise before the Madras High Court. In 1954, he shifted his practice to the High Court of Andhra Pradesh upon its creation. He was a modern–day Robin Hood as he used the fees charged from his wealthy clients to represent those who could not pay.

In 1960, he was appointed public prosecutor for Andhra Pradesh. Owing to his stellar record as a prosecutor, he was called to the bench of the High Court of Andhra Pradesh to become an additional judge on August 21, 1967. He was punitively transferred to the Punjab & Haryana High Court during Emergency. During his tenure in Chandigarh, he was sworn in twice as the Acting Chief Justice.

As an act of judicial atonement, CJI Beg tried to convince him to remain in Chandigarh and serve as the Chief Justice of that court. However, Justice Reddy refused as he wanted to return to the south to his home state, where he restarted his tenure from 1977.

On July 17, 1978, at the age of 55, he was elevated to the Supreme Court of India where he was sworn in along with Justices AD Koshal and AP Sen during the reformative reign of CJI YV Chandrachud.

Apart from his intellect, location and religion played a role in his elevation. After the retirement of P Jaganmohan Reddy, there was no representation from the State of Andhra Pradesh. Even the Christian seat was empty after the retirement of Justice KK Matthew (a devout Christian, stalwart, and father of Justice KM Joseph). Killing two birds with one stone, Justice Chinnappa Reddy was elevated even though he was the fourth in seniority at Andhra Pradesh. Upon reaching Delhi, CJI Chandrachud was surprised to discover that the Roman Catholic judge was an agnostic.

He was part of the quartet of CJI PN Bhagwati, Justice Krishna Iyer and Justice DA Desai, fondly referred to as the ‘Four Horsemen of Socialism’. They successfully restored the faith of the common man in the Supreme Court, which was recovering from the hollow period of Emergency, during which resignations and supersessions became a norm. Judicial activism reached its peak during this period and the Court made sure that its decisions benefitted the lowest strata of the citizenry.

Justice Reddy enjoyed a nine-year tenure at the apex court, where he retired as the seniormost associate judge. His court was feared by the counsel, as he did not grant any passovers and was encouraging to those who argued in absence of their seniors. He was part of many four-judge  benches, which is uncommon nowadays.

In his most famous case, Bijoe Emmanuel, three Jehovah’s Witness children were expelled for refusing to sing the national anthem in the morning assembly. According to them, it was against the tenet of their religion to sing the words of our national anthem. Fali Nariman appeared for the aggrieved parties while PS Poti (future Chief Justice of the High Court of Gujarat) appeared for one of the opponents. Striking down the expulsion, Justice Reddy held in golden words:

“We, therefore, find that the Fundamental Rights of the appellants under Articles 19(1)(a) and 25(1) have been infringed and they are entitled to be protected. We allow the appeal, set aside the judgment of the High Court and direct the respondent authorities to re-admit the children into the school, to permit them to pursue their studies without hindrance and to facilitate the pursuit of their studies by giving them the necessary facilities. We only wish to add : our tradition teaches tolerance; our philosophy preaches tolerance; our Constitution practices tolerance; let us not dilute it.”

His dictum holds true to this day. Justice Sudhanshu Dhulia placed reliance on Bijoe Emmanuel in his split verdict in the Hijab case and held that wearing hijab is a matter of choice. Some parts of the Bijoe Emmanuel judgment were statutorily diluted when the Indian government introduced the Flag Code of India 2002, the Prevention of Insults to National Symbols Amendment Act 2003, and the Prevention of Improper Use Act 2005.

Another judgment which showcases Justice Chinnappa Reddy’s belief in constitutional morality is Ramashankar Raghuvanshi. A municipal school teacher was terminated and pronounced an unfit person to be entertained in government service as he had taken part in ‘RSS & Jan-Sangh activities’. While dismissing the appeal, Justice Chinnappa Reddy unequivocally recorded:

“…All that is said is that before he was absorbed in Government service, he had taken part in some 'RSS or Jan Sangh activities.' What those activities were has never been disclosed. Neither the RSS nor the Jan Sangh is alleged to be engaged in any subversive or other illegal activity; nor are the organisations banned. Most people, including intellectuals, may not agree with the program and philosophy of the Jan Sangh and the RSS or, for that matter of many other political parties and organisations of an altogether different hue. But that is irrelevant. Everyone is entitled to his thoughts and views. There are no barriers. Our Constitution guarantees that...What then was the sin that the respondent committed in participating in some political activity before his absorption into Government service. What was wrong in his being a member of an organisation which is not even alleged to be devoted to subversive or illegal activities…”

His constitutional dictums helped in preserving an individual’s liberty and freedom of choice. One can go on about the innumerable judgments which were carved out by this incredible wordsmith. Some might say that he has been one of the few judges who have kept the preambulatory term ‘socialist’ in their minds while interpreting our Constitution.

Justice Reddy demitted office on September 25, 1987. However, his post-retirement service to the country continued through his publishing and lectures. He led the Third Karnataka Backward Classes Commission which propounded a ‘class–based’ criteria compared to the ‘caste–based’ criteria that ensured that the constitutional benefits of reservation reached the lowest strata of the society. Later, he was a member of a three-member committee set up to investigate the corruption allegations against the Supreme Court judge, Justice V Ramaswami, who survived the impeachment proceedings before Parliament. Justice Reddy was also appointed as a member of an unofficial citizen tribunal formed to investigate the events surrounding the destruction of the Babri Masjid.

A prolific author, he went on to publish many books in both English and Telugu. His most famous work is The Court and the Constitution of India: Summits and Shallows, which consists of pithy yet all–encompassing essays on the Constitution of India. In its foreword, scholar Upendra Baxi has written a short but a terrifically eclectic biography of Justice Chinnappa Reddy. Another work is a short book containing legal stories titled Humpty Dumpty with Alice in the Wonderland of Law. He was also a fan of western classical music.

As he got older, his vision gradually failed him. However, keen on keeping track of current affairs, he had people read out to him. He passed away silently on April 13, 2013 in Hyderabad.

Such was a constitutional iconoclast, who dedicated his life in the service of this democracy.

Shrinil A Shah is an advocate practising at the High Court of Gujarat.

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