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Over the past four weeks, the Apex Court has witnessed the superannuation of two fine judges, both known for their unimpeachable integrity and concern for the little man. Their departures in quick succession, leaves a void not only in terms of numbers, but also affects the Courts composition in ways that impact the common man.
While Justice Kurian Joseph, a man of great benevolence and God’s fear, administered laws in his signature style of compassionate justice, Justice Madan Lokur, a man of equal compassion, was the voice of the unheard who set the wheels of social justice turning. Both men toiled to invite the State’s attention to the needs of the individual.
The Supreme Court of India has judges from different backgrounds. For long, each one has brought with them their own judicial proclivities, political views, sociological philosophies and on a professionally interpersonal level, even different temperamental attributes. For those who have watched the institution closely, the present day Supreme Court has ceased to be a melting pot of these attributes. It has, instead, become a ‘salad bowl’, with each ingredient adding a different flavour and identity.
However, the diversity of the bench is not restricted to these traits alone. It is also found in the judicial assertiveness of the judges’ own views. The subjects and issues that this Court has to deal with on a daily basis are as large as they are diverse. It can be argued that the eclectic composition caters well to the variety and volume of litigation processed by this Court.
Justice Kurian Joseph took great pains at mediating family disputes. Whether matrimonial differences, property claims, or business disagreements, he passionately advised, counselled and even cajoled beyond his call of duty. He mended many a heart and familial ties, sharing the child’s affection between sparring parents and reuniting those naturally linked by fate. Witnessing bitter and long separated family members being directed to invite the other for dinner, to stay together till the next date of hearing, to go out for short vacations together, were not uncommon sights in his Courtroom. A lot was achieved-albeit unconventionally.
An extremely polite and charming personality, he came down sternly against those in contempt. He lived by the Latin legal maxim – fiat justitia ruat caelum (“let justice be done though the heavens fall”). In his last judgment delivered in Channulal Verma Vs. State of Chhattisgarh, he disagreed with his brethren on the bench and called for a review of the continuance of the death penalty on the statute book. Many younger members of the Bar were encouraged by him to make their unforgettable first arguments. Adored by the Bar, he was given a standing ovation at his farewell.
Justice Madan Lokur had a keen eye for environment conservation and for those who lived in it unnoticed. By showing the State the mirror or unfailingly upholding the rule of law, Justice Lokur did not shy away from bringing the spotlight to the basic rights of the individual. His orders in the field of legal aid, juvenile justice, prisoners rights, sealing and demolition of unauthorized constructions, moratorium on illegal mining, forest conservation, amenities for the specially abled, the elderly and abandoned, temporary shelters for the homeless in bitter winters etc. made him a champion of inclusive growth, empowerment and human rights.
Justice Lokur would not be prevented by procedure, to serve the higher goal the law was meant to serve – equality and justice. The Attorney General for India, Mr. KK Venugopal, is reported to have described him as a
“judge with his heart and empathy at the right place. After every occasion of disagreement with him, I am left with an impression of a highly dignified and impassioned Judge. He redefined the Judiciary and the Constitution.”
At a time when it has become fashionable to critique every view held by members of the Supreme Court, the January of 2018 witnessed an unprecedented churning in the institution. Four of the five senior most judges of the Supreme Court – including these two – addressed a gathering of the press, in a move that was as much appreciated as it was criticised. Though the judiciousness of this step shall be adjudged by posterity, it demonstrated the character and conviction of these men, who broke conventional judicial discipline and braved criticism to step forward and be heard.
These two fine judges forced us not to look away. And rightly so. They balanced the exclusivity and the aloofness of the highest judicial forum in our country and fought for the cause of the individual. They may have left the Supreme Court this year, but en passant, they leave behind a generation of lawyers inspired by their ideals.
With great jurists and sharp legal minds on the bench today, many compassionate too, one can only hope that the salad bowl is further replenished with the same humaneness and compassion that leaves it.
Shoeb Alam practices at the Supreme Court of India.