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“Tell me what you want to know, young man.” It is an innocuous command, couched in a way that both delights and compels the listener, and is an accurate reflection of the former Chief Justice of India, MN Venkatachaliah. We had met a few weeks earlier at the launch of Indu Malhotra’s book and now we were sitting face to face at his Bangalore residence in one of the older parts of the city.
Like his house, Venkatachaliah is a slice of old Bangalore, and dressed in a white kurta and white mundu, he can easily be mistaken for a professor, an academic. Which is not too far from the truth.
His practice began in the early ‘60’s with the legal profession in his blood or, as he puts it, it was a “family disease”. His grandfather was a judge, his father a famous lawyer and Principal of the Government Law College in Bangalore. The early days are described with a touch of romanticism; recounting a life that was far simpler, and a profession that was far more relaxed, far less competitive.
“[Litigation] was a very leisurely process and no one took it too seriously. The relationship between the Bar and the Bench was very cordial.
Of course at first blush it may not look like very inviting; the stench of the collective common may put you off. Many young lawyers would wonder why they had come there in the first place (laughs). But you get accustomed to it in the course of time.”
It is only as the interview progresses that you realize that there is a subtle hardness to his words. Couched in diplomacy or romanticism his words may be, but they do carry a fair bit of harsh truth. For example, he describes the judges of the past with an odd choice of words.
“I wouldn’t say the judges were brilliant people but they were good human beings. There was a great amount of humanism that pervaded in the courts.”
This “human” angle of the judiciary, this need for a sympathetic court is a recurring theme throughout the interview and although he does not say it in express terms, one can sense the disappointment in the current state of the judiciary.
After practicing for more than two decades, Venkatachaliah was offered the chance to be elevated to the Bench. He refused, saying that perhaps he was not temperamentally suited to be a judge. The successive Chief Justice of Karnataka, who knew about the refusal, asked the then Chief Justice of India to “request” Venkatachaliah to become a judge.
“The CJI telephoned me when he came to Bangalore and told me that he would like to call on me. Can you imagine a young ordinary lawyer like me being called by the Chief Justice of India? We spoke of many things for half an hour and at the end he said, “I am asking you to join the High Court” he said, ‘Today is Friday and on Monday I will announce in the Supreme Court that I have persuaded you to accept judgeship in the High Court.’”
Twenty years later, as the Chief Justice of India, Venkatachaliah would make similar efforts, requesting senior counsels to join the Bench of the Supreme Court. He says that J. Verma and him asked a number of lawyers such as Andhyarujina, Iqbal Chagla (who would have been CJI for three years had he accepted), and Dipankar Gupta to become judges. None accepted.
And this is where things get really interesting. As a judge who was both, a part of the Supreme Court collegium and heading it, his views on selection of judges is revealing. Selections these days, he says, are not necessarily based on “pre-settled rules”. Push him a bit further, allege that there are no rules at all and he replies,
“You can say that, but I cannot. I will say that there is an element of caprice that does inspire some levels of uncertainty. And that is not a very proper thing.”
His own selection as a Supreme Court judge is a separate story by itself, a chain of events that includes visits from the then Law Minister, and a principled refusal to meet the Prime Minster before his appointment. He even told the Law Minister that,
“If the Prime Minister is able to assess in ten minutes my capability as a Supreme Court judge, he must be a genius. I don’t grant him that. Please spare me this embarrassment.”
Three days later, he was appointed a Supreme Court judge and there is a twinkle in his eye as he recounts the chain of events. There is also a certain humility about him, even when he discusses these developments. Charming he certainly is, of this there is little doubt.
But what deserves even more attention is the fact that he was one of three CJI’s who oversaw an exponential decrease in pendency figures at the Supreme Court. In 1991, the Supreme Court had a pendency of close to two lakhs. By the end of 1998, this number was reduced to sixteen thousand, two hundred cases.
“I introduced two miscellaneous days, three days of final hearing. That was my first introduction. I made judges sit half an hour more. In the summer vacation, I would get district judges to sit and sort out the cases.
I requested two judges to dispose of all the rent control appeals that were pending for 16-17 years. In three months time, [Shanmughasundaram] Mohan and Kuldip [Singh] disposed of more than 4,000 rent control appeals.”
It was as simple as that. And yet, it was not a permanent solution. After 1998, the number of pending litigations began to rise once again, with “notice” being issued in matters where no such action was required.
“The biggest infliction you can impose on a litigant of this country is to issue notice in a matter that is going to be dismissed. You see, if you have not read the papers, you will give the benefit of doubt to the litigant and issue notice.”
One of the ways in which this “benefit of doubt” was sought to be removed was with the introduction of judicial clerkships in the Supreme Court. The idea was that the clerks would prepare a brief for the judge. But it is a system that still requires some fine-tuning, especially given the fact that the clerks are used for a number of things apart from legal assistance.
Even though he retired in 1998, Venkatachaliah is clearly up to date with all that goes on in the Supreme Court. In fact, it is not the only field that he is up to date on. The conversation meanders away from judicial proceedings and into the realm of philosophy. And here too, some of the points he makes reflect an acute understanding of the changes our society is undergoing.
“The pace of change introduced by science and technology has changed our lives; it has made our lives busier not necessarily better. And this kind of explosive technology has introduced or imposed a qualitative change in our interaction with institutions. The way we look at society, inter-personal relationships – somehow they get influenced. Anything that enhances ones experience of the material world, has a corresponding effect on the culture of a society.”
It is an interesting concept and the judge assumes the role of a professor with remarkable ease, dipping into historical anecdotes and real life examples. He picks examples from the books he has read and the people he has made and, for a few moments, his study is transformed into a classroom. The conclusions he draws however, are not optimistic. Far from it.
“Ambedkar once said that we are essentially undemocratic people. He said that 60 years ago and I don’t think we have been able to understand that till today. In another 6 years time, there will be full-fledged anarchy; people will die in the streets. We are just fooling ourselves because reality is so stark and so ugly. That is the truth. An unequal society always lives in the threat of an impending disaster.”
It is uncharacteristic burst of emotions and when he can speak no more, he stares out of the window, caught up in his own memories. He shakes his head silently and perhaps the interview has come to an end.
But then he smiles, looks back and says, “I am an extinguished judge, not a distinguished one,” with those laughing eyes and you are left with no option but to laugh along.