VR Krishna Iyer, whose pathbreaking verdicts humanised law, was a revolutionary judge of the Supreme Court at a time when the country was in a political and legal tumult in the seventies that also covered the Emergency era.
Vaidyanathapura Rama Krishna Iyer, who earned fame and recognition for his fair judgements for his way of penning down the verdicts and for his mastery over the English language, made the unusual progression from politician to the judiciary. He was an MLA, Minister and a Judge in Kerala before being elevated to the apex court in 1973.
Iyer put citizens at the centre of his focus and was a living legend for his knowledge of law that prompted former Chief Justice of India A S Anand to refer to him as 'Bhisma Pithamah' of Indian judiciary. He retired from the apex court in 1980.
Iyer had interpreted the guarantees given by the Constitution like Article 21(the right to life and personal liberty) for a new age and fashioned new insruments to deliver justice. His judicial remedies were sought through the instrumentalities of public interest litigation and broader concepts of locus standi.
As a social activist, he championed several causes for the welfare of the people. Iyer's approach to burning issues once prompted emiment jurist Fali S Nariman to say, "when Krishna Iyer speaks, the nation listens".
Some of his landmark judgments, including banning of routine handcuffing of prisoners, the Shamser Singh case which interpreted the powers of the cabinet vis-a-vis the President, earned him a place among renowned legal scholars such as Earl Warren, former Chief Justice of the US, and Lord Denning. His interim order of June 24, 1975 not giving the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi unconditional stay of the Allahabad High Court verdict declaring as void her election to the Lok Sabha won him massive appreciation as well as criticism. Emergency was clamped the next day.
Iyer rejected the application by Gandhi that the verdict finding her guilty of corrupt election practices and disqualifying her for six years should be totally suspended. Gandhi was allowed by the apex court to function as prime minister, attend the Lok Sabha but without a right to vote following well-settled precedents. H M Seervai, the noted constitutional lawyer and no uncritical admirer of Iyer, wrote that historians will say that the Supreme Court moved towards its finest hour after he rejected Gandhi's application for an unconditional stay that changed the history of the nation.
"In the best traditions of the judiciary, Krishna Iyer J granted a conditional stay of the Order under appeal. although he had been reminded by her eminent counsel Mr N A Palkhivala, 'that the nation was solidly behind(her) as Prime Minister' and that 'there were momentous consequences, disastrous to the country, if anything less than the total suspension of the Order under appeal were made'," he said.
Iyer had excellent command over both English and Malayalam. Whatever he had to say he would say euphonically, beautifully and emphatically. He pleaded, he urged, he demanded and he warned, using his huge vocabulary as a sabre.
After retirement from the Supreme Court where his judgments stood the test of time,, Iyer spurned the lure of power and became an unrivalled champion of social justice, constitutional values and the rule of law. He blossomed into an iconic and inspirational figure both nationally and internationally. It was felt that Iyer's services to the nation, the rule of law, the judiciary and the disadvantaged and underprivileged gave him a stature comparable to many who have been honoured with the country's highest civilian honour Bharat Ratna.
Born on November 15, 1914 at Vaidyanathapura near Palakkad in Malabar region, Iyer began his legal career in 1937 working under the tutelage of his father V V Rama Ayyar, a leading criminal lawyer. Iyer had a tryst with politics when he became an MLA from then Madras Assembly constituency in 1952 and was appointed minister in the first elected communist government of E M S Namboodiripad in Kerala in 1957.
He ws an important force behind key decisions in the state's history such as the land reforms law. After he lost elections in 1965, Iyer concentrated on his legal practise and was elevated as judge of the Kerala High court in 1968 and to the Supreme Court in 1973. He retired on November 14, 1980. He was a proponent of speedy justice.
Iyer has the distinction of having delivered as many as 400 judgments during his tenure as Supreme Court judge. Iyer, a recipient of the Padma Vibhushan, authored about 70 books mostly on law besides four travelogues.
'Wandering in Many Worlds' is the autobiography of Iyer. He served as a Member of the Law Commission from 1971 to 1973 and also headed the State Law Reform Commission. In 2002, Iyer was part of a citizen’s panel probing the Gujarat riots along with retired judge R.B. Sawant and others. He unsuccessfully contested the Indian presidential election in 1987 in which the late R Venkataraman was his main opponent.