'I can never resist the temptation of defying something'

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By TT Bureau
  • Published 30.03.08
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It was a photo op in a million. Whizzing along in an auto-rickshaw carting flowers was a sitting judge of the Supreme Court, perched alongside the affable beedi-smoking driver who had an arm on the backrest. It was a Sunday morning and Justice Bellur Narayanaswamy Srikrishna was going to Delhi’s Taj Mahal hotel for a hair cut, having given his driver the day off. Evidently, the judge was not unduly taken by lal batti trappings. Then, as now.

In the warrens of the Fort area off Dalal Street in Mumbai, the shabby building exterior and a conscientious liftman lead to the capacious private office of lawyers and solicitors. The now retired justice’s office is a little cramped compared to the rooms he once presided over. A desk, a clerk’s work table and two chairs for visitors barely leave room for anything else. But there is an open window and plenty of natural light streaming in. And the judge is in good humour.

Back in Mumbai after handing over his report on the Sixth Pay Commission — of which he was the chairman — to the Centre last week, he is in the process of transiting his public responsibilities into a private existence. The red beacon car is to be handed over on March 31 and his newly ordered Skoda is on its way. His government computers have been traded for a new Vaio that sits on the tech-savvy (he once wrote a computer programme) judge’s desk. It will soon be installed with the fonts of many of the languages he knows, such as Tamil, Sanskrit, Malayalam, Telugu, Marathi and Kannada, his mother tongue.

Srikrishna, 66, also knows Gujarati, some Spanish, Italian and Japanese, and has diplomas in Urdu and Russian. He can even speak creditable Bangla, honed in the company of Supreme Court bencher “the (Justice) Ruma Pal.” His iPod is loaded with a host of Carnatic favourites.

“Thereby hangs a tale” crops up frequently as anecdotes and Sanskrit shlokas are delivered with frequent chuckles. “Ki holo,” he asks, seeing the look on this reporter’s face on discovering the tape recorder has switched off unnoticed. Thankfully, not much has been lost.

The shape up or ship out mantra underlying the Sixth Pay Commission report is likely to be as controversial as the recommended hefty one-time pay hike and long-term perks to stem flight towards companies. “They should have the political will to implement it. Unfortunately with a coalition, people pull in different directions. Even an elementary thing like a bullock cart with two bullocks will run properly if both are running in the same direction,” says Srikrishna.

Two years ago, finance minister P. Chidambaram met him in New Delhi at 6.30 am — the judge was taking an 8.30 am flight back to Mumbai — to persuade him to take up the job as the commission head. “‘Sir, we feel it will involve a lot of pressures in a sense, pulls and claims and conflicting claims that a judge is best suited to handle,’ he told me. All right, karenge,” recounts Srikrishna with a southern drawl.

This report, of course, has a better chance of being implemented than the one that made him a household name. During the surcharged atmosphere that followed the Mumbai communal riots of 1992-93, a long line of judges shied away from heading a commission probing into the cause. Justice Sujata Manohar, who was temporarily officiating as the chief justice of the Bombay High Court, jumped to the bottom of the list to a judge who had been on the bench for barely 18 months.

Srikrishna agreed, but voiced his reservation: Would he, a devout Hindu, be acceptable to Muslims? Manohar countered, when a judge donned the robes, that’s all he was: a judge examining the relevant material.

But what does being a Hindu mean to this astrologer’s grandson, a follower of the Shankaracharya of Sringeri?

“This is a question I had asked (then Maharashtra chief minister) Manohar Joshi in the box during the hearings and an interesting dialogue ensued. I asked him how do you distinguish between Hinduism and Hindutva? He said, ‘It is more or less the same.’ I said, ‘sorry, but Hinduism is the thought that I follow. I use religion for my salvation. You use religion for capturing political power. You are hindutvavadi, I am hinduvadi,’ ” says Srikrishna.

Srikrishna has said frequently that India should make commission of inquiry reports binding. “We all know why that report was not implemented. When people ask me — I say amend the law and make it binding. As of now the only other option is to file a writ petition. And that is what has been done. The matter is still pending in the Supreme Court,” he rues.

Isn’t it galling to see the people he severely indicted go scot-free, even promoted in some instances? “It is, it is. But what do you do?”

His father, Narayanaswamy, was a well-established lawyer in Mumbai, where Srikrishna was brought up. His son was about to enrol for an MSc when Narayanaswamy remarked that legal brains required a special IQ. “I can never resist the temptation of defying something. I said I could outdo him if I tried. Immediately he shot back, ‘talk is easy, action is difficult.’ The next day I went and joined the Government Law College, Mumbai,” chuckles Srikrishna.

Srikrishna had a flourishing practice in labour litigation that he had inherited from his father when the invitation to judgeship came. Accepting meant a “50 times drop in one’s earnings and settling for a salary of only Rs 8,000.” He became a permanent judge of the Bombay High Court in 1991 — something, he says, the Shankaracharya had predicted for him in 1968.

His unabashed faith in astrology and logic, religion and debate are inherited from his forefathers. His paternal grandfather was a clerk in Mysore, in the revenue department serving the maharajah. Mylyar Jois (jois meaning astrologer), his maternal grandfather, was a Sanskrit scholar. “For mundane purposes he was also a clerk in the electricity department,” recalls the grandson who picked up scriptures and Sanskrit during vacations and by the age of 10 could recite the Bhagwad Gita from cover to cover.

Of the judge’s two daughters, one studied law and is now a lawyer in Mumbai. The other is a doctor in the UK. Wife Purnima has a sense of humour that rivals her husband’s — she once famously reacted that to others he may be a high court judge; she was the chief justice of their domestic supreme court.

What lies ahead? Not politics: “Too much of a muck game.” He worries about the challenges, such as deep-rooted dissension facing the country. “Man hating man, only on the basis that you speak Bengali and I speak Kannada. That’s ridiculous. Even in the commission report I have quoted from the Shankaracharya, the same good lord resides in you as in me. We are ultimately the same. That is the summum bonum, the advaita of life. And I believe in it. Hopefully, some day I will be able to achieve it. If not in this birth, some way along the line,” he smiles.

In the meantime, bring on the levity. Another crackling tale about barbers, this time at the Imperial Hotel in ‘Dilli’ where the following exchange ensued between a barber and a by now circumspect judge (at Taj Malabar in Cochin he was asked to inaugurate the salon when they learned the customer was a judge).

Barber: I have never seen you here.

Judge: Yes, you haven’t.

Where do you stay?

Nearby.

Where do you work?

Connaught Place.

What do you do?

Business.

What kind of business?

Import export.

What do you import and what do you export?

I am a smuggler.

Oh you are a smuggler. What do you smuggle?

Everything except drugs.

Do you have a card?

Do smugglers keep cards? (At this, his very quiet secretary cracks up loudly.)

Ok, thank you.

“I never stepped into Imperial Hotel again,” discloses the judge.