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Judge who struck blows for liberty & compassion

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By SAMANWAYA RAUTRAY
  • Published 11.05.10
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New Delhi, May 10: India’s first Dalit chief justice, who retires tomorrow, combined two commitments that, in others, are often at odds: welfare of the disadvantaged and support for individual liberty.

As he leaves office, Justice K.G. Balakrishnan will have earned the thanks of millions of schoolchildren who no longer have to attend classes on an empty stomach, and of dozens of terror suspects who will not be forcibly injected with drugs to prise the “truth” out of them.

He also leaves behind controversies over transparency, such as his resistance to the government having final say in judges’ appointments or to his own office being brought under the RTI ambit — issues that senior lawyers, however, were today ready to blame on “systemic problems” rather than the man himself.

“Some of his judgments have been significant in terms of the impact on the lives of people; others have been a novelty in law,” said senior lawyer C.S. Vaidyanathan, who has appeared before Justice Balakrishnan both in Kerala High Court and the Supreme Court.

“Even his day-to-day approach was tempered with compassion. I would certainly think that the fact that he had to bear social deprivation and had to struggle to rise made a difference.”

Senior lawyer K.K. Venugopal spoke highly of Justice Balakrishnan’s ban on ruling parties organising bandhs —though it’s a matter of debate how far this has succeeded on the ground — and on forced lie-detection tests despite a strong push by the government to retain the option as a tool to fight terrorism.

Striking a more personal note, senior lawyer T.L. Vishwanath Iyer, who had worked alongside Justice Balakrishnan as a high court judge, said: “He had the perfect judicial temperament: he did not hassle lawyers and listened patiently.”

Iyer was sympathetic to the outgoing CJI over his support for the in-house, collegium system of judges’ appointment, buffeted by accusations of a lack of transparency.

The collegium system was created long ago by larger Supreme Court benches and “the CJI has no option but to go by it”, Iyer said.

Vaidyanathan backed Justice Balakrishnan over the RTI row, in which public sympathy lay mostly on the other side. “That was a collective decision (by all the Supreme Court judges), so it is the fault of the institution (rather than an) individual,” Vaidyanathan said.

“A judge could always be asked to submit personal information in a sealed cover to the CJI or the President,” Iyer, the former judge, said.

He said the numerous social welfare judgments Justice Balakrishnan had passed had benefited the weaker sections. Much was done during his tenure about legal education and about funds to upgrade infrastructure.

“The problem of judicial arrears is not due to present-day judicial administration,” Iyer argued, blaming the rise in population and proliferation of cases. “The proportion of judges to the population is also low, but even then the disposal rate of cases by Indian courts is one of the highest.”