It is not every day that the general public discusses a judge’s career in open especially someone of R. Basant’s stature. He is now being debated in legal circles as “an upright and fair judge who took one wrong step in his career.”
Widely acclaimed as a judge with a humane approach and high integrity, Mr. Basant launched his legal career as a junior to noted criminal lawyer K. Bhaskaran Nair at Kozhikode. As K.T. Thomas, former Supreme Court judge recalled in his memoirs, he was a young and enterprising lawyer. Mr. Basant was additional special prosecutor in the controversial murder case of engineering student Rajan, which led to major upheavals in the State politics.
He continued to exhibit his mastery over criminal law after he joined the judicial service as Second Additional District and Sessions Judge at Thiruvananthapuram through direct selection. But Mr. Basant was initially reluctant and confused about leaving the Bar. In his own words, “in the early 70’s, when I joined the Bar at Kozhikode, for us young lawyers, judgeship was never a priority. It was Justice K. T. Thomas (who) planted the seed of ambition in my mind to be a judge.”
His tryst with Kerala High Court started in 2002 when he was appointed as Additional judge and later as permanent judge in 2004. Senior lawyers recalled that Mr. Basant as a jurist who wanted to elicit the ultimate truth and ensure more conviction besides highlighting a view that criminal justice administration has also got a social function.
Even in his initial phase of career as High Court judge, Mr. Basant displayed the moral courage to take bold decisions. His lone dissent note in the famous verdict by a Kerala High Court Full Bench headed by then Chief Justice J.L. Gupta staying the operation of the Government Order fixing the fee for 50 per cent Government quota in self-financing medical colleges on a par with the fees charged in Government medical colleges in September 24, 2003 was testimony to this.
Mr. Basant had realistically observed in his dissent note that if the government order was stayed, some students already admitted to the Government quota would find it difficult to raise the balance amount to be paid to the managements.
“The Left youth movements, which are out to attack him today, hailed him and celebrated his dissent note back then,” recollected A. Jayasankar, media analyst and lawyer at the Kerala High Court.
A jurist who embraced the traditional and conventional role of the Anglo Saxon judge, Mr. Basant always echoed the view that a judge is expected to lead a life or hermit – alertly watching life and without getting involved in the controversies outside courts”.
Senior lawyers in the High Court also added that the controversial Sister Abhaya murder case took a decisive turn, leading to the arrest of three suspects - two priests and a nun - after a stern stand taken by Mr. Basant. However, he later opted out of the case after a legal spar with another judge K. Hema over the bail petition of the accused.
But senior lawyers in the High Court reminded that one of limitations that Mr. Basant had was lack of a balanced social perspective and was stuck in the orthodox and conventional norms, especially in issues related to man-woman relationships and child rights.
Recalling an order issued by a Division Bench comprising Mr. Basant and M. C. Hari Rani in 2011, J. Devika, faculty at the Centre for Development of Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, pointed out a case involved a 22-year-old female nursing student who wanted to marry a 30-year-old man of another religious community.
The father of the girl, in a habeas corpus petition, had alleged that she was being illegally detained by the man. When the case was called, the young woman clarified that she was not being held against her will and that she wished to marry the young man who had been accused of detaining her. They had filed an application to register their marriage
Prof. Devika said the parent’s argument that their daughter was not taking an ‘informed and voluntary decision’ was repeated not once but twice in the order (W.P (CRL )No. 453 of 2011). “It was bad enough that a judge known to be as balanced as Mr. Basant had a medieval notion in morality and gender issues. The Bench was not ready to accept that a 22-year-old woman into professional course could take a decision about her life,” she said.
At the same time Mr. Basant was widely regarded as a judge who went strictly by the rule of law. In fact, he observed in his farewell speech at the High Court that “populist judges would be anathema to rule of law and would in effect threaten the very foundations of the judicial institution.”