Vikram Raghavan

Chennai: G. Vasantha Pai, a senior advocate of the Madras High Court and a member of the erstwhile Tamil Nadu Legislative Council, passed away in Chennai on January 31. He lived his life with passion and panache, while striving to be that model citizen of whom our Republic’s founders would have been very proud.

Appearing before six generations of judges in the Madras High Court and the Supreme Court, Pai was an advocate’s advocate who deployed great skill, conviction, and eloquence in presenting his case. He would insist that the law’s letter and spirit be followed; that conventions and procedures be properly observed; that rules and regulations be obeyed, and most importantly, that justice be properly administered.

He stayed committed to a cause even when outwitted by an opponent or rebuked by an unsympathetic judge. Goldsmith’s description of his Village School Master would aptly apply to Pai: “in arguing too, the person own’d his skill, For e’en though vanquish’d he could argue still.”

Pai’s greatest contribution to our legal system was his dogged investigation of S. Ramachandra Iyer, the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court in the mid-1960s. Pai discovered that Iyer had concealed his real age to gain a longer judicial tenure. The judge’s younger brother had despatched sixtieth-birthday invitations, even though the judge himself claimed he had not yet attained sixty. To uncover the truth, Pai found and photographed Iyer’s original birth register (there were no photocopiers in those days). He then relentlessly sought the judge’s removal. Ultimately, the judge resigned at the Chief Justice of India’s urging. A key development in ensuring Iyer’s exit was Pai’s writ petition in the Madras High Court seeking the Chief Justice’s removal. This was an audacious move as Iyer was a rather well-regarded judge and the judiciary was widely considered to be beyond reproach. Yet, Pai skilfully asserted that an order against the untruthful judge would aid, rather than weaken, the administration of justice. Although the High Court dismissed the case after Iyer resigned, it was an important milestone in promoting judicial accountability in India. The case was also among the earliest examples of “public interest litigation.”

Pai was a firm believer in parliamentary democracy and constitutional traditions. After being elected to the Legislative Council in 1978, he refused to take his legislator’s oath before the pro-tem chairman, Abdul Wahab, because Wahab had allegedly made a speech advocating secession. To avoid losing his seat, Pai swore himself in as a legislator and notified the governor that he had “substantially complied” with the Constitution’s requirements. The Madras High Court later upheld Pai’s action.

Finally, Pai was a patriot whose love for country was forged through wounds suffered during the freedom struggle. As a student, he was mercilessly beaten in a demonstration against the British. That incident left him with two proud souvenirs: a shoulder scar and a wooden plaque from a grateful Kochi.