A voice for probity in public life

Justice Verma's finest hour cane after his retirement, when he eschewed private gain for public service and generously offered advice to the humble NGO and high-level officials alike. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma  

January 18, 2014, will be the late Chief Justice J.S. Verma’s 81st birth anniversary. He passed away on April 22, 2013. Revisiting and recalling his achievements should inspire the younger generation of lawyers and citizens who did not have the privilege of knowing him.

Justice Verma strode across the judicial horizon for over 25 years with giant steps. He was appointed to the Madhya Pradesh High Court in 1972, became Chief Justice in 1986, was elevated to the Supreme Court in 1989, became Chief Justice of India in March 1997 and retired on January 18, 1998. Later he was appointed Chairperson, National Human Rights Commission. Every office he occupied was enhanced by his efforts.

It is the fortune of a lucky few to die at the summit of one’s glory. >Justice Verma’s report after the brutal gang rape of “Nirbhaya”, given in record time (December 23, 2012 — January 23, 2013) made him an iconic figure nationally and internationally. His celebrated judgment on sexual harassment in the workplace (Vishakha) was a huge leap forward in women’s Human Rights jurisprudence. His judgment on judicial appointments and the Collegium system was path-breaking.

As ‘amicus curiae’ in the Jain-Hawala case (Vineet Narain v. UOI), I had the advantage of an insider’s view. An invisible bond of shared values was fashioned between us. The Bench, (Justice Verma, Justice S.P. Bharucha and Justice S.C. Sen) stood up to the Executive and the political class as never before. The summoning of the Revenue Secretary, the CBI Director and the Director of Enforcement at each hearing in the Supreme Court and the monitoring of CBI investigations caught the imagination of the people.

It was a seminal case dealing with corruption and the criminality of powerful persons and the pressure from the Bench and the ongoing hearings led to the resignations of three Cabinet Ministers — V.C. Shukla, Balram Jakhar and Madhavrao Scindia, two Governors — Motilal Vora and Shiv Shankar and the Leader of the Opposition — L.K. Advani. Justice Verma quoted Lord Denning with approval. Lord Denning had observed that the Commissioner of Police — “like every constable in the land, […] should be, and is, independent of the Executive. He is not subject to the orders of the Secretary of State, […] no Minister of the Crown can tell him that he must, or must not […] prosecute this man or that one. [He] is answerable to the law and to the law alone.”

He was a judicial warrior with a ‘lion heart’.

His crowning achievement as Chief Justice of India was the formulation of the Restatement of Judicial Values in 1997 — a voluntary code of conduct with ethical dimensions unanimously adopted by Supreme Court judges.

After retirement, he headed the National Human Rights Commission and his active interventions after the Godhra riots of 2002 reflected his commitment to minority rights. His personal visits to Gujarat and dynamic approach silenced international criticism and projected India’s enduring concern for minorities. He was a valued and sought-after speaker in many international conferences. He was invited by the Malaysian Bar, Lawasia, the International Bar Association and Transparency International to head the Panel of Eminent Persons to review the 1988 Judicial Crisis in Malaysia arising out of the removal of the Lord President Tun Salleh Abas and two senior Supreme Court judges Tan Sri Wan Suleiman and Datuk George Seah. The panel confined itself to the material available to the earlier tribunals and reported that the removals were not justified and unconstitutional and “non est”.

Embodiment of integrity

He was one of our tallest judges who left his imprint on every field of adjudication. He was innovative, intelligent and indefatigable but above all he was the embodiment of integrity. Judicial power in his skilful hands became a rapier not a bludgeon. His finest hour was after retirement, when he eschewed private gain for public service — no juicy arbitrations, no ‘never-ending’ Commissions of Inquiry, and yet, he was generous in offering advice freely to the humble NGO or to Presidents and Prime Ministers. Justice Verma was a powerful voice for integrity and probity in public life; a voice heard with respect and often with fear by the erring judge, the dishonest public servant or the wily politician; a voice which reverberated throughout the length and breadth of India. Whenever human rights, the rule of law or the independence of the judiciary were imperilled, his prompt and forceful interventions protected Indian citizens.

He truly became the Peoples’ Tribune mirroring the Roman Tribune that protected the plebeians from the patricians.

“I maintain,” said Lord Macmillan, “that the ultimate justification of the law is to be found and can only be found in moral considerations”. He spoke as he lived, following rigorous standards. Justice Jagdish Sharan Verma will always remain an inspirational moral influence in our judicial firmament, encapsulating character, courage and craftsmanship not unmixed with compassion — a priceless gift which we must cherish, preserve and enhance.

(The writer is president, Bar Association of India. Email:

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