Custodian of nation's finances

Custodian of nation

Newspapers reported on July 5, 2011, that the Supreme Court had appointed a high-level Special Investigation Team (SIT), headed by Justice BP Jeevan...

Newspapers reported on July 5, 2011, that the Supreme Court had appointed a high-level Special Investigation Team (SIT), headed by Justice BP Jeevan Reddy, a former Judge of the apex court, to monitor the investigation and the steps being taken by the Central Government and its agencies to bring back the black money stashed away in foreign banks. If that announcement did not raise eyebrows, it was because the former Judge chosen to head the team is amongst the most distinguished judges that the Supreme Court has had. A former Chairman of the Law Commission, and a former member of the Constitution Review Commission, Justice Reddy was honored in Hyderabad on February 20, 2000, by the then Chief Minister N.Chandrababu Naidu with the title of Outstanding Social Scientist. Justice Jeevan Reddy delivered on that occasion the Ravi Narayana Reddy Memorial lecture. "Whence comes to me this passion for justice which dominates, provokes and enrages me? It is my God, my religion, my all." Thus Pierre Joseph Proudhon of the 1848 Revolution fame wrote in his notebook because justice, in his mind too, was the immanent deity according to whose mysterious dictates the life of man should be shaped if he does not shape it so himself. These words may as well have been uttered by Justice Reddy. For the five-and-a-half years he was a judge of the apex court (1991-97) Justice Reddy ensured precisely that and won national acclaim. Only when I met him did I understand why he had taken months to grant me an interview. He is not an easy man to know: Shy, withdrawn, reticent, and even remote: these are the adjectives that encrust description of Justice Reddy. He may well have been among the least public of judges, but he seems worried not about social contacts but about social justice. Justice Reddy is not exactly lonely or aloof, a truly private person. However, underneath this aloofness, which some might wrongly consider as standoffishness, lies a fundamental concern for truth and intellectual honesty which probably makes him impatient with those having pompous pretensions and those unable to shake off outworn dogmas. But on those rare occasions, (like the one when I met him), when he gets going, he can thrill the most cynical interviewer. Justice Reddy has a copious memory and an extraordinary orderliness of mind. He can control many subjects simultaneously. Problems too are kept in proper perspective. Recollection does not amplify some and lessen others, for his mind does not make pictures but sees facts in their true proportions as if through a telescope. Hence it is not necessary for him to concentrate on one thing rather than on another. He can keep a score steadily moving under his hand, as the expression goes. Born in Ambaripet village in Kamareddy taluk of Nizamabad district, he took the law degree from Osmania University, practiced in the Andhra Pradesh High Court for about two decades before he was elevated to the bench. He went on to become Chief Justice of the Allahabad High Court, and finally made it to the Supreme Court, there to win more laurels. His judicial career has been a model of wisdom, compassion, and impartiality. I had heard of some of his judgments which exhibited all his attributes, but Justice Reddy was far too modest to confirm them. Though quite a few of them were path-breaking, he is remembered mainly for that in the Indira Sahani Case on reservations, popularly known as the Mandal Case in which was enunciated the doctrine of "creamy layer". How had that concept occurred to him? "At the outset, I wish to make it plain that it is palpably unfair to give me the credit for that concept. Justice V. R. Krishna Iyer had used that expression in an earlier judgment. Moreover, it was a nine-judge bench of the Supreme Court which had delivered that judgment where, of course, the judges were divided 6-3. The majority who adumbrated the theory included me. So I am entitled, if at all, only to a share of what you call credit," Justice Reddy said with characteristic modesty. Justice Reddy's narration was like intellectual conversation at its best: civilized, erudite, elegant and thought-provoking. His is a story which bites off attention with sharp, compact-concrete economy. His observations might well be chosen for any anthology of judicial sagacity. Throughout the interview I remained conscious of an air of judicial detachment and impartiality, rather an excess of it. Here, I told myself, is a former judge of outstanding integrity and ability whose judicial career covered one of the most momentous periods of recent constitutional history. But absence of partisanship does not desiccate the narration, and emotion recollected in tranquility does not become a faded photograph in an ornate album. His unswerving commitment to law led to his submission to it, but he could never digest iron as an ostrich does, not perhaps a very satisfactory apologia in the eyes of those whose elastic credulity and obsequious politics are well known. Another of his memorable judgments was in the Unnikrishnan Case in February 1993, wasn't it? "I don't know if it was memorable. But we could not overlook the increasing commercialization of education, particularly how huge capitation fees were being collected for admission to medical and engineering colleges. So we directed uniformity in admissions." Almost like a thread running from cover to cover, there is in Justice Reddy an attitude of chivalry towards the severe tests which life gives to all people. "Indian civilization never treated education as business." The habitual solemnity of his eyes looked heightened. Then there was the Auto Shankar Case in which Justice Reddy had struck a blow for the freedom of the Press itself. "It was essentially a question of the right to privacy. Auto Shankar had been sentenced to death. We ruled that prior restraint on the Press was impermissible as it was violative of the freedom of speech and expression. Besides, there was no law permitting such curbs. Of course, public figures can sue newspapers for defamation, but only on two grounds: reckless disregard for truth, and malice. Therefore, it was only incidentally that the judgment in this case strengthened freedom of the Press through shifting of the burden of proof from the Press to Government officials." Justice Reddy evidently believes, though he does not say so, that the judge must pronounce on the ambiguities, the inconclusiveness, and the crass contingencies of social life. He touches upon only those memories which, like music, touch the heart. Memory is indeed an important factor in his thinking, and his talk has all the dream-like stateliness of this insubstantial mist that clings about the brain and the heart. Justice Reddy is in his element when he talks about the cases he decided. One's knowledge is considerably enriched by new and unexpected insights into recent judicial history. But that history is never debased into a pseudo-geometry which might triumphantly end in some Marxist QED rather than in an understanding of a complex society which, in fact, is a complex of castes. What about the growing opposition among politicians to judicial activism? "What is judicial activism? How can the courts be faulted for asking the executive to perform the duties assigned to it by the laws and the Constitution?" Justice Reddy countered, though normally he is a man of comity in whom manners seem part instinct and part art, and he shapes his behaviour to the template of courtesy. At a felicitation function in Hyderabad on April 6, 1997, former Chief Justice of India Y. V. Chandrachud had termed Justice Reddy's judgments as "watermark" ones. Explaining the significance of the word, he had added that normally judgments were hailed as landmark ones, "but watermarks found on currency notes can never be fabricated". The same was true of Justice Reddy's judgments, Justice Chandrachud had said, and recalled three of them: The Unnikrishnan Case on capitation fees in which Justice Reddy dealt with commercialization of education and suggested a common approach to admissions; Auto Shankar Case where Justice Reddy dealt with freedom of speech and expression and right to privacy; and the judgment wherein Justice Reddy ruled that the State should not be asked to refund the tax collected from a manufacturer who had already recovered it from various "unidentified sources". Indeed, only such a judge can qualify for the title of Outstanding Social Scientist, and now Custodian of the Nation's Finances. - MV
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