Judge who brought hope to millions
When I interviewed him, Justice O. Chinnappa Reddy, who died the other day, was only 74. He had retired from the Supreme Court but he was far from...
Hearing him, anybody was liable to re-experience with extraordinary vividness the sequence of past emotions, of course with the added interest of recognizing in retrospect the shifting foundations of truth and untruth, justice and injustice, on which they were based.
Born in Gutti in Anantapur district, he studied in the London Mission High School in his native town, and then went to Loyola College in Madras (now Chennai) for his Honours course in Mathematics. Then, almost inevitably it would seem in retrospect, he took the BL degree from Madras Law College, and started practicing in the Madras High Court.
When Andhra State was formed in 1953 and the High Court was established in Guntur the following year (1954), he shifted to Guntur and, finally, when Andhra Pradesh was formed in 1956, and the High Court shifted to Hyderabad, he moved to Hyderabad.
Beyond these bare details, he would say nothing about his academic/legal career or its highlights. But I had already gathered from other sources that at college he proved to be one of the most accomplished debaters. The interview revealed why. He still had every advantage in the business: voice, vocabulary, manner, orderly thought and perfect nerve.
Even in his early years his powers of mind were patent. Few others were endowed with such diverse talents. In sheer intellectual strength he might have had his equals, but there were no limits to his imaginative sympathies; and for the manifold and multiform gifts he was peerless.
Till his last breath, Justice Reddy remained a fine scholar, at once learned and precise, widely read, and had a most delicate and luminous critical sense and an uncanny gift for the exact phrase, whether in praise or in dispraise. His ordinary conversation was memorable chiefly for its spontaneity, but when he chose he could be a master of what is commonly called "manly good sense". The very fact that he sat loose to political creeds strengthened his hands at a time when creeds were in transition.
Since Justice Reddy was far too modest to talk of his achievements as a judge of the apex court, and one nationally respected at that, I had to draw him out. "I put it to you that, in a manner of speaking, you are the father of judicial activism in India because it was your judgment in the State of Madhya Pradesh versus Ramashankar Raghuvanshi (a teacher in a municipal school whose services were terminated by the State government because an inquiry into his antecedents had shown that he had taken part in RSS and Jana Sangh activities) case in 1983 that started the trend.
"Please don't bring in fathers and mothers. The job of a progressive judge is to study every case in relation to the attendant circumstances. As for my having started that trend, as you say, the judiciary has always been active, if not exactly activist. If lately the activism has become more pronounced, it is because transgressions by the Executive have become more pronounced.
"For instance, when Nehru was at the helm of affairs, the government could on its own deal with scandals like those involving Mundhra. But lately there have been far too many scams and far too little enthusiasm in the government to deal with them. That has necessitated the current phase of activism.
"Besides, the first case, as the expression is commonly understood, pertained to Adam and Eve, for the Old Testament says that God asked Eve if she had indeed tasted the forbidden fruit although He already knew the truth. That is natural justice whereby no one should be penalized without first being given an opportunity to have his/her say," Justice Reddy said with the confident smile of a former judge who knew he had his audacious inquisitor where he wanted him!
Facts, the hard lumps of unprocessed information, can be built into any historical structure, and the more objective and colourless the facts are, the more varied are the meanings that can be given to them. Courageous intervention in times of crisis resulting from distortion of facts and independence of political loyalties are excellent qualities, but without intellectual consistency and seriousness of purpose they are not great virtues.
It was precisely Justice Reddy's intellectual consistency and seriousness of purpose that most of his contemporaries did not seem qualified to understand.
No, there was no escape from subjects which I thought might prove unpalatable to the interviewee. Was he not associated with the Supreme Court bench that delivered the judgment in the Shah Bano case? "Of course, I was. I don't regret the judgment because if I had had the faintest feeling that it was meant to cut at the roots of Islamic law, as some fundamentalists argued, I would not have concurred with the judgment.
"After all, the judgment said a Muslim woman was as entitled as one of any other community to maintenance in the event of divorce. Fundamentalists argued that it militated against the Hadith ( a compilation of the sayings of the Prophet) which allowed a Muslim to have up to four wives. What they forgot was that Hadith did not make that mandatory but only permissible, because that was the time when Muslims were dying on the battlefield.
How many Muslims now have more wives than one and how many of them divorce them? The judgment could have been interpreted as interference in Muslim Personal law if it had said that Muslims could have eight wives. "The court merely referred to the fact that, as a result of providing for rights to women, particularly compulsory dower and share in parental property, Muslim law proved itself to be far more progressive than that of any other community," Justice Reddy said, sounding more like a defence counsel. He had always acted with the same conspicuous independence.
Partisan? I almost asked myself; almost but not quite, because at that moment I remembered a booklet I had read: "Citizens' Tribunal on Ayodhya: Judgments and Recommendations", by Justices Chinnappa Reddy, DA Desai and DS Tewatia, published in December 1993 to mark the first anniversary of the sacrilege. I asked him a lot of questions on the booklet, and he answered them spontaneously and honestly.
It was clear that even in retirement this judge had not allowed politics to infect his judgment. Yet he showed a fine sense of political appreciation with, behind it, a wide human sympathy. A Justice Reddy could describe, without drama but with the accuracy of a judge, what he saw and heard, and was thus a witness of first-rate importance to the court of history.