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Verma: A colossus among judges

Verma: A colossus among judges
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Justice Jagdish Sharan Verma was the architect of a report that became instrumental in shaping a new, stronger anti-rape law in the country. The...

Justice Jagdish Sharan Verma was the architect of a report that became instrumental in shaping a new, stronger anti-rape law in the country. The retired Chief Justice of India was appointed to head the three-member panel that drew the blueprint of the new laws immediately after the brutal gang-rape of a medical student in a moving bus in Delhi shook the nation's conscience.

In a country where panels and commissions have been known to take years and many extensions to complete assignments, Justice Verma's panel submitted its 630-page report in a record 29 days. The 80-year-old former judge then challenged the Indian government to hold up its end of the bargain and bring a tougher law in the next Parliament session. That session is still on. On April 15, Justice Verma and his panel were awarded the justice for women award at the NDTV Indian of the Year Award 2012.

Though he was Chief Justice of India for less than 10 months over 15 years ago, Jagdish Sharan Verma is widely regarded as one of the most influential judges India has ever had. This was as much for his path-breaking decisions as for the high reputation he had acquired for his rectitude and public spirit. So much so that he seemed a natural choice when, in the wake of the outrage over Nirbhaya's rape and murder, the government approached him to head the committee for drafting tougher measures against sexual offences.

For, Verma was the author of the 1997 landmark Visakha verdict, which mandated a mechanism at every workplace for checking sexual harassment. It set a new benchmark for judicial activism as Verma ruled that his judgment would be the law on sexual harassment till Parliament fulfills India's obligation under an international treaty to have such an enactment. Parliament did finally enact a law on the subject in February, bearing testimony to Verma's influence.

There was further evidence of it the following month when, after much political wrangling over issues such as age of consent and marital rape, Parliament enacted a law adopting many of the far-reaching recommendations made by the Verma Committee. One of the points of divergence was death penalty. Unlike the government, the committee chaired by Verma had displayed the moral courage to reject the populist demand for imposing death penalty on rapists.

In the Ayodhya land dispute, he ruled that acquiring the property of a mosque did not constitute an abridgement of a Muslim's right to freedom of religious belief and practice.A In 1996, while setting aside the Bombay High Court verdict scrapping the election of Shiv Sena leader Manohar Joshi to the Maharashtra Assembly, Justice Verma famously said that Hindutva depicted "a way of life which cannot be assumed to mean and be equated with narrow fundamentalist Hindu religious bigotry".

He was the 27th Chief Justice of India from March 1997 until his retirement in January 1998. Justice Verma was the first head of the News Broadcasting Standards Authority.A Condoling the death of Verma, eminent Jurist Soli Sorabjee said he was a man of "unquestionable integrity" and one who always supported a good cause. Verma was also part of the nine-judge bench in 1994 which dealt with the S R Bommai case relating to proclamation of President's Rule under Article 356 of the Constitution in Karnataka. In this judgement, the Supreme Court held that Presidential proclamation can only be imposed after Parliament approval.

Justice Verma also headed India's National Human Rights Commission, during which he travelled to Gujarat, where Hindu-Muslim riots left over 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, dead. Riots erupted after 60 Hindu pilgrims died in a train fire in 2002 and Muslims were blamed for starting the blaze.A Justice Verma was described as the "face of judicial activism" in India, saying that he was associated with "many verdicts, campaigns and events". "He was a colossus among judges. He set very high standards of integrity, which he never digressed from and never permitted anyone else to digress from," according to former judge Mukul Mudgal.

As CJI, he was instrumental in laying down a code of conduct for judges called "the restatement of values of judicial life". In the same year (1997), he also got the judiciary to adopt resolutions requiring all high courts and Supreme Court judges to declare their assets and submit to an "in-house procedure" to inquire into any allegations of misbehaviour against them. More controversially, Justice Verma wrote the 1993 judgment introducing the "collegium" system for appointing judges, earning India the odium of being the only country where judges appoint judges.

The first time Verma hit the national headlines was in 1992 when he headed the commission of inquiry probing security lapses that had led to Rajiv Gandhi's assassination. The next time he was in prominence was when he had shaken the political class by goading the CBI to probe the Jain Hawala scandal. It culminated in the Vineet Narain judgment which made the CBI accountable to the CVC, as a small check on the political executive's propensity to misuse the agency.

But then, in his avatar as the chief of NHRC, Verma won wide appreciation for his prompt and vigorous intervention in the Gujarat riots of 2002. His reports paved the way for the Supreme Court's activist role in taking away major riot cases from the control of the Gujarat police, resulting in convictions on a scale unheard of in the context of communal violence.

In his last years he was associated with several progressive causes and, consistent with his principles, he had kept away from taking up any arbitration assignments. Never shirking from sticking his neck out, he created a sensation by demanding the resignation of Justice K G Balakrishnan as NHRC chief in the wake of corruption allegations against him and his family.

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