It is never easy to write a cloyingly flattering piece about a Supreme Court judge. Unless you are a lawyer and he is to hear your case tomorrow, or he is actually deserving of such praise.
With Madan Bhimrao Lokur, there is no fear of the former, as he retired last week.
In what has been an extraordinary six and a half years at the Supreme Court, Justice Lokur established himself as a legal polymath. As has been catalogued in the slew of encomiums that came in the wake of his retirement, his quill provided succour to abandoned widows, Kashmiri pundits, death row convicts, harassed children, fake encounter victims and the homeless. He went beyond just protecting the citizenry to wrest for them a healthy environment, be it in securing elephant corridors in Coonoor, clean air in the NCR and lakes and forests across the country. Even the pristine glory of the inanimate Taj Mahal has Justice Lokur to thank.
While all of these came from his work on the judicial side of the Court, his industry as a peerless administrator was in evidence as he set up the National Judicial Data Grid (NJDG) to provide an all-India case management system with the use of latest technology. The Juvenile Justice Committee helmed by him has done yeoman service in giving the statute full latitude to operate, almost single-handedly wringing changes across the nation. As Chief Justice of the high court of Guwahati, he made it a point to personally visit every one of the courts in the seven states under that jurisdiction (prior to Imphal, Agartala and Shillong getting independent high courts in March 2013).
It would be tiresome to draw greater attention to a CV so rich and plentiful, and to which the coming years will have several pages to add. I would therefore be remiss if I did not capture just two episodes of this sterling career that to me highlight the foremost attributes of the man that is the judge.
Courage, independence and out-of-the-box solutions
In 1899, the Harper’s Monthly published a short story by Mark Twain entitled ‘The Man That Corrupted Hadleyburg’, which remains a fine allegory for a community that claims to be incorruptible and devoid of temptation until a mysterious sack of gold divides the residents. The man who has authored this cleavage memorably writes – “Why, you simple creatures, the weakest of all weak things is a virtue which has not been tested in the fire”. This is so true of the judgements of our courts, regularly criticised for offering gratuitous advice on all arenas of human conduct without having to actually apply it themselves.
Often, judges are faced with the unpleasant situation where senior advocates of their courts have abandoned ethics and compromised the dignity of the profession while seduced by promises of wealth or high office. On every such occasion, the judges have been chary of doing more than letting the offender go with some lukewarm remark, grimly aware of having designated a man capable of such mischief. There was one exception, though.
In August 2007, as a judge of the Delhi high court, Justice Lokur and his companion on the bench Justice Sarin, initiated contempt action against R.K. Anand, a Rajya Sabha MP who had been a close associate of the Gandhi family and I.U. Khan, a special public prosecutor. Both ‘gentlemen’ had been designated senior advocates and had several decades of practise behind them when they found themselves on opposite sides of the Sanjeev Nanda prosecution (the BMW case).
An NDTV sting operation had revealed in granular detail how both had been willing to suborn witnesses and collude to let the prosecution fail, thereby affording six departed souls a justice they would not have imagined. Justice Lokur’s virtue was now being tested in the fire, as he was called upon to pass verdict on two men who had been professional colleagues at the Bar, and who had considerable clout and influence in the same milieu.
It would have been the convenient cop-out to merely impose salutary fines and let matters lie. Exactly a year later, the verdict was pronounced to devastating effect. Anand and Khan were not only barred from appearing in court for four months, but it was recommended to the Full Court that they be stripped of their much-coveted designation as senior counsel.
In sharp contrast, the self-effacing Arvind Nigam, who had assisted the court ably and objectively was recommended for designation as a senior advocate. This judgement not only displayed the courage and independence of Justice Lokur as a judge, but also his out-of-the-box recommendation – a decision that has been more than deserved as Mr Nigam proves on a daily basis.
It was clear that Justice Lokur would always take strong steps to keep the stream of judicial administration clean, as he did in 2012, when, as Chief Justice of Andhra Pradesh, he immediately suspended CBI Judge Pattabhi Rama Rao for having taken bribes to grant bail to miner Janardhan Reddy. Firm reminders like these are regularly needed for members of both the bench and the Bar to remain true to the ethics of their calling.
Modest, to a fault
It is the custom for the third senior-most judge of the Supreme Court to steer the Supreme Court’s Legal Service Committee – the entity charged with ensuring that access to the highest court is not closed on account of poverty and disenfranchisement to the weaker sections of society. As a result, lawyers are empanelled who take on the task of preparing the cases and filing them for a nominal fee borne by the court.When Justice Lokur became its chairman, it was discovered that there were several cases that had not even been filed after having been entrusted to those on the panel.
As is customary, the status quo had continued for years without any serious action being taken. Under Justice Lokur’s stewardship, course correction was immediate – he conceived of Project Sahyog which empanelled 25 trusted advocates who took over the pending files and had them filed with alacrity. Unbelievably, the pendency was brought down to nil, and with automated reminders and the use of technology (including video-conferencing), sure steps have been taken for the future.
Although all of this was initiated, supervised and implemented during Justice Lokur’s tenure, what stood out was my personal experience as a member of the Committee at a low-key affair hosted on the Judge’s lawns on the evening of September 29. In order to honour the lawyers, staff members and consultants who had contributed to the efficient functioning of the SCLSC over the previous year, a report was released by Justice Gogoi (as he then was) and certificates of appreciations presented.
Justice Lokur dwelt at considerable length in heaping praise on all others for the achievements which were impossible without his impetus, but not a single word was uttered by him which suggested that he had anything to do with all of it! In this age of Twitter and Facebook – where even the most superficial of actions are dressed up and shared – to do the opposite is such a charming reminder of a time that was gentle and a grace that is forgotten.
Like many others, I am fortunate to have made Justice Lokur’s acquaintance, and to have understood the value of a few small things – of calling all lawyers “Sir” or “Ma’am”, thereby affording them respect and equality; of not backing down when a chagrined government throws the kitchen sink at you, thus upholding the dignity of the court; and of being prescient enough to muse about an executive government objecting to the judicial appointment of a gay candidate 3 years before such a proposal has indeed been put on ice.
But above all this, Justice Lokur will be remembered for wearing the trappings of his office lightly – while his deport and his education merited a head in the clouds, his heart is firmly rooted in the soil of the land – commiserating with the tiller and the toiler – with little sympathy for the manipulations of those in authority. His comments from the bench have been with deserved asperity and provided much fodder for the media mills, though unlike some who have preceded him, they were not born out of arrogance in his own abilities but a need to reinforce the authority of the court.
A kind and honourable man, Justice Lokur will be missed by us at the Bar for he truly lived up to George Bernard Shaw’s aphorism about being a gentleman – that he puts more into the world than he takes out.
Gopal Sankaranarayanan is an advocate at the Supreme Court of India