Tuesday, December 29, 2009

[ZESTCaste] KG Balakrishnan: People's advocate


KG Balakrishnan: People's advocate
KG Balakrishnan, Chief Justice of India, was once a member of the
downtrodden class. Today, he is their voice

In 1997, the Kerala High Court created ripples across the nation by
ruling that state-sponsored lock-outs, or bandhs, were illegal as they
interfered with individual liberties and caused substantial economic
loss to the nation. Until then, several state governments have behaved
as if it was within their right to shut down the society whenever
their political masters wished. The ruling broke that cruel comfort. A
decade later, the Supreme Court used the judgement in its own ruling
against bandhs.
The man who delivered the Kerala judgement was none other than K.G.
Balakrishnan, who later became India's first chief justice from the
Dalit community. The judgement not only empowered the silently
suffering masses to rise against the culture of forced bandhs, but
also showed the sensitivity of a man who had come from an
underprivileged background and used the judiciary as a tool to fight
for civil rights.

It was quite natural, then, for the present dispensation in Delhi to
pick Balakrishnan to lead the most ambitious reforms of the judiciary
in independent India. The law ministry has come out with a roadmap to
reduce the average span of litigation from the current 15 years to
three years, and entrusted Balakrishnan with the task of achieving

It is an irony that "Bala", as a young Balakrishnan was known to
family and friends, was supposed to become a doctor and not a lawyer.
His father, K.J. Gopinathan, desperately wanted one of his eight
children, preferably Bala, the second one, to take up medicine. This
was his hope of emancipation for the family, which belonged to the
ostracised "Pulaya" caste and had little access to education.
But fate made Balakrishnan a healer of a different kind. He studied
law because he saw that as an opportunity to cure social ills. A
successful stint in practice elevated him to judicial ranks and
throughout his career, Balakrishnan's rulings have restored the
equality of people wherever it had been damaged.

India's courtrooms are littered with examples of delay and dithering.
And this tardy legal process with its current backlog of over 30
million cases has already taken a huge toll. The old adage "justice
delayed is justice denied" rings truer nowhere else. "We cannot have
this much of delay at any cost. It should be reduced," a very worried
Balakrishnan had said at a recent conferene in Bangalore. He warned
policymakers that people will revolt if the delays continued and the
legal system would collapse under the pressure. Not the kind of words
that any judge would make. And that passion is what sets apart Justice

However, the task ahead is immensely difficult. The initiative
provides for a National Arrears Grid to compile accurate data about
pending cases. It also includes temporary appointment of more
high-court and lower-court judges to ease the congestion. But
convincing everyone will be a tortuous affair. "The vision statement,
it is good as a set of goals and expectations – it helps fix your
sights a bit – but one should not only be content with vision
statements," says constitutional expert Fali S. Nariman. "You have to
have a way to implement those goals."

From the backwaters
His poor background and the lack of schools willing to take a Dalit
child in, young Balakrishnan would walk five kilometres to the
government school every day. He was a good student. In the 4th grade,
he got a double promotion and went straight to the 6th grade. His
father, a humble clerk in the district court, was delighted. He earned
just Rs.15 each day, but he wanted his children to have the best
education, and his son's academic success was a step toward fulfilling
that goal.

"Though my father was only a matriculate and my mother had her
schooling up to the seventh standard, they wanted to give their
children the best education," Justice Balakrishnan recalled in an

Balakrishnan worked his way up without the benefit of reservations; in
educational institutions or in government jobs. "In fact, when I
joined the service, I didn't deserve any sort of reservation. At that
time, the benefit of reservation was not even available. But there
were many people who helped me when the caste prejudice was at its
peak," he says in an interview published in 2007.

By: Shloka Nath/ Forbes India

Balakrishnan earned his bachelor's degree in law in 1968. He went on
to secure the first rank at the master's course in law from the
Government Law College at Ernakulam. His teacher, T.P. Kelu Nambiar,
remembers Balakrishnan vividly. "He was a very quiet student. You
couldn't always feel his presence in the room. But I soon realised it
was not because he was lost in his own world but because he was very
attentive and studious."

He steadily rose through the ranks to be appointed a judge of the
Kerala High Court in 1985 and to the Supreme Court in 2000, after
serving stints as Chief Justice of the Gujarat and Madras high courts.

One of his landmark judgements came in 2001, when Justice Balakrishnan
ordered that the mid-day meal program in schools become a statutory
requirement. This order brought relief to millions of poor children
who had to discontinue their studies due to poverty.

"He is very soft-spoken and his judicial acumen is very good, very
firm. The softness should not be taken as an example of his weakness.
And generally he has [a] smiling face, even in court. He is a very
pleasant person. Even foreign lawyers and judges who meet him are very
impressed with his simplicity and softness and clear vision," says
Lalit Bhasin, former chairman of the Bar Council of Delhi and managing
partner of law firm, Bhasin & Co.

At the same time, Justice Balakrishnan has had his share of
controversies. He was criticised of having dithered in the affair of
Justice Dinakaran, the chief justice of Karnataka High Court. This is
a case about allegations of corruption against Justice Dinakaran and
the protest against his elevation to the Supreme Court. Now an apex
court collegium is looking into the matter, but some say Justice
Balakrishnan should have acted quicker. For former Chief Justice of
India J.S. Verma, Balakrishnan's indecision has "reduced the
credibility of the judiciary." Similarly, Prashant Bhushan, a civil
liberties lawyer, doesn't think Justice Balakrishnan has any interest
in judicial reforms at all. "If he had, he would not pushed for
appointment of Mr. Dinakaran. That's all empty talk for political
misuse." (Justice Balakrishnan did not talk to us for the story)

Then, Justice Balakrishnan chose to challenge the verdict of the High
Court which had held that the office of the Chief Justice of India
comes within the purview of Right to Information Act and details of
judges' assets should be revealed. He has consistently maintained
judges cannot be put under public scrutiny as it would hamper their
functioning and independence. It was a stand not many have taken
kindly to.

Manu Verghese, a Mumbai lawyer, says the real Balakrishnan isn't
remotely controversial. Vergheseinterned as a junior clerk under him
at the Supreme Court in 2005. He says his mentor was humble,
approachable and "carried no airs about him at all, qualities which
should stand him in [good] stead as he looks to reform India's
judicial system.


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