Sunday, March 09, 2008

Begin the legal celebrity count with ...

Strange is the course of legal history. The most remembered are not the men who wrote long judgments. Brevity has never been a popular trait either with judges or lawyers. You will find as many judges complaining about lawyers’ long winding arguments as you may hear of lawyers grimacing about the prolix ways of some of the judges. Chief Justice Sikri wrote 2263 paragraphs in about 650 pages in print in Kesavananda Bharati’s case. Perhaps, it was the longest judgment by a single judge in our Constitutional history of India since 1950. But whose name resonates with passion in your memory when you think of this case? In the same vein, when someone speaks to you about the ‘darkest hour of Indian judiciary’, who do you think held up the torch in that blinding abyss to which individual liberty was buried in ADM Jabalpur? It is impossible to forget the name of H.R.Khanna. Along with him were 4 men, who held differently and each had well trained writing prowess to give good reasons to support their views. One was a Chief Justice and 3 other men rose to be Chief Justices one after another. H.R.Khanna knew what he sacrificed but he was far too much a colossal figure to be accommodated in that seat. He died recently on 25th February 2008 at a ripe old age of 95.

It is not only poetry that is worthy of impromptu recall; there are great passages of prose. They make the whole body of literature. Legal literature would not be complete without reading and re-reading what Justice Khanna wrote about individual liberty, in A.D.M.Jabalpur. It shall not be placed on a platter conveniently for consumption here! Take that little effort to go to your library, dust the volume that contains the text and read it. A lone dissenter had beautiful expressions not to sulk but to exemplify the virtue of dissent, if only it was to say what your conscience dictated you to utter. He said, "As observed by Chief Justice Huges, Judges are not there simply to decide cases, but to decide them as they think they should be decided, and while it may be regrettable that they cannot always agree, it is better that their independence should be maintained and recognized than that unanimity should be secured through its sacrifice. A dissent in a Court of last resort, to use his words, is an appeal to the brooding spirit of the law, to the intelligence of a future day, when a later decision may possible correct the error into which the dissenting Judge believes the court to have been betrayed."

Betrand Russel said in his book, ‘Religion and Science’, “Those to whom intellectual freedom is personally important may be a minority in the community, but among them are the men of most importance to the future. We have seen the importance of Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin in the history of mankind, and it is not to be supposed that the future will produce no more such men. If they are prevented from doing their work and having their due effect, the human race will stagnate, and a new Dark Age will succeed, as the earlier Dark Age succeeded the brilliant period of antiquity. New truth is often uncomfortable, especially to the holders of power; nevertheless, amid the long record of cruelty and bigotry, it is the most important achievement of our intelligent but wayward species.” Know what each one of those three men did: Copernicus began writing his major work De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres) in 1517 AD. His theory was that the earth rotates daily on its axis and revolves around the sun yearly. Known as the heliocentric system it challenged the Ptolemaic theory that the earth was the centre of the universe, the geocentric system. His work was put in the Index of Forbidden Books in 1611 and not taken out until around 1835. Like Copernicus, Galileo's books were included in the Index of Forbidden Books in 1616. In 1632 his book Dialogue on the Two Chief World Systems was published. Galileo had cleverly titled his book but there was no doubt as to where his beliefs lay. His work was a clear endorsement of the Copernican system. The Pope was not amused and called him before the Inquisition to stand trial for heresy. Galileo was tried in Rome in February 1633 and on June 16 was sentenced. After years of work Darwin wrote his famous and at the time controversial book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection which was published in 1859. It basically stated that life evolves by a process of natural selection. As with Galileo the churches and theologians attacked the findings. It conflicted with their views of special creation placing humans along side the other animals.

The 3 men conflicted with established beliefs of the world’s most powerful religious institution. All the persecution and ridicule could not silence them. They cannot just be forgotten. If someone asks you to begin the count of great judges who made all the difference in terms of brevity of content and quality, would you not begin the count with Justice H.R.Khanna?

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