Crossing a milestone is often a joyous occasion to pause and ponder. It is one for me now!! I am going past the 10th milestone now in my resumed journey as a lawyer.
This journey started in October 1973 as a young 22 year old first generation lawyer with a first-class first rank University law degree with great ambition and enthusiasm at Calicut, Kerala at the grassroot level. After the first lap of 15 years at the District level, I was persuaded to go on a deputation from the Bar to the Bench in 1988 - for 15 long years as a District & Sessions Judge in the prestigious Kerala Subordinate Judiciary and then the next one decade as a judge of the High Court of Kerala.
Then I came back to my constituency - the Bar; to the Supreme Court Bar, as a Senior Counsel to continue the last lap of this enjoyable journey from the 1st of October 2012. This last lap has been running for 10 years now. I looked at the dictionary; there is a jubilee to be celebrated even for those who cross the 10th milestone – the Tin Jubilee they call it.
I have enjoyed every minute of this long professional journey of 49 years. Now I choose to look only at the last 10 years. It has been a dream run for me. As a novice who entered the legal profession in 1973, the mercurial legal personalities - Fali Nariman and KK Venugopal were my young day heroes. They are here leading the Supreme Court Bar today. As a first-generation lawyer at the district level, to even appear before the Supreme Court was a dream in those days. It gives me great thrill and pleasure that this little me has got the rare opportunity now to appear and argue even against them. To be a part of the Supreme Court Bar in which they continue to be members is itself a great dream come true for me. To be at the lunch room with Fali Nariman and have a sandwich which he graciously offers you, is indeed the ultimate for this humble self. When I pause and ponder, I am grateful for the very satisfying opportunity that life - call Her Mother Nature, God Almighty or Destiny, has given me.
On the negative advantages, this last lap has given me the opportunity to avoid what I always dreaded and wanted to avoid - that is to be persuaded to accept any post retiral opportunity that the Executive might offer. Many of my erstwhile judge colleagues though personally against such acceptance have ultimately been persuaded to accept such opportunities to avoid the tedium, boredom and agony of slow rusting. If you choose to rest and rust, you have nothing to look forward to and wait for, except the newspapers and the periodicals and the periodical pension increases and the DA revisions. Of course, the "after me deluge" syndrome can run riot and we can get drowned in cynicism criticizing all what the present judges do. We do it too.
Some very few of the retired fraternity find this last phase as a God sent opportunity to pursue hobbies and burning passions for which they did not find time during their active phase of judge life. They do enjoy their retired life. I would not, I am certain, have belonged to this elite class.
"Why don't you write memoirs" some friends ask me affectionally. I am always afraid of doing that. Invariably we fall victim of self-praise and start blowing our own trumpet or are often tempted to write about, as we see frequently now, what is not at all proper to reveal. More importantly, I think that having written judgments for a quarter of a century I have finished my quota of unread prose for one life. Even Susheela, my wife, may not read it at all.
On the positive side, this journey has given me the opportunity to see, observe and even contribute to the working of the apex constitutional judiciary. The opportunity to enjoy the brilliance and sublimity at this level is precious. At times, I get the opportunity to critically enjoy the ignorance and arrogance which runs even at this lofty level of existence on both sides of the Bar. It has given me the opportunity to groom some persons who come to me and work as juniors ('associates' would be a better term to avoid anachronism). It has given me the opportunity to see young minds – persons who are destined to be future leaders of the Bench and the Bar in India, grow and blossom. With nothing more to prove or achieve for me at this age and stage in life, this opportunity to observe life at this level with "witness consciousness" has in itself been a pleasure par excellence.
Of course, I must be honest. This last stint of 10 years has offered great financial opportunities. When I accepted judgeship in 1988 at the age of 37 years, I knew and was more than willing to accept the Gandhian ideal of "voluntary poverty" in exchange for a more sublime state of mind. I have struggled financially, more as a District & Sessions Judge, to make both ends meet. Today, I have been more than rewarded financially for that sacrifice which I chose to make. I get much more than my needs today. Of course, quarter of a century of "hermit's life" as a judge has ensured that those needs continue to be frugal and meagre. Even while scrupulously insisting on the biblical mandate that one has to live by the sweat of his brow and the ethical mandate that work and remuneration must bear some reasonable proportion at this highest level of the Bar also, financial returns have been so good that at times I fear that I have crossed over to the zone of exploiters – using the God's gift of years and faculties.
I thank my children Raghenth Basant and his wife Liz Mathew, who prevailed upon me to come to Delhi and set up practice here after retirement. They have looked after us so well at the same time, adequately safeguarding against my apprehension that my presence here might hamper, impede and obstruct their growth in the legal profession. I thank my grandchildren Tara and Nikhil who have made our stay in Delhi heavenly. My one point agenda for post-retiral professional practice – not aggressive practice or professional conquests; but to be "enjoyably occupied" seems to be working eminently well. I thank the Almighty for this opportunity to play a modest third innings.
I must thank Justice KT Thomas, my ultimate role model who inspired me to join the District judiciary and who compellingly persuaded me to come to Delhi and set up practice here after retirement. I also do remember with gratitude the roles played by and the blessings showered on me by my Senior Late Advocate K Bhaskaran Nair and many other great personalities like Justice UL Bhat, Late Justice V.S. Malimath, Late Justice KS Paripoornan, Justice Chettur Sankaran Nair and many others. One of the greatest blessings in my life has been the opportunity always to be associated with great human beings.
Milestones should not be mere occasions for thanksgiving and blowing one's own trumpet. I have often asked myself the question as to what I would choose if God Almighty were to give me an opportunity to travel back in time and make the choice afresh – "Would you like to be a judge or a lawyer?"
I have thoroughly enjoyed my journey from 1973 to 1988 as a lawyer at the grassroot level and the resumed journey from 2012 to this day as a Senior Counsel at the Supreme Court Bar. I have during the past decade, it is not something great to say, earned many times my total income as a Judge during the quarter of a century during 1988-2012. I have much more personal freedom and I am not today subjected to a lot of restrictions and limitations that I have endured during my judge-life. Of course, that heavy burden of responsibility will continue to rest on my shoulders till my last breath whatever I choose to do after retirement. All this in that great endeavour to make justice appear to be done. Doing justice is much easier and simpler for an upright judge. All the sacrifice is demanded and conceded to make justice appear to be done.
But given all this, how would I react to God's offer? Most of my former colleagues when I meet them now have one question "You must be earning a lot of money now?". That is the dimension of concern and appreciation for most. Only a humble and simple childhood friend of mine, my friend Udaya Bhanu of Calicut asked me the question that perhaps is most apt and disturbing "Having played the role of a judge for 25 long years, always attempting and struggling to discover truth and justice, doesn't it hurt you at times when you have to defend causes that are not worthwhile and which you do not personally approve?"
Here perhaps lies the crucial answer. I want all judges to appreciate the sublimity of the mission that they are on. The mission to discover truth and do justice with absolute freedom of conscience but subject of course to the law. That freedom of conscience deserves to be enjoyed and celebrated.
I would certainly indicate my willingness to be on the Bench for the mere sublimity of my existence on this planet as an individual. The thrill of being engaged in the noble mission to discover truth and do justice - that ennobling experience and opportunity. To pay any price for that - by sacrificing material gains and even your absolute freedom, is enriching in itself too.
This is not to say that the challenge before the lawyer is any less satisfying. I have often faced embarrassing comments from courts "A senior lawyer like you should not appear to defend the accused in such a gruesome crime like this." I do laugh within. Even when I appear to defend the worst and the most despicable criminal, I remind myself of the sentiments that a US judge expressed – "One who would defend the Fourth Amendment must share his foxhole with scoundrels of every sort, but to abandon the post because of the poor company is to sell freedom cheaply." I am not a mercenary for any criminal or client. I am, as a lawyer too, a soldier, a warrior for civilizational values of liberty, truth, justice, reasonable opportunity to defend an indictment and proof beyond reasonable doubt before deprivation of life and liberty. But today I have to look at things through the lens of the client. Truth and justice are not unidimensional concepts. A lawyer attempts to take the judge to a point and view facts from where truth and justice appear to favor his client the best.
The freedom to view truth and justice absolutely without any lens subject of course to the law and your conscience is a really covetable freedom. You may have to make a lot of sacrifices in terms of material returns and personal freedoms. But I have no hesitation. I would still opt for judgeship. All the gold in Fort Knox (Reserve Bank of India, to customize) will not persuade me to squander that opportunity if offered again.
Judgeship has to be viewed not as an opportunity to exhibit power and authority but as a golden opportunity to exist at a higher level of sublimity. There all the honour lies. From the Lord Chief Justice of India to the lowest of the lowest in the judicial hierarchy, everyone must enjoy and celebrate this sublime state of mind.
Judgeship today may be different from 1988 when I opted to join the judiciary. The type of allegations and criticism levelled against some of the Lord Chief Justices of India, people would have shuddered to make or even perceive them against a local magistrate when I joined the judiciary in 1988. The implicit faith and trust which the institution then commanded may not be there in the same measure today. The halo is waning. We need persons of "sterner stuff" in the judiciary to arrest the trend. I do advise the good young lawyers that I see around me, having not mere forensic competence but ethical excellence too, to still make the sacrifice and join the judiciary if called upon. We need them to reverse the trend and restore the halo around the judicial office.
I repeat I will have no hesitation regarding my choice even if the choice is given to me in the next life, if there be one. Judgeship indeed gives you a covetable state of mind. We need judges who enjoy and celebrate that state of mind and not the ones who merely enjoy the incidental power and paraphernalia of judgeship.
Author is a Senior Advocate at the Supreme Court and a Former Judge of High Court of Kerala.