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|May 10, 2002|
The Rediff Special/ Tara Shankar Sahay
Those who knew him, and of his determination to excel in his chosen profession, were not the least surprised at his elevation to the highest legal post in the country.
Columnist Khushwant Singh, who has known the judge for over six decades, is thrilled with the latest milestone in what has been an impressive and eventful legal career. Singh, who was a young man when the future chief justice was born on November 8, 1937, says, "As an only child, he was thoroughly spoilt."
Young Kirpal was not an outstanding student; in fact, he displayed a marked preference for sports, says Singh. After schooling at Delhi's elitist Modern School, he enrolled for and completed his Bachelor of Arts at St Stephen's College. After which, in keeping with his lawyer-father Amar Nath's aspirations, he graduated in law and joined the legal profession as a government pleader.
"Brilliant academic records need not necessarily translate into brilliant legal careers," says veteran legal correspondent Krishan Mahajan, now a practising lawyer. "But CJI Kirpal had all the attributes of an outstanding lawyer -- hard work, hard work and more hard work. Add to these an intensity of purpose and uprightness and you have a winning combination.
"I remember, about 25 years ago, he had a room at Scindia House [in Delhi's Connaught Place]. He would work there even during the months of May and June, despite the fact that there was no fan there."
With a few years of joining the profession -- by now, it was the late sixties -- Kirpal became the standing counsel for the income tax department. This often saw him at professional loggerheads with his father, a lawyer who specialised in income tax cases.
Four years after becoming a central government standing counsel, on November 20, 1979, Kirpal achieved his father's ambitious dream and become an additional judge in the Delhi high court. Khushwant Singh recalls, "That was a very happy time for Kirpal senior. For 10 years, he relished the prestige which came with his son's judicial status."
Amar Nath passed away in 1989. Four years year, his son was appointed a full judge of the Delhi high court.
India's former high commissioner to the UK and legal luminary Dr L M Singhvi is another person who watched Kirpal's progress with pride. "I have a long association with Justice Kirpal. I also knew his father and uncle [Prem Kirpal, a former secretary of education and UNESCO executive]. I have seen him [the CJI] functioning as a lawyer of distinction and also as a distinguished judge of the high court and Supreme Court. He possesses a robust common sense, a sense of justice and an extraordinary capacity for problem-solving."
Seconding this opinion, Mahajan points out, "Justice Kirpal has been a tough lawyer and a tough judge. He is one of the rare few who reads case files from cover to cover." He also draws attention to the CJI's propensity for taking on public interest litigation-oriented cases, particularly those dealing with the environment. Which is how Justice Kirpal earned the tag of 'green judge.'
Take, for example, the CJI-designate's concern about Delhi's rapidly-deteriorating environment, which was reflected in the landmark judgment on the CNG case.
The three-judge Supreme Court bench led by Justice Kirpal ordered the Delhi government to ensure the conversion of diesel engines into those using compressed natural gas, thereby leading to an improvement in the quality of air breathed in by Delhi's citizens.
The Supreme Court judgment added, 'Statistics show the continuing air pollution in Delhi has a more devastating effect on the people than what was caused by the Bhopal gas tragedy.'
Despite a barrage of criticism, the three-judge bench ruled that diesel-engine buses would have to go off the roads until their engines were replaced by the CNG variety. They also imposed a daily fine of Rs 500 (later raised to Rs 1,000) on the buses that failed to comply with this directive. At the same time, the owners of these buses were categorically told they could not continue to indefinitely pollute the megapolis' environment by simply paying the fine.
Consequently, and much to the relief of the citizens of Delhi, Chief Minister Sheila Dixit and Transport Minister Ajay Maken have had to implement the Supreme Court judgment despite its unpopularity among the transporters.
In the latest twist to the controversial CNG case, a three-judge bench headed by the CJI questioned why the price of CNG was increased by 30 per cent and directed the Bhure Lal committee to examine the reasons.
"At least, the apex court is alive to the pollution hazards in our city. I salute the judges who helped contain the situation. As the media has noted, the pollution levels have come down significantly and I think there is hope," said Sunita Narayan, chief editor of Down To Earth magazine and executive at the Center of Science and Environment.
"If the environment of Delhi has markedly improved, it is thanks to Justice Kirpal and his brother judges," concurs Rohini Bansal, a Supreme Court advocate who has been living in Delhi for the last four decades. "What a difference the court has by its landmark judgement in bringing down the pollution-level."
On December 10 last year, Justice Kirpal was in the limelight after his judgment on the BALCO privatisation case. The Supreme Court bench he headed upheld the public sector unit's sale to Sterlite, underscoring it was not for the courts to question the merits of the government's economic policies.
In March, Justice Kirpal's reputation received a fillip when he stonewalled the Vajpayee government's move to acquiesce to the Vishwa Hindu Parishad's demand and allow a symbolic puja at the acquired land in Ayodhya.
On March 13, a three-judge Supreme Court bench headed by him questioned the VHP's locus standi, asking whether it was a registered organization or trust. It denied the VHP permission to perform any religious ritual at the undisputed site and snubbed Attorney General Soli J Sorabjee, who pleaded for permission for the VHP's bhoomi pujan (religious consecration) ceremony. 'As the situation stands now, is it correct for the Centre to take a stand that such a puja be permitted?' the court asked the attorney-general.
The court was referring to the fact that the situation in the country was tense, following the VHP's declaration that it would, at any cost, perform the bhoomi pujan at the site designated for the temple.
Consequent to the court's decision, Prime Minister Vajpayee was compelled to inform Parliament that his government would not allow the status quo to be disturbed in Ayodhya, either at the disputed or undisputed site.
The judgment elicited lavish praise. "It is because of judges like these that our Supreme Court is known as a secular temple all over the world," said a thrilled Congress member and former Rajya Sabha MP Wasim Ahmed.
Justice Kirpal, who succeeded Justice Sam Piroj Bharucha, will, like his predecessor, be limited to a six-month tenure. These short CJI terms are the result of a landmark Supreme Court judgment in October 1993, which gave the judiciary primacy in judicial appointments, whittling down the role of the executive branch which, till then, had an equal say in the matter.
Since then, the judiciary has been exercising its primacy through a collegium comprising the chief justice and other senior judges.
Kirpal, who was elevated to the Supreme Court in September 1995, will be the first of the SC judges appointed through the collegium to assume the office of CJI. Bharucha, elevated to the SC in July 1992, was appointed CJI by the joint decision of the executive and the judiciary.
Critics of the collegium system contend it seems more concerned about letting as many judges sit on the CJI's chair as possible. And, given the CJI's short tenure, they feel there is precious little the incumbent can do to leave his mark. A recommendation of the Constitution Review Commission has sought to rectify this shortcoming, suggesting a National Judicial Commission be formed to take care of such appointments.
Khushwant Singh recently wondered how the new CJI could help untangle the state of India's judicial affairs since seeking legal redress is costly and time-consuming. He is not hopeful that the judicial backlog can be immediately and significantly tackled by any CJI faced with such a short tenure, as he bewailed the sheer numbers involved. There are almost 24,000 cases pending in the Supreme Court alone. "It is unfair to expect somebody who has just been appointed CJI to effectively tackle something that has lingered tenaciously for more than 50 years. The situation is so dismal that it is futile to expect any miracles."
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