When I was posted to the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) as its secretary general in 2001, most fellow officers advised me to seek a change, stating that serving under retired judges would be unpleasant, and at best, terribly tedious.
It turned out to be one of the most rewarding assignments of my career. Due mainly to the fact of being given the opportunity of serving under its chairman, Justice J S Verma, and more importantly, getting to know him as a human being.
Meeting him for the first time was not without trepidation, since he had the reputation of strictness, together with a mercurial temper, and his large frame only served to reinforce this. However, within a week I found working under him a pleasure, for he was swift and bold in taking decisions, always accessible, and though uncompromisingly strict with himself and others, once he trusted you, warm and considerate.
Being an outdoor man, and good at sports, he wanted to join the army. This was strongly opposed by his mother, so his father decided that he should take to law. He did tell his father that he was upset, since the legal profession was only for liars and cheats, so his father must have thought very poorly of him to decide that he should be a lawyer. His father sent him to work with the legendary GP Singh in Rewa. Though he was in GP Singh's office every day, Singh never exchanged a single word with him. Months later he assigned him one petty case, and when Justice Verma proved his merit, an association developed with Singh, who remained his 'Guru' all his life.
His respect for the law was equally profound. In one case, which he was winning on the basis of a certain citation, he later found that the precedent he had quoted did not apply, so, after informing his client about what he was to do, stated before the court that the judgment cited did not apply in the case, which as a result he lost. Why, I asked, did he do that? "Because", he said, "the duty of a lawyer is assist the court in arriving at a correct decision".
Gujarat 2002 (riots) was his most glorious hour, as it was also for the NHRC. After the capitulation of the administrative and police services, and the total indifference of the Union government and international agencies, the one-man army of Justice Verma gave voice to all those who had suffered.
Nothing however so became the man, as the manner in which he demitted office. His official bungalow was vacated that evening, and a man who was an eminently successful lawyer, chief justice of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, governor of Rajasthan, chief justice of India and chairman NHRC, left in a car bought by his daughters, to a house rented by them.
While Justice Verma will be remembered for his judgments - Vishaka and Hawala and others - and the report on an incident of rape, which the commission he presided over, completed in a month, without an office and staff, it is important to remember his strict adherence to the Gandhian ethic.
(The writer is a former secretary general, NHRC)