I will always remember Jagdish Sharan Verma’s large round eyes and gentle chuckle. The former kept you transfixed during an interview. The latter was a device for saying yes without using the word. He used both to great effect.
I got to know him in 2004. At the time I was researching for a BBC HARDtalk India interview. “I’d like to talk to you about your 1993 judgement which gave judges the primary role in choosing their successors. India is the only country where this happens and an international audience would be interested in the justification.”
That’s when I first noticed the chuckle. Simultaneously, his eyes lit up with a hint of mischief. “You know I now think it was a mistake. So if you bring up the subject I’ll take the opportunity to explain why.” That clinched it. I had a scoop on my hands and all because Justice Verma was big enough to publicly accept that this judgement, which for many had become part of his identity, had turned out to be an error. At least, in the way it was implemented, as he later explained.
Over the next seven years I brought up the subject in several interviews. Each time he would go a little further until, in June 2011, using his chuckle to great effect, he confirmed the last bit of the story that made him change his mind.
“The problem”, he explained on the first occasion we discussed the issue, “is that good men don’t necessarily get chosen.” The reason was that judges were sometimes unwittingly, but often knowingly, choosing men of questionable integrity.
The story he told me to illustrate this point was not just revealing but damning. And like a good story-teller he kept a little in reserve for the next telling. But ultimately, I think, I got most of it.
In 1997, when he was chief justice, the collegium recommended the name of a high court judge for promotion to chief justice of a state high court. Justice Verma consulted five of his puisne judges, three of whom went on to become chief justices of India.
Inder Gujral, who was prime minister, said he was happy to accept the recommendation but was Justice Verma aware there were serious questions about the man’s integrity? This was sufficient for Verma to withdraw the name and he informed his colleagues why he had done so. But after his retirement the man’s name was put forward again and sailed through. He became a chief justice for a few months which qualified him for a post-retirement job which he got. And this was done by one of Verma’s successors as chief justice who knew the full story.
This sort of thing, Justice Verma added, has happened on several other occasions. It was not a one-off. This is why he was now in favour of setting his judgement aside and endorsed calls for a National Judicial Commission to appoint judges.
In June 2011, when I last raised the issue on CNN-IBN’s Devil’s Advocate, I asked: “Was the chief justice who promoted this gentleman Justice Anand?” And was the gentleman himself Ashok Aggarwal?” Justice Verma chuckled. “Let us not take names.” “I notice you’re not denying it”, I persisted. He chuckled again but said nothing. “That’s a telling laugh” I concluded. “It will speak for itself.”
All the while Justice Verma’s large eyes were glinting. They not only communicated his enjoyment. They also seemed to be saying yes.
Views expressed by the author are personal