Justice Vaidyanathapuram Rama Ayyar Krishna Iyer was born in 1915 at Palakkad, in the Malabar region of the then Madras State, to a lawyer father. He inherited from his father the qualities of taking an avid interest in the community around and using the law for the benefit of those more in need. He studied law from Madras, and started practice in his father's chamber in 1938 at Thalassery, Malabar. In 1948, when he protested the evil of torture by police for interrogation, he was imprisoned for a month on a fabricated charge of giving legal assistance to communists.
He was elected to the Madras Legislative Assembly in 1952, from Thalassery as a non-party, independent candidate. He became minister of law, justice, home, irrigation, power, prisons, social welfare and inland navigation in the first communist government in Kerala headed by E. M. S. Namboodiripad that came to power in 1957. He initiated legal aid to the poor, jail reforms incorporating the rights of prisoners, and set up more courts and rescue homes for women and children. He got several labour and land reform laws passed. He resolved an inter-state water dispute between the newly formed neighbouring states, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. When this government was dismissed by the centre, he resumed legal practice in August 1959. He lost the 1965 assembly election, which he again contested as an independent candidate.
He was appointed a judge of the Kerala High Court in 1968. He was a member of the Law Commission from 1971 to 1973 where he drafted a comprehensive report, which would lead to the legal-aid movement in the country. He was elevated as judge of the Supreme Court of India in 1973.
In June 1975, the Allahabad High Court had unseated Prime Minister Indira Gandhi from the Parliament and barred her from it for another six years. Rebuffing favour-seekers, he heard a challenge to this order in the Supreme Court. He was both blamed for granting a conditional stay and praised for refusing an unconditional stay. Interpreting this as losing the popular mandate to rule, the Opposition called for her resignation. The next day she declared a state of Emergency in the country.
A thinker ahead of his time, he would go on to write landmark judgments:Shamsher Singh case which interpreted the powers of the Cabinet with that of the President.
Maneka Gandhi case which paved the way to read the plain words "right to life" and "personal liberty", to mean many human rights now, thus expanding Article 21 of the Constitution. That the government of the day cannot put fetters on the rights of citizens, nor, should courts get unduly alarmed, when both of them are reacting to a fear of facing all manner of hostile comment, was what he tersely reminded them:
"Dogs may bark, but the caravan (of justice) passes"
paraphrasing an immemorial Arab proverb.Ratlam Municipality case, where he started a trend for judges to leave the courtroom and go out and see, the situation on the ground. Moreover, this case would be a forerunner of cases which would be decided later on, on the concepts of "precautionary principle", "polluter pays" and "sustainable development".
Muthamma's case, where he broke through the 'glass ceiling' with gender parity in traditional practices in public employment.
His lonely crusade against the death penalty would later on, make the court impose it only in the "rarest of rare" cases.
He brought in safeguards against custodial excesses. He made bail conditions humane and directed the government to provide free legal-aid to detainess in prisons facing charges, once ruling that:
"Bail is the rule, and jail, the exception"
Rejecting special courts to try people with influence or "in towers of power" for their excesses, he cautioned against retribution against them in a knee-jerk response, even as he commented on their violations, quoting an English verse thus:
"The law locks up both man and woman, who steals the goose from off the common; But lets the greater felon loose, who steals the common from the goose."
He believed in correction and not retribution or vindictiveness in dealing with prisoners. He recommended that meditation methods of Yoga which he practiced, and which he observed in the prisons in the Americas and Oceania, could be introduced in the Indian justice system to help transform not just criminal tendencies in prisoners, but also help judges keep their mental poise invoking their higher values to have a better judgement of a case at hand. He introduced values of international covenants of human rights into Indian jurisprudence. Outlawing solitary confinement and fetters on prisoners as inhuman, he treated a prisoner’s letter posted from jail as a petition, commenting:
"Freedom behind bars is part of our constitutional tryst...If wars are too important to be left to the generals, surely prisoners’ rights are too precious to be left to the jailors"
Along with Justice P. N. Bhagwati, he introduced the concept of PILs (Public Interest Litigations) or "people's involvement" in the country's courts with a series of cases. This revolutionary tool, initially used by public-spirited citizens to file PILs on behalf of sections of society unable to on their own, continues to bring in unheard changes in the day-to-day lives of the people even now, decades later. Observing this, he states:
"To transform the Supreme Court of India into the supreme court for Indians was the challenge...When the history of the judiciary in India comes to be written, PIL will be glorified as the noblest ally of the little Indian"
With an eye on evolving the law for the future, he would often put in a dissenting note in majority judgments, even as he strove for consensus with his brother judges on the bench. Sitting on the bench and away from it, he would reiterate time and again a guiding principle that laws must reflect justice, and justice in turn, must reflect life as lived by the people, stating:
"The law of all laws is that the 'rule of law' must keep pace with the 'rule of life'"
by climbing down from its high pedestal, shedding its static and sterile inertia, to ascertain ground realities for meeting the needs and aspirations of the people in an ever-changing society.
He retired as a judge, on 14 November 1980. He stood for the nation's President in 1987, as the Opposition's candidate against R. Venkataraman, the ruling Congress's nominee who won. In 2002, he inquired into the Gujarat riots as part of a citizens' panel, with retired Justice P. B. Sawant among others. He also headed the Kerala Law Reform Commission in 2009.
He continued to advocate the cause of justice on every forum and in his writings, participating in street protests, and his house would always remain open, bustling with all who sought his help or advice.
His 100th birthday was celebrated in Kochi in November, 2014 and a number of programmes were organised by members of the legal fraternity, citizenry and his friends and well-wishers to felicitate him. He had been actively involved in social and political life after retirement, almost till a few weeks when ill-health and advancing age took their toll on him.
He died on 4 December 2014. and was cremated with state honours. His wife, who would listen to him talk about his work, when on occasion he would change his mind after she gave her opinion on it, had predeceased him.
He has to his credit 70–100 books, mostly on law, and four travelogues. He has also authored a book in Tamil, Neethimandramum Samanvya Manithanum. Leaves from My Personal Life is his autobiography. There are around five published books by other authors about him.Soviet Land Nehru Award, 1968.
Sri. Jehangir Gandhi Medal and Award for Industrial Peace, 1982.
Distinguished Fellow, Indian Law Institute, New Delhi.
The Kumarappa – Reckless Award, 1988. (The Indian Society of Criminology)
Baba Saheb B.R. Ambedkar National Award by the Bharatiya Dalit Sahitya Akademi.
Ramasramam Award 1992.
Title of 'Living Legend of Law' awarded by the International Bar Association in 1995 in recognition of outstanding service to the legal profession internationally and for commitment to the Rule of Law.
M. A. Thomas National Human Rights Award for 1998.
Padma Vibhushan Award by the President of India in 1999 (the Highest Award next to Bharath Ratna).
Recipient of Vyloppilli Award 1999 for the meritorious service in the fields Human Rights, law, administration etc. The Award was given in February 2000 by the Sahrudaya Vedi, Thrissur.
'The Order of Friendship', by President Putin in October 2000, Russia's high state honour for personal contribution in strengthening the ties of traditional and time-tested friendship, co-operation and everlasting affection between the two nations.