Of Judges and The Bar Between

I was vacationing with my parents in Matheran, I was a school boy then, we went out for a walk when my father introduced me to a judge of the High Court. He knew him well. I do not remember the name but I remember distinctly how surprised I was. Shocked actually. I had never seen a judge except in Hindi movies. I never thought that one could meet a Judge when you go for a walk. But there he was smiling, sharing a joke and talking to my father like a friend.

I continued to hold all judges in awe. So also several people. A person not aware of the functioning of court comes to the Court with very unrealistic expectations from the judge. In the seventies when workers changed their unions and realised that there was a law for recognition of unions which prevented their employer from recognising their union, they approached the Industrial Court for justice. They expected that they will get it on the very first day of hearing. I have seen some workers addressing the judge directly ‘Sahab….ye union…!’ But judges [or Presiding Officers, as they were called] very rarely talked to parties directly. Never when they were addressed in open court directly by litigants. The proceedings before Workmen’s Compensation Commissioner would sometimes made you take pity on people. I have seen poor ladies whose husbands had died in accidents, standing before the Commissioner in the courtroom with folded hands, very tense and fighting tears.

Among the industrial court judges, I got to know Mr SA Patil well. He was a good friend of Mr BN Dongre, also a judge of Industrial Court who was my uncle-in-law. Mr Patil was a very unassuming person, a simple man and despite his position he had no airs. Yet not a man who will suffer fools gladly, he was a very upright person. I recall, and I hope I remember it right, that he taught a lesson to RJ Mehta, the erstwhile very aggressive union leader, leading to contempt of court action. I met Mr Patil a few times. While he would talk about many subjects, he kept the courts and law out of our discussions. Actually it would be more appropriate to say that conversations were more of his monologues as I would be tongue-tied in his presence. I always felt inhibited in front of judges. And more so when I held them in high regard.

I have often sat in the court room of Justice Mr Lentin. It was a pleasure to watch him listen to cases and deliver judgements. The Supreme Court Judge Mr BN Srikrishna used to practice in the Industrial Court in the initial phase of his career and he too was a lawyer we listened with admiration, although it was never our case. His painstaking preparation, depth of knowledge and sprinkling of Sanskrit ‘subhashitams’ was inspiring. Many of us who handled Industrial Relations in the seventies and eighties were very happy when he moved to Supreme Court. I have met Justice Mr Srikrishna in the seminars of Industrial Relations Institute of India, but that too is not an accurate statement. The fact is that I could never go beyond “Hello, Sir!”

Justice Mr Hemant Gokhale who became a Supreme Court Judge, was the Government’s advocate in one of the cases in which my employer company was a party. Interactions with him soon transformed to friendship. When he was appointed as a Judge of Gujarat High Court, I felt very proud. Later, I was driving my car and had stopped at a signal when I heard somebody call out. It was Mr Gokhale! He was driving his car and it was next to our car. I wished him, but could not strike a conversation beyond ‘hello.’ I felt a distance, carrying my age old inhibition of relating to judges. The green signal for moving ahead was a relief!

I remember judges because of the news of a great and controversial judge Mr. VR Krishna Iyer. I had been to Kochi many times. I have seen his house at Kochi. I felt then that I should knock on the door, pay my respects and have a chat with him. But the inhibition of relating to judges came in the way. I never knocked on his door.

Sometimes judges distance themselves from a common man, sometimes it is vice versa. Lawyers are ‘called to the bar.’ There remains an invisible bar between them and the common man.

Vivek Patwardhan
“What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others.”