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A Judge with no Airs

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By Narasimhan Vijayaraghavan
(Advocate, Madras High Court)

He became a Judge. Mr.Justice. A Law Lord. But, he decided he would continue to be just P N Prakash. As he had always been. And meant to be. One who ‘happens’ to be a Judge. Not a Lord on the pulpit. No crown on the cranium. Not outside. For,he had a lot inside. From day one,he was  just plain Prakash.He made it a point to keep his chamber doors open, all the time, to all comers. If it was lunch time, he fed you, after feeding the crows and squirrels,which made their mandatory visit, like clock work, to his window sill.

He was very well read. And a conversationalist par excellence, on topics not confined to law or literature or society or scriptures,but meta physical too. One could exchange books and share a cuppa with him. They were all read.With many a ‘notation’ on the margins. Not returned unread, with compliments.

No topic was taboo. Including latest pronouncements from him or his bench. He refused praise. If we criticized, he was keen to know. But he never defended his verdict. He ‘listened’ to the ‘other’ side as he allowed a pleasant hearing, to adversaries in court.

He entered the chamber with a smile. Got down to business with his personal assistants, as one politely, played decency and decorum to stage a walkout as he began, resumed or continued dictation which was ‘almost all the time’. He never wasted time in court. Read the papers. Knew the law. And zeroed in on the core issue. The counsel were never required to elaborate, expand and elongate the submissions. He politely would point out that – this is the point you are seeking to make- and capture it better for the arguing counsel to wonder why he/she could not put it so.

He had pleasing manners. Never one to be ruffled. Or raise a defiant posture or voice. His anger was a peculiar smile, which gave it away, if you knew him and it. One would sorely miss the sessions in his chamber, very intellectual and never ever a gossip (he had no time for it, though corridor talk may have been tempting to share).

He was polite to a fault. One felt he suffered fools. When he needed to sit up and clash with the counsel, he would softly swallow his anger or anguish and let the ‘fool’ too have his say. And there were too many of us. But beyond a point, he would say, “Counsel, I/we have heard you long enough. And you are labouring the point which is pointless. We shall deal with it in our verdict. (He did it with subtle sarcasm). Could you please wind up the submissions”.

To those who were confrontational, there were a few surely, he used to ‘sit back and relax’ a gesture, if picked up, would lead to ‘shut up,no use’ message to  the counsel. Not all of us got it. Still  he never put them down, in stinging words.

Yet, as he was mostly handling the portfolios relating to criminal jurisprudence, he did give a longer rope, as he believed ‘human rights’ were too sacrosanct and the accused and convict needed to be heard (satisfied) that they had a fair day under the Sun.

He made it clear from day one, who was in control of his court. With firmness and not sternness. He let his court be in a relaxed and not anxiety mode. There was even laughter in the exchanges.Never of the inane, silly or puerile genre. But earthy humour. Not stretched or strained,for the sake of it. Just plain natural. He neither cut you short with irritation. Nor allowed long winded waste.

He was crisp not cutting. He set a limit to his remit. Let it be known, so counsel were at ease. There are counsel and counsel. He knew most by name. And that endeared him. May be a clever ploy and strategy. Who knows? Yet, he was not the kind who tried to ‘convince’ the counsel to his point of view. It was for counsel to be ‘convinced’, if he/she got it. If they were not ‘convinced’, it was not his concern or problem. He had a job on hand. He did it with a conscientious conscience and let it be.

One particularly remembers this occasion. It captured the man in his essence. This counsel was known for his ‘irritable persistence’. Carrying his ‘cause of client’ retinue beyond credibility and tolerance. He ‘assumed’ every cause he pursued was genuine. No matter the futility in it. The said counsel, “ Milord has a closed mindset on this case. Your prior decisions have set it up. No point in arguing, I assume. Maybe this court could recuse itself to let my client have a fair shot”. Judge,” Counsel, move to your next strong submission, if you have one”. Debate over. No pussyfooting. No recusal, for the asking. The counsel got the message. Bar too.

No point in alluding to his landmark pronouncements. Multiple as in V P Pandit or Dixon case or a host of orders in Cholamandalam causes, setting up a platform of longevity to last beyond his tenure and leaving it alive, on a legacy construct. Yet, he was not ‘loyal’ to his verdicts. In the Tilopa mould, ‘Have an open mind. But attached to nothing’. And in his life too, as he often confessed.Friday evenings were reserved for a mandatory meditation session with his satellite staff.

Remember what the legendary Justice H R Khanna said,”Judge a Judge, when he was retiring. Not when he was Judging and in office”. A sort of judicial audit or stock taking. If one does that, whoever he/she was, the credits would outweigh the debits. He had a lot of cash flow and reserves in his balance sheet of performance, despite the high bar he set for himself. Never claimed to be infallible. Sixty Two is too early to let such men and material go. When will Parliament and Executive take note?

It is a loss the institution should and could ill afford with a virally mutating pendency pandemic playing havoc. Men such as Prakash ( No J) were vaccinating it all the time from the inside. Would he be ‘used’, to continue vaccinating it from ‘outside’?

Arun Jaitley famously said, “There are two kinds of Judges: those who know the law, and those who know the Law Minister.” Prakash knew his law. Not the law minister. And Jaitley went ballistic, “Cushy-post retirement-sinecure positions practice reeked of a cosy “jobs-for-the-boys” culture, placing judges potentially open to governmental influence, which on occasion led to “pre-retirement judgements” being “influenced by the desire of a post-retirement job”.

Prakash would easily pass the smell test of Jaitley, by a mile and more.Left to himself, he may have walked off quietly without  a formal farewell. He took one,I know, because ‘after a decade on the bench,had a duty to share his experience as a parting gesture.Return gift to the Bar and society for what one had gained from them”.

‘Justice’ position did not add to his stature. He was a tall man anyway. He added credence and lent respectability to the post and institution. He was an ‘institution man, a referee’ in the SCOTUS Chief Justice John Roberts genre. He was a conservative with a liberal streak. Never got slotted in ‘isms’. He carried no ‘baggage’ to the bench. And carries no ‘baggage’ home (pun intended), as he has left behind ‘all’ of it to judicial posterity.

Are we game to make the most of it. Judges may come and Judges may go. But only some leave their imprint. As man and judge. In precept, practice and principle. Rare breed,they are. God Bless. Rarer still, with honesty,integrity,diligence,erudition and societal concerns all at once,at the very core.

He did not deliver Judgments. He delivered Justice. The institution- court, community, bar and bench would be poorer for his departure from the pulpit. Our loss would be someone else’s gain, of course. He shall speak through his verdicts.To quote Prakash himself “I believe in Veda Vysa’s Srimad Bhagwatham. I tried to imbibe its values. I tried hard to live by it. I can’t say I succeeded. But I can claim to have sincerely tried”. That is saying more of most.

Just as Lord Krishna is claimed to be inside of the Srimad Bhagawatham- Prakash would shine forth from his judgments.Best wishes to him, his wife Sujatha and only daughter Vindhiya (with a doctorate in physics), a small family (large extended one in the Bar) in his retired (surely introspective) life.

In the meanwhile, God may have work to do to renew his lost art of making the likes of him anymore!

Kudos to Ms.Adhishree Manokaran, Advocate, daughter of Mr. N Manokaran,himself an advocate,Madras High Court- for the wonderful drawing of the  learned judge.

      (Published in Jan 11, 2023 issue of Current Tamil Nadu Cases)


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