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Just-retired Justice B.N. Srikrishna talks about the riots commission and looks back on a distinguished career
“How bestial human beings are. It was heart-rending. Before the Commission, [Srikrishna Commission of Inquiry], I used to know about human bestiality by reading about it in books and articles. But when a human being, who has been tortured and maimed, and whose dear ones have been burnt alive, gives evidence under oath, you live it. It was the most traumatic experience of my life.
“It changed my personality. For a person who never loses his temper, I became short-tempered and would fly off the handle. As to why this happened to me, it was because of this constant listening to these painful stories.
“Five years of exposure was too much. I could not sleep at night. I had nightmares. You must have read stories of how the Vietnam war veterans became psychologically disturbed. I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown. But it was my personality, education, training, philosophy, daily meditation and religious training which pulled me back from the brink.”
Retired Justice B.N. Srikrishna, 65, clad in a dark blue T-shirt, sits behind a semi-circular glass-topped table in his first floor study at Matunga on a cloudy Tuesday afternoon. Through the open window, I can see the large green playing fields of the Don Bosco School. In the light drizzle, school kids, in white singlets and shorts are shouting and laughing as they run after a football, now slipping on the wet grass, now swerving around a pool of water in front of the goal. The football fever is on…
Inside, the judge’s eyes are pools of tranquillity and sadness. On his table, he has an IBM laptop and a personal computer. And all around are ceiling-high bookcases. Behind him, there is a large painting of his father, the late Narayan Swamy, who was once a leading labour lawyer, and various pictures of the Shankaracharyas of Sringeri. Last month, Srikrishna retired as a Supreme Court judge, and as he heads towards the autumn of his life, he looks back on a distinguished career in an exclusive talk with HT.
“There was a lot of pressure on me when I was in charge of the Commission,” he says. “My friends, colleagues and fellow judges kept saying, ‘Don’t do this, why are you wasting your time?’ ‘Wrap it up soon.’ Because, anyway, the Shiv Sena-led government would not implement the recommendations.”
Clearly, his severe indictment of the Shiv Sena, its chief Bal Thackeray and MLA Madhukar Sarpotdar, among others, was unacceptable to the then ruling party. So, after all this hard work, was he disappointed that nothing was done? “I did what my conscience told me to do,” he says. “Later, the affected people came and told me the report was not being implemented. I said, it was between them and the government. As a judge I had done my job. But I hope nothing like this happens again. It was a gruesome experience for everybody concerned.”
When asked whether he felt his life was ever in danger, he said, “Never.” And he tells me the story of how when he was appointed to the commission, the police commissioner said he would have to provide security. Srikrishna resisted by saying that, despite the best security, several American presidents and a couple of Indian and Sri Lankan prime ministers had been assassinated. But the commissioner said it was his duty to provide security. “So, I said, ‘Yes, please do your duty.’ Then he provided a van full of armed policemen outside my house. They were all sitting there one afternoon, and right behind their backs, a thief entered my house through the balcony and stole the VCR. So much for the security.” Srikrishna laughs when he recalls the irony of the situation.
Srikrishna, who was born on May 21, 1941, belongs to a family of eight siblings. And, right from childhood, the right values were instilled in them. “My parents taught me to be honest,” he says. “They taught me not to hurt people and to never cheat, not even at income tax, which everybody does.”
Srikrishna had originally enrolled for a masters in physics, “but one day, when I had an argument with my father he told me that it requires a special intelligence to be a lawyer,” he says. “So I said, ‘Okay, if you can be a lawyer, I can be one.’ The next day I went and joined Law College, much to the horror of my science professors.”
Later, he took his masters in law from Bombay University and an MA in Sanskrit from Mysore University. Like his father, he also had a successful career as a lawyer till his appointment as a judge in 1990.
View of life
When I ask him about his philosophy, he says, “Let me tell you a Sanskrit shloka.” He says the first two lines and then pauses, as he struggles to remember and then after a few moments of silence, it comes out smoothly: Akritvaa para santaapam, agatvaa khalamandiram, anutsrijya sataam vartma, yat svalpamapi tadbahu. (‘Without causing distress to a fellow human being, without having to go begging to a crook, without swerving from the path of rectitude, whatever little you earn, that should be enough for you.’)
He mentions the astonishing fact that he does not own any property anywhere and has been living in a rented flat since 1949. “Because I steadfastly refused to pay black money, I am unable to own property,” he says. “You go to the registrar’s office, you will get sick of it. For a child’s admission, people say, ‘Paise lao.” You want a ration card, you have to give money.”
Can anything be done about the corruption?
“Unfortunately, everybody talks about it but nobody wants to take action,” he says. “The only way to solve the problem is for each person to take a resolve that, come what may, I will not give bribes.”
An aunt of his brings two cups of steaming coffee on a tray and Srikrishna says, “Come, let us take a break. It is nice to have hot coffee in this cool weather.”
What other people say
One night, I call up Shiv Sena leader Madhukar Sarpotdar to find out his views of Srikrishna. He asks me three times whether Srikrishna has actually retired. “No need for me to check,” he says.
“No, no need,” I say.
“Okay, then I am ready to talk.”
Here is a bit of background: In the seventies, Sarpotdar was corporate industrial relations manager in Johnson India Limited, at Thane and Srikrishna was the legal counsel. They had a professional relationship, which lasted for more than a decade. So when I ask him about Srikrishna, Sarpotdar says, “He is a very good human being. And as a legal counsel, he was the best fighter.”
So what is his view of the report on the riots which indicted him?
“I don’t have any anger towards him,” he says. “After all, a judge is a judge. But Srikrishna is just a human being. He is not Bhagwan Srikrishna.”
Sarpotdar laughs when he says this and adds curiously, “When he entered the company of all those high court judges, he seems to have changed his views. He became a very secular person.”
Does that mean he was not secular before?
“I didn’t say that,” he says.
On another day, I go across to Worli to see S. Venkiteswaran, 66, a highly successful senior advocate who has known Srikrishna for close to half a century. I ask him about the judge’s qualities and he says, “The most wonderful quality is his absolute, blunt honesty. He will not tell a lie, nor will he countenance a lie. He is very patient and studious, and I have never seen him raise his voice or quarrel with anybody. Although I am told that during the Commission years, he did lose his temper a few times. Lastly, he is a very humble person, whose needs are very limited.”
But his knowledge is unlimited. Srikrishna is a polymath who can speak a dozen languages. He has an interest in refugee law and human rights' issues and has studied Indian philosophy. His passion is for Hindustani and Carnatic music. “It is said that music is an experience that falls only slightly short of the god experience,” he says. “That is, if you are listening to genuine music. There is a lot of trashy music nowadays. The test is this: does it move you or not? If it does, it is good. If not, it is bad.”
As we come to the end of an intense and exhilarating hour of conversation, and as the rain abates, I say, “Are you happy now that you are retired?”
He leans back in his chair and, for the first time in the interview, seems to be at a loss for words. “I don’t miss the fanfare of being a Supreme Court judge,” he says, slowly. “But I miss the work. Now I have so much time on my hands, I don’t know what to do. But I am sure I will find something to do.”