IANS, 07 Feb 2007
Born in a small Kerala village, discriminated against in his early life because of caste prejudice, K.G. Balakrishnan has risen to the pinnacle of the Indian judicial system from where he will dispense justice to a nation of over one billion.
As the country's 37th chief justice who assumed office Sunday, Balakrishnan will occupy the position for more than three years – much longer than his recent predecessors.
He becomes the first Dalit – the former untouchables who are the lowest in India's caste hierarchy – to rise to the position of the highest dispenser of justice in this land.
In what might seem a contradiction in terms, his rise is testimony to the rich diversity and inherent strength of the country's social fabric. On the one hand, it is crushing in its discrimination against underprivileged classes. On the other, it provides a path for the dogged and the truly talented to come through the system.
Having come through in extremely trying circumstances, Balakrishnan is well aware of this burden of history and has hoped it would not cloud his judgements in his new office.
'The caste system is a reality, which gives birth to prejudices. Sometimes it is a disadvantage… Whatever you say, at least for some persons that inner prejudice is there. It is working in the mind. But I pray none of my judgments are clouded by those prejudices,' he noted in a recent interview.
At the time he was born in Thalayolaparambu village in Kerala's Kottayam district May 12, 1945, his parents would never have imagined that one day, their boy would rise so high. Yet, they persevered to ensure he got a proper education.
'Though my father was only a matriculate and my mother had her schooling up to the seventh standard, they wanted to give their children the best education,' Balakrishnan recalls.
Beginning his practice in Ernakulam after obtaining a law degree in 1968, he steadily rose through the ranks to be appointed a judge of the Kerala High Court in 1985 and to the Supreme Court in 2000, after serving stints as chief justice of the Gujarat and Madras high courts.
Balakrishnan achieved all this without the benefits of reservations – in educational institutions and government jobs – an issue that continues to exercise the Indian psyche.
'In fact, when I joined the service, I didn't deserve any sort of reservation. At that time, the benefit of reservation was not even available. But there were many people who helped me when the caste prejudice was at its peak,' he says.
Admitting to the inherent fairness of the Indian democratic system, Balkrishnan has said: 'Even if you have a lot of disabilities, you can come out of them by working hard. That is, even under our system we can come up, and that is a great thing.'
Thus, instead of treating reservations as the sole tool for Dalit empowerment, Balakrishnan, though his judicial pronouncements, is likely to ensure access to quality education at both the basic and higher levels.
Judicial reforms will be another priority area for the new chief justice to make the delivery system faster and speedier.
'These reforms would be to avoid the delays that you see in pendency; and create a friendly system of judiciary that people should not only respect and love, they should not feel that going to the court is a punishment, but should feel themselves as part of the system,' he said.
He is equally forthright on combating corruption in the system.
'There are allegations of corruption. It is very difficult to detect corruption, especially in the judiciary. The traditional way of impeachment is quite complicated,' he said, adding that 'the major thing you can do (about) judicial appointments… Whenever there is a (person of) doubtful integrity we shall not appoint such a person.'
Retired Supreme Court judge V.R. Krishna Iyer called Balakrishnan the 'pride of Kerala' and said he was confident that 'his performance will leave an indelible imprint on the Indian court system…'
To Balakrishnan's advantage, he will have adequate time to translate his vision into reality.