Born into a poor family in Kerala, he is the first member of the Dalit caste, or the “untouchables,” to reach his country’s highest judicial position. India’s Supreme Court Chief Justice Konakuppakattil Gopinathan Balakrishnan, along with another justice and other high-ranking members of the Ministry of Law and Justice and Indian Law Institute, traveled to the University’s School of Law to lecture on “Individual Rights in India: A Perspective from the Supreme Court.”
Balakrishnan’s lecture on Monday addressed many aspects of India’s constitution, including common and national laws and social segregations, but the focus of the discussion was on the foundation of India’s Constitution and the drive behind Mahatma Gandhi’s freedom strike – individual rights.
“Individual rights is a question of maintaining democracy and rule of law,” Balakrishnan said. “India is a country of a large number of religions, minority and different languages.”
In contrast to the United States’ appeal process, India has no system of certiorari and the Supreme Court hears several thousand cases per year compared to the average of 150 cases that America’s Supreme Court hears every year.
“From a Supreme Court’s perspective, individual rights is very important because you have a right, in India, to have your case heard,” said Don Johnson, Director of the School of Law’s Dean Rusk Center. “In this country, the court has to grant certiorari, but in India, your case will be heard.”
With a population of about 1 billion, India is a democratic country with 31 justices – a significantly larger number than the nine justices that make up the highest court in the United States, said Gabriel Wilner, a professor of international law and executive director of the Dean Rusk Center.
In the past, Wilner studied the rules of foreign investments at the National Capital Territory of Delhi as a former Fulbright scholar.
“India’s Constitution compares very favorably with the United States, and what’s interesting is that the higher courts also speak English to one another because they do not understand each other’s languages,” Wilner said. “There’s lots of [Indian] national and local newspapers and many of them are in English since there are 14 different Indian languages, and although some are similar, others are completely different.”