Justice Jagdish Sharan Verma: A memoir

BY Nitin Desai| IN Law and Policy | 24/04/2013
With the passing of Justice Verma we have lost one of the greatest of our jurists and a firm friend of responsible media.
The NBSA was truly fortunate to have him as its first chair, says NITIN DESAI
I first met Justice Verma when my friend Pai Panandiker was trying to put together an independent group on governance reform. That exercise did not mature but I saw then the moral and intellectual qualities of Justice Verma. Hence when I was asked to become a member of the National Broadcasting Standards Authority I readily accepted when I found out that he was to chair it.
The NBSA was truly fortunate to have him as its first chair. He believed in the Freedom of Expression as something that is essential in a democracy and he accepted the invitation to chair this industry constituted body because he saw the risks of this freedom being eroded if the standard setting and enforcement was done by a government named body. But the way he ran that body it is better described as an independent regulator, independent both from government and from the regulated industry.
The need for standards was recognised. After all even the Constitution recognises limits to freedom of expression . But the new element was the spread and impact of electronic media, where the competitive pressures of 24/7 news broadcasting had raised issues about lack of due diligence in checking stories, issues about privacy and individual rights to a fair hearing, sensationalism and scare mongering and so on.
NBSA had to navigate in the narrow ground between freedom of media and the enforcement of responsibility in the use of this freedom, particularly from the perspective of individual rights and the viewer's right to be informed in an impartial manner. Justice Verma taught us how to navigate this narrow ground, when a restraint on the media was reasonable and when it was not. He was never much concerned about the Government or some public person being pursued by the media. His focus was on the media observing standards of due diligence to ensure accuracy, giving individuals they were criticising a fair chance to respond, protecting the rights of victims to privacy and of the accused to a fair trial.
Over the past few years the NBSA, under Justice Verma's guidance, has formulated guidelines which the electronic media, who are members of NBA, have agreed to observe and a robust jurisprudence on the application of these to individual cases. In fact the guidelines and advisories of the NBSA have sometimes been referred to by law courts and in this the enormous respect that Justice Verma commanded in the judiciary surely helped.
None of this would have happened if Justice Verma had not been there to guide this effort. We, who are misleadingly called expert members, would have stumbled in the narrow path between freedom and enforced responsibility.
Justice Verma will of course be remembered for many other contributions including his judgements during the Emergency, on Babri Masjid, the Hawala case and others. He was a campaigner for judicial accountability including on declaration of assets. He never had a post retirement practice of giving advisories or undertaking arbitration for truly fat fees. He felt that since these could become an element in a law case court, doing this type of practice would be against the spirit of the the constitutional provision that after retirement a judge cannot plead before a court where he had adjudicated. He lived out his retired life in a modest rented home in  NOIDA.
Perhaps our legislative history will remember Justice Verma most for leading so well the group that put together the anti rape law that is under consideration in Parliament right now. The way he tackled the challenge was typical. The Government gave very little time; but instead of arguing for more time he just went ahead and worked flat out with his colleagues and collaborators and produced the report in quick time. He also was not given much by way of staff resources. He responded by readily accepting the help of scores of dedicated young lawyers who volunteered their time and worked night and day to produce a monumental report. It was an extraordinary report welcomed equally by the civil society groups that had been agitating in the streets, by feminist thinkers and by the legal fraternity. All of this is a product of Justice Verma's personality - his dedication, his openness of mind, his respect for youth and women and his willingness to stand firmly for what is just and fair and right.
With the passing of Justice Verma we have lost one of the greatest of our jurists and a firm friend of responsible media.
Nitin Desai is a member of the News Broadcasting Standards Authority. He is an economist and was Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations from 1992 to 2003.
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