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R Venkataramani: A Lawyer and a Gentleman

An astute lawyer, a scholar, a human rights activist and a poet. India’s new attorney general is an all-in-one-all gift to the country’s justice system

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Supreme Court Senior Advocate R Venkataramani was, on September 28, named the new Attorney General (AG) of India. His tenure is for a period of three years, having started on October 1. He has succeeded Senior Advocate KK Venugopal, whose term as AG ended on September 30.

Soft spoken and low key, Venkataramani established himself as one of the most erudite and astute lawyers of India, dealing in matters as varied as constitutional law, environmental law, taxation, tribal rights, child and women’s rights in his 45-year law practice. He has huge experience in representing several state governments, the Union government, universities and public sector undertakings in major litigation in the Supreme Court and in high Courts.

Some time back, Venkataramani was also appointed by the Supreme Court as Receiver for the Amrapali Group, tasked with unravelling a complex web of financial issues to pave the way for thousands of anguished home buyers. That responsibility, he handed with aplomb.

He enrolled in July 1977 in the Bar Council of Tamil Nadu and moved to the Supreme Court in 1979, setting up independent practice, three years later. He was designated as Senior Advocate in 1997. He was appointed as a Member of the Law Commission in 2010, and again for a further term in 2013.

As a human rights campaigner, the eminent jurist had also been invited to speak at a workshop jointly organised by the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and International Commission of Jurists at Geneva in 2001. He was also involved by the International Court of Justice in solving certain critical issues of law.

Despite such eminence, Venkataramani remains a simple man at heart, with compassionate streak that is rarely seen in these days.

Some time back, India Legal’s parent concern APN News had done an exclusive interview with him and his wife Vijayalakshmi Venkataramani. Our correspondent Shweta Rai had spoken with the couple at length, on their life and times. On this occasion of his elevation to the top legal post of India, we present excerpts from that freewheeling interview:

Shweta Rai: As an icon, author, mentor and as a legal professional, how has been your journey in the legal profession?

R Venkataramani: Behind everybody’s life, there are inspiring stories. Whether they happen by chance or because of destiny, nobody knows. My inspiration has been Professor Madhava Menon. Professor Menon had been working as a professor in Delhi, and it was by coincidence that he had taken up the responsibility of principal at the Pondicherry college. As he became a teacher there, we developed a guru-disciple relationship. His mentorship gave me confidence and encouraged me to go to Delhi and practise law at the Supreme Court. 

While researching on your career I came across a surprising and interesting fact. I learned that for a while you had worked as an automobile technician as well. Tell us about that phase of life.

RV: Before I enrolled at the law college, I was idle for a while. It was during this period that my elder brother, who is in the automobile business, asked me to become busy and take up an automobile technician’s job. I took it up and kept myself busy till I got enrolled for a college course. In fact, it was my mother who was opposed to my being a technician and told me to go to college for higher studies instead.

As a couple you both are in the legal profession. What is the back story? Is this a coincidence, or has Mr Venkataramani been an inspiration for your career choice?

Vijayalakshmi Venkataramani: I always wanted to help people in distress. So, when I got married to Venkataramani, my horizon expanded and I knew I had found my calling. Ours was an arranged marriage. When I was in second year, I got married. At that time I hadn’t earned my degree. Later, when I met Professor Menon, he advised me to study law and work towards providing legal aid to people. Despite all the odds, I finally completed my course from the Osmania University and cleared all the three years in one sitting. Thereafter, I sat for the entrance exam for Delhi University and made the first list. Venkataramani used to guide me in all exam preparations and made my study easy and effective.

The legendary PP Rao had an enduring influence on your life. How did you meet him?

RV: PP Rao was not only a great lawyer, but also a great teacher. Now traditions of mentorship may be changing, but earlier people used to remain attached with their seniors for 10-12 years or longer. A bond of trust grows. The professional unit becomes a family. Similar was my relationship with PP Rao. He often used to call me and speak about personal and professional matters. I imbibed his best practices. His work ethic was flawless and his hard work always impressed me.

One key person in your life is also closely related with APN channel. Yes, I am talking about the legendary educationist Professor Madhava Menon. He was the Patron-in-Chief of India Legal as well. You were also deeply influenced by him. Do tell us about that relationship. How do you remember him?

RV: It is very difficult to articulate the relationship. After his demise, there was a condolence meet in Delhi and we went there. Addressing him, I had written a long letter as if he were still alive. Professor Menon’s passing didn’t mean that his influence on my life waned. In fact, his influence grew and became a part of my being. This influence I treasure. He was one great reason why we got closely associated with Justice VR Krishna Iyer, one of the legendary judges of the Supreme Court of India. So, courtesy Professor Menon, we grew close to Justice Iyer, and became more like a family friend.

We also got involved with some unfinished work of Professor Menon, some books to be finished, changes in legal education. He always used to say we must convert legal education into justice education. This is one activity I would like to pursue rest of my life.

You have fought many cases. But is there one case which is very close to your heart?

RV: Yes, there was one case which made me think differently. It was the case of an unfortunate adivasi woman, who was sexually assaulted and violated in a police station. We filed a petition in the Supreme Court and raised pertinent and basic issues. The Supreme Court heard the case and passed a strong verdict in which it convicted not only the policemen involved in the dastardly act, but also convicted higher officials who were trying to hush-up the case. Furthermore, I developed a case for injury compensation. This was a new concept in India. In this model, the victim who is at the receiving end of an injury is financially compensated. We pressed for injury compensation and the apex court granted it. It was a milestone case. It happened in 1986.

There is systemic inequality between men and women. This often manifests as injustice against women at all levels of society. How sensitive is the judiciary to their case?

VV: Yes, women do face injustices and oppression. I think women should certainly bring out injustices meted out to them in the judicial forum. The judges are most sensitive to women’s causes.

Social media has been dubbed as a necessary evil. For better or worse, it is impacting every sphere of our life. What are your views on social media?

RV: Social media is a responsible discovery. As contradistinction to other media, social media is free and open. Everybody can’t write a letter to the editor, everybody can’t write a mid-page column. Social media is everyone’s mid- page column. So when the element of responsibility in looking at things sinks deep into social media users, then we will head towards positive social change. Today there is need for educating the young in the use of social media. Then social media can become a positive tool. 

—By India Legal Bureau

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A Special Talent

Shweta Rai: I have come to know that both of you write poetry. It would be so nice if you shared something which you have composed.

R Venkataramani: When the lockdown came, we all were confined to our homes. We spent our lives in small spaces. Our social interaction was also limited. In this context, I wrote something.

“O nation brave and beautiful

In thoughts profound and resolve sound

In deeds quick and actions swift

In the chorus of our unity let us ride

O nation brave and blissful

Reel, reel till your hearts feel

Dump, dump all the garbage of your mind

In petty cages locked

Did not the Lord in the Gita say

Those who lay down their works on me

Exalting me, with malice toward none

Comes to me?

O Nation brave and bountiful

Let each of us resolve

We are Noah of modern times

And are Ark of great fibre and space

O Nation great and benevolent

For greater temples can you built

For Lord Rama of reverence deep

That the sharing of your lofty cares

For the weak and the infirm

The distressed and the disabled

The poor and the distraught

With compassion light

All corners of your mind and heart

O nation brave and buoyant

In solitude you learnt

In isolation you learnt

All lives are one

And learnt to play new patterns of life

O Nation brave

With all thoughts and compassion drawn

Let us march with all retreats beaten.”

Shweta Rai: These words are soul touching. You have given life to the words. They carry a message too.

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