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Remembering Justice Suresh: His voice was his conscience Activists and lawyers hold condolence meeting remembering Justice Hosbet Suresh’s life and work

15, Jun 2020 | CJP Team

On Thursday, June 11, 2020, India lost one of its brightest legal minds and an exemplary defender of human rights, Justice Hosbet Suresh (retd). The former judge of the Bombay High Court, Justice Suresh, continued to play a stellar role in standing up for the people of India even after retirement in 1991. He was part of key Public Commissions and Tribunals as he investigated flagrant human rights violations including the Bombay riots (1992-93) and the Gujarat pogrom (2002) among others.

In a tribute to Justice Suresh’s exceptional life and work, civil rights activist Teesta Setalvad hosted a virtual condolence meeting accompanied by Justice A.P. Shah, prominent civil rights lawyer Prashant Bhushan, sociologist and lawyer Kalpana Kannabiran, senior counsel and human rights lawyer Mihir Desai and Executive Director of People’s Watch Henri Tiphagne on June 12, 2020, remembering his contributions to deepen constitutional and democratic values, his sense of compassionate justice and his unrelenting enthusiastic outlook.

Teesta Setalvad, Secretary of Citizens of Justice and Peace (CJP) who was then convener of the Concerned Citizens Tribunal – Crimes Against Humanity, 2002 headed by Justice Suresh among other retired Supreme Court and High Court judges, recounted her conversation with a senior lawyer from Mumbai about Justice Suresh’s passing who said that all of them felt safe with judges like Justice Suresh around because the values of the Constitution were respected where they ought to be. She said, “Justice Suresh believed that fundamental rights are human rights which should reach the last person on the street, but at the end of the street.”

Henry Tiphagne, ED – People’s Watch, who worked closely with Justice Suresh as part of the fact finding team on the alleged Seshachalam Reserve Forest encounter which saw the killing of 20 men said it was difficult to hear of Justice Suresh’s passing. He said, “Justice Suresh used to proudly tell us that he was guilty of doing much in Tamil Nadu and not that much in Maharashtra. On all issues of human rights violations – for fact findings on very difficult terrains, on issues of coastal shrimp farms halting, on issues of violence against fishermen, Dalits and Adivasis, police excesses, Justice Suresh was there. Public hearings and fact findings were his forte. What moved us about Justice Suresh was that he was always there for victims of violence.”

Recounting the time he and Justice Suresh went as part of the fact-finding exercise to the Tirupati forests and were stopped from entering by the Forest Department, Tiphagne said that Justice Suresh told him, “Henry, we are not moving from here. We are standing here. We will wait till their top official comes and lets us in.” Tiphagne added that the Constitution of India, the courts of India, public hearings and the establishment of new standards always urged him to say ‘yes’ in spite of all difficulties he had to undergo.

Tiphagne said that he would always remember Justice Suresh as a friend and as a ‘living’ judge. Visibly emotional he concluded his message saying, “I want to tell you Justice Suresh, we will continue to communicate with you through our actions. You will continue to live with us forever.”

Kalpana Kannabiran, who worked with Justice Hosbet Suresh as part of the People’s Commission on Shrinking Democratic Space (PCSDS) which formed a people’s tribunal to respond to the challenges faced by higher educational institutions said, “I have several very fond memories of Justice Suresh. My association with Justice Suresh goes back to his association with my father. They were both born in 1929 and had several similarities of manner, especially in the way they would both emotionally and passionately agitate over an issue and attempt to convince you of a standpoint that might not have occurred to you at all.”

Kannabiran recalled how she heard accounts of the Gujarat 2002 tribunal of which Justice Suresh and her parents were a part of. On her own fact-finding teams that she was on with Justice Suresh, especially when they visited Singrauli for a Greenpeace report, Kalpana spoke about his enormous energy, his unparalleled acumen and quiet observation. She remembered how Justice Suresh only put emphasis on the understanding of the issue of displacement on the site in terms of the Constitution, adding that being studying under judges like Justice Suresh was an extremely educative experience and was a way of understanding the law as rooted in human empathy. Citing a statement by Justice Suresh in an article he wrote for Outlook, “Judicial integrity is not just a private virtue but a public necessity,” Kannabiran said that in 2020 this was really what the judiciary needed to be reminded of.

Mihir Desai, senior advocate of the Bombay High Court who also had a long association with Justice Suresh spoke about his first experience as a young lawyer when he encountered Justice Suresh during a case about slum demolition. He recalled how his rehearsed arguments were cut short by Justice Suresh who put a stay on the demolitions. Desai said, “Justice Suresh had an immense passion for justice, which was completely unshackled once he retired in 1991 and started with the Kaveri riots, Bombay riots and other public hearings and people’s tribunals. His enthusiasm and optimism never died – this was very remarkable about him.”

Desai emphasised on Justice Suresh’s outspokenness and his willingness to confront and take a stand on any issue, no matter how unpopular it was. He said that Justice Suresh believed that the underprivileged found it difficult to access justice, which is why he made sure he went to the public and brought out their voices and their plight. Desai said, “It is a great loss. There are very few people who are so active to the causes of human rights and the people even almost 25 to 30 years post retirement,” recalling how Justice Suresh was the first to rule that communal speeches would lead politicians to be disqualified from being elected.

Prashant Bhushan, noted civil rights activist and Supreme Court advocate who also worked extensively with Justice Suresh on the Hyderabad Tribunal said, “Justice Suresh was willing to stand up for every cause of getting justice to the victims of injustice. His life after retirement is far more valuable as there are very few judges who start engaging with public issues after retirement and he was one of those few. He was willing to walk the extra mile. Though he was very soft spoken, he was very firm.”

Recalling their work on the Hyderabad Tribunal where they were examining the victimization of people being investigated for terror offences he said, “We came to the conclusion that there was clearly an anti-Muslim bias in those investigations. This was more than a decade ago. Today, we need many more people like Justice Suresh. He had a full innings and we will be inspired by all his qualities.”

Justice AP Shah, former Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court who was also among the panel of the PCSDS with Justice Suresh and was part of the People’s Tribunal on the National Register of Citizens (NRC) said, “Justice Hosbet Suresh was one of the few giants on whose shoulders the civil rights movement of India today stands. Though he was on the HC bench only for about 5 years, as a judge he was most equitable, fair, humane and hardworking.”

Speaking of his own experience of appearing before Justice Suresh in court, Justice AP Shah said, “It was unfortunate I never got to work on the bench with him. He was one of the finest judges of his time,” recounting Justice Suresh’s work against forced demolitions and forced evictions in Mumbai.

Recalling a concave Justice AP Shah had organized for sitting judges where Justice Suresh was speaking on the matter of forced evictions, criticizing the judgments of the Bombay HC and how some judges complained of Justice Suresh’s strong remarks. Justice Shah said, “That was his signature style. He never minced any words and became very persuasive to prove his point. He was honest, sincere, blunt and forthright and at the same time very kind, affectionate and unassuming. With his passing, the Indian human rights movement has lost an influential intellectual and an inspirational human being. His loss will be felt greatly. The least we can do is keep the human rights flame ignited by Justice Suresh, burning for times to come.”

The attendees of the condolence meeting recounted some humorous anecdotes around Justice Suresh’s life and career. Teesta Setalvad for whom he was like a mentor, concluded the condolence meeting saying, “One of his favourite lines was, “When I used to sit on the bench, I used to say ‘My voice is my conscience’, because I would dictate my judgments loud enough for the last person in the room to hear.””

Justice Hosbet Suresh was a Bombay HC judge from 1986 till 1991. As an activist his causes ranged from women rights, to rights of street dwellers, Adivasi rights, food scarcity and other injustices on the downtrodden of the country. The country and its human rights defenders will never forget the invaluable contributions of Justice Hosbet Suresh who rallied against injustice till his last breath.

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