PUCL Bulletin, April 2004

Vithal Mahadeo Tarkunde

-- By Y.P. Chhibbar

V.M. Tarkunde, the doyen of civil liberties and human rights movement in India, was born at Saswad in Pune on July 3, 1909. He did his Barrister at Law from England in 1930-31. After coming back to India he started practising in Poona in 1933 and joined Congress Socialist Party along with S.M. Joshi the same year. While in Poona he did extensive social work in the surrounding villages. He became associated with M.N. Roy in 1936.
He became a member of All India Congress Committee in 1938 but left it in 1940 on the question of war. He gave up his practice in 1942 to become a full time member of Radical Democratic Party and went on to become its General Secretary in 1944. In 1948 he started practising again in the Bombay High Court.

He was given the International Humanist Award by the International Humanist and Ethical Union at its World Congress in London in 1978. He was appointed as a judge in the Bombay High Court in 1957, from where he resigned in 1969 and shifted to Delhi to practice as a Senior Advocate in the Supreme Court of India. He was the president of the Indian Radical Humanist Association and had been editing the Radical Humanist, a journal founded by M.N. Roy, since 1970.

Jaya Prakash Narayan had founded the Citizen’s for Democracy in 1974. Tarkunde was its General Secretary. JP set up a committee with Era Sezhiyan as its Convenor for mobilizing people for civil liberties and human rights and to set up People’s Union for Civil Liberties and Democratic Rights in 1976 as complimentary to Citizen’s for Democracy. The PUCLDR was inaugurated by Acharya J.B. Kripalani in a national seminar on October 17, 1976 with V.M. Tarkunde as its working president. The Janata Party, creation of JP, came to power in 1977 and an impression started floating that now the liberties of the people were secure. During this while Jaya Prakash Narayan died on October 8, 1979 and in 1980 Indira Gandhi came back to power.

The followers of JP, learning a lesson from the past, tried to put some life again in People’s Union for Civil Liberties and Democratic Rights. A conference of all those interested in the cause of civil liberties was called in November, 1980. This conference drafted and adopted a Constitution which rechristened the old organization as the People’s Union for Civil Liberties (PUCL). The conference elected V.M. Tarkunde as the president of the PUCL and Arun Shourie as its General Secretary. In 1984, on the completion of his term as the President, as a true democrat, V.M. Tarkunde insisted that he would not continue as the president though the National Council of the PUCL amended its constitution and removed the clause saying that the President would not be re-elected after completing two (two year) terms. The National Council of the PUCL named V.M. Tarkunde as Advisor in 1986.

Tarkunde was a true democrat, open to conviction, committed to a humane democracy where principles would not play second fiddle to power games. Like a redwood tree he stood tall and majestic.

Let us reiterate today our resolve to continue to work for Tarkunde’s ideals. q

‘He administered justice, not just law, the bar’s noblest soul’ V.M. Tarkunde was a guide post in the State, a character less visible today, says eminent jurist Nariman in a tribute.

Emerson used to say that nothing great is ever achieved without enthusiasm. V.M. Tarkunde, like his mentor M.N. Roy, was an enthusiast with a vision — a vision inspired by idealism. Alas, the disciple has now followed his master, and is no more.

“Great men” are the guide posts and landmarks in the State. The population of this country is accelerating, but the numbers who fit that description are rapidly diminishing: to me, this is the single most alarming aspect of our Indian polity — the marked decrease of men (and women) who can be reckoned as ‘‘guide posts and landmarks in the State’’. There is now one less to be counted in the reckoning.

Radical humanists like Tarkunde refused to become members of any political party, always supporting candidates of integrity — telling people that they were not obliged to vote for any party, that they could select and nominate their own men and women, whom they would be able to influence better. This humanist political approach was intended to create small islands of democracy and freedom, the nucleus of a democratic humanist society — in which education would not only create a discriminating electorate, but teach people to live a cooperative life.

All this now sounds like Utopia — but that is because we have stopped honouring and respecting great men.

I had the privilege of knowing Tarkunde since I was ten or twelve years in practice on the Original Side of the Bombay High Court. Tarkunde had been a distinguished advocate on the Appellate Side, and then, on his elevation as a judge, he sat exclusively on the Appellate Side of the High Court. In those days the Appellate Side Bar and the Original Side Bar were distinct and different — appeals on the Appellate Side came from the district courts in which invariably the members practising on the Appellate Side were briefed, whereas suits and original petitions and actions in Bombay were filed on the Original Side, in which members of the Original Side Bar were briefed.

After Tarkunde established himself as an able and competent judge he was asked to sit on the Original Side. I remember that seniors were alarmed that a person with little experience of conducting original trials should be brought to try cases in one of the premier High Courts in the country. But they were all prophets of doom. Tarkunde soon established himself as a master of facts and a good purveyor of the law — able to pick up the justice of the case, and to discern and apply the justice in the law governing the case. He had a penchant for justice.

He would try to administer justice according to law, and when, on a few occasions, the law did not favour the facts of an individual case he would try to administer justice — period: on these occasions he invariably cocked a Nelson’s eye at the law: somewhat like Lord Denning used to do when sitting in the Chancery Court in England in his young days.

After he retired prematurely at the age of 60, Tarkunde came to practice in the Supreme Court in New Delhi — always a principled advocate, always the righteous lawyer: for instance, he never appeared for management but always for labour. There was much money in commercial cases if you appeared for corporate houses, but he always — not invariably, but always — declined the offer of a brief from a corporate house if it was against the employee or would be inimical to the cause of labour.

Always a human rights enthusiast and internationally recognised as such, he championed what at the time appeared to be unpopular causes. He never deflected in his views, never compromised to please someone.

He was reliable, and solid as an oak. Younger lawyers and NGOs flocked to him — it mattered not whether he received any payment: he took up the case, and argued as vehemently as he could. For many of us who had seen him practice here after 1970, his retirement from the profession in the late 1990s was a great disappointment: not only because one liked to hear him in court, but particularly because he was almost like no other lawyer, a moral human being. After all, consistency of the moral dimension is the true measure of greatness in every human soul. Tarkunde was a great soul.
He has passed on after having lived a full and honorable life: when a great tree falls, the forest somehow looks barren.

As a member of an older generation of lawyers, I pay my tribute to him and salute him. Writing about a good life is easy, living one is more difficult. Tarkunde lived the good life — he was our Bar’s noblest soul.
-- Fali S. Nariman

A torchbearer of humanism passes away
-- By M.A. Rane

It was sad news to learn that V.M. Tarkunde, one of the leading lights of the Radical Humanist Movement passed away at Delhi on March 22, 2004 at 6.30.p.m. at an advanced age of 94.

In the early forties at the end of World War II M.N. Roy lit the torch of New or Radical Humanism and passed it on to his innumerable colleagues. Tarkunde was one of them who carried the torch of Humanism comprising Human Freedoms, Human Rights, Democracy and Rationalism with great ability and originality. In l969 after Tarkunde stepped down as Judge of the Bombay High Court he shifted to Delhi to practice as a Senior Advocate in the Supreme Court of India, he took over the editorship of The Radical Humanist Monthly, which was founded by M.N. Roy in April l937 as a Weekly named Independent India. He ably carried on the editorship, developed the journal till he became old. Though the journal was shifted to Mumbai and the editorship was changed, he continued as the Editor Emeritus writing frequently for the journal in spite of his advanced age.

Due to old age Tarkunde ceased practising in the Supreme Court since about l999, but continued his social activities. For the last three years he was confined to a wheel chair. Still he was mentally agile till the last, his reasoning faculties being in tact. He wrote for The Radical Humanist his last piece being ‘An open letter to Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee and General Parvez Musharraf’, pleading with them for denuclearization and simultaneous elimination of all nuclear weapons of both the countries through the on going dialogue, as the poor people of both countries could not afford the luxury of nuclear weapons and carrier missiles.

Before that in January 2003 Tarkunde came out with a novel concept of a People’s Humanist State advocating a Presidential form of Government with several novel checks and balances. The concept was re-explained and revised by him by writing a long article on December 1, 2003. The articles are collected and published in a form of a booklet under the caption ‘Concept of a Humanist State’ by the Indian Radical Humanist Association Mumbai Branch. He was very keen to invite responses to the concept from eminent persons and to hold a series of seminars and discussions on the subject.

Before he could carry out his campaign, death snatched him on March 22, 2004 at 6.30.p.m. in the Apollo Hospital New Delhi.

I have written his full biography in the book “V.M. Tarkunde -90- A Restless Crusader for Human Freedoms” a festschrift and collection of some of his writings. The book was edited by me and released on July 3, l999, at a felicitation function held in Mumbai under the Chairpersonship of late Gandhian Freedom Fighter Dr. Usha Mehta. Justice Krishna Iyer is one of those who wrote an article on Tarkunde for the book. About the book he observed “A fearless fighter for revolutionary ideals, Tarkunde will ever be remembered specially when this volume finds its place in the libraries in India and abroad”. Prof. Sib Narayan Ray himself an eminent Radical Humanist who could not contribute to the book due to his illness, wrote “Tarkunde was the tallest figure among us”.

Like M.N. Roy and several other Radical Humanists, Tarkunde himself lived the life of a real Humanist, remained wholly committed to the ideals of Humanism and was confident of changing the society till the last.
There were two challenging periods in the life of Tarkunde as in the lives of all Radical Humanists, when he had to fearlessly swim against the popular current. First was the period of World War II, when M.N. Roy pleaded for strengthening the hands of the Allies in the titanic war against Fascism and Militarism. He said if the axis powers succeeded, there was no hope whatsoever for any people, including the colonial people, to even dream of freedom and independence. The second period was the one when Mrs. Indira Gandhi declared Emergency and converted the whole of India into a prison house. Tarkunde in cooperation with Jay Prakash Narayan, Chief Justice M.C. Chagla and several other freedom loving citizens, fought the emergency rule and inspired several others to fight against it fearlessly.
Like Roy, Tarkunde was a creator of original ideas and a builder of institutions. Apart from Radical Humanist Organizations, he built human rights organizations like Citizens for Democracy, People’s Union for Civil Liberties and several others.

In the passing away of Tarkunde the entire family of Radical Humanist and several freedom loving citizens have lost a dear friend, philosopher and guide. -- March 23, 2004


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