Vaidyanathapura Rama Krishna Iyer, 100, among India’s most distinguished jurists, advocates for animals, and advocates in particular for improving the lives of temple elephants, died on December 4, 2014 from the combination of renal and cardiac failure.
Though of Tamil Brahmin family background, V.R. Krishna Iyer was born and raised in the Malabar region of Kerala. Elected to the Kerala Legislative Assembly in 1952, V.R. Krishna Iyer served from 1957 to 1959 as Kerala cabinet minister of law, power, prisons, irrigation, and social welfare in the first Communist government of Kerala.
Freedom from poverty & misery
Following the collapse of the Communist government, V.R. Krishna Iyer practiced law until 1968, when he was appointed to the Kerala High Court. He was elevated to the Supreme Court of India in 1973.
Retiring in 1980, V.R. Krishna Iyer was credited by Harish Salve, former solicitor general of India, with having “defined fundamental rights as well as charters of freedom, not just to acquire and hold wealth, but freedom from poverty and misery.”
V.R. Krishna’s most remembered verdict, indirectly influential in advancing animal rights, may have come in “Maneka Gandhi versus Union of India,” a 1978 case remembered by Zia Mody in 10 Judgements that Changed India as “a turning point in the interpretation of the right to life and personal liberty enshrined in Article 21 of the Constitution.”
Founding People for Animals six years later, Maneka Gandhi was at the time known chiefly as the 21-year-old daughter-in-law of former prime minister Indira Gandhi and founding editor of the political magazine Surya, notorious for publishing photos showing the son of then defense minister Jagjivan Ram having sex with a Delhi University student.
Having embarrassed the then-ruling Janata Party, Maneka Gandhi found when she tried to fly to an overseas speaking engagement that her passport had been impounded.
V.R. Krishna Iyer wrote the majority opinion, in which the Supreme Court of India held that the right to travel is a fundamental liberty, and that Maneka Gandhi’s passport had been arbitrarily impounded, in violation of both her personal rights and due process.
The verdict became the foundation of Maneka Gandhi’s subsequent career, during which she has served six terms in the Indian Parliament and has been a cabinet minister in four governments. Repeatedly holding the animal welfare portfolio, Maneka Gandhi introduced Indian institutions including the National Zoo Authority, Vivisection Regulatory Committee, and Animal Welfare Board of India.
Justice to animal citizens
V.R. Krishna Iyer, meanwhile, barely slowed down in retirement, authoring more than 70 books and serving on a panel of inquiry that investigated the deadly 2002 Gujarat riots.
By 2003, V.R. Krishna Iyer had become convinced, he wrote, that “Justice to animal citizens is as basic to humanism as social justice is to an exploited people. The philosophical perspective of animal welfare is thus part and parcel of our cultural heritage. Every time cruelty is practiced on man or beast or bird or insect, we do violence to the Buddha and Mahavira [founding prophet of the Jain religion]. Every torture on an animal and every export of animals is a sin.
“Rukmini Devi, that gracious lady who symbolized kindness to animals in her person, moved Jawaharlal Nehru to pass legislation, and thus we have today the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, 1960,” V.R. Krishna Iyer continued.
“Laws are decorative pieces on the Statute Book unless there are powerful movements supportive of their provisions,” he added, lamenting that in absence of strong public demands for enforcement of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act, “cruel practices are continuing in the land where the cow is sacred, compassion is a constitutional duty, but torture for entertainment, bleeding, butchery, animal sacrifice and other forms of cruelty are still extant.
“Sans people’s movement, cruelty to animals will never cease,” V.R. Krishna Iyer wrote. “Governments must be pressurized to do the right thing, lest India’s image and cultural heritage suffer severe damage. Let us not betray the generations from the Buddha to Gandhi. Our tryst with destiny, made when India awoke to Independence, included an imperative that the nation will wipe every tear from every eye. This applies to our animal brethren, parrots, doves and other birds with broken wings to be sold as pets or for delicate dish, lions and tigers cramped and doped in small cages, and even elephants and bears brutally treated to perform impossible feats. Let us begin the crusade for compassion and we must win because our case is just.”
Chairing the Kerala Law Reform Commission in 2009, V.R. Krishna Iyer, then age 95, pushed for passage of a “Compassion for Living Creatures Bill” which would have limited to four hours at a stretch the use of elephants in parades, at festivals, and in temple ceremonies. Use of elephants also would have been limited to eight hours in any given 24-hour period.
Further, the bill stated, “If during the festivals, any fireworks are conducted, elephants, if any are present at the festival place, shall be taken to their resting place and properly chained so that the elephants may be under control of the mahouts so that breach of peace can be avoided.”
The “Compassion for Living Creatures Bill” failed, but later in 2009 the Central Zoo Authority of India ordered that elephants could no longer be exhibited by zoos and circuses. The order affected about 140 of the 3,500 captive elephants in India a fraction of the number kept by temples and private individuals who lease elephants for advertising and ceremonial purposes.
Lacking adequate facilities to keep all of the elephants who were supposed to have been taken off exhibit, the Central Zoo Authority in September 2010 retreated from enforcing the 2009 order.
“National Heritage Animal”
A month later, in October 2010, then-Indian environment and animal welfare minister Jairam Ramesh designated elephants a National Heritage Animal, a status previously given only to tigers, who were so recognized in 1973.
“Since the elephant has been declared a National Heritage Animal,” said Maneka Gandhi, “there can no more be private ownership of elephants. A national property cannot be owned by private individuals. All temples and private individuals owning elephants should immediately surrender them to the government. Has the machinery for that been constituted? The setup for that has to be evolved, and then there should be rescue centers for elephants. There should also be punishment for private individuals if they happen to keep this National Heritage Animal. Unless there are enforcement rules,” Maneka Gandhi warned, echoing V.R. Krishna Iyer’s earlier words, “the declaration may not serve its purpose.”
At V.R. Krishna Iyer’s death, Maneka Gandhi, Wildlife SOS, the Animal Welfare Board of India, and the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organizations were still seeking to make the National Heritage Animal designation meaningful to captive elephants.