SARV MITTRA SIKRI, a former Chief Justice of India, was one of the country's sharpest legal brains and presided over several historic cases unmindful of the political fall-out from his adjudications.
One of India's few chief justices to preserve judicial independence from political interference and the vested interests of the prime minister, Indira Gandhi, in her 15-year authoritarian rule, Sikri specialised in international law. He represented newly independent India at the UN Committee on Codification and Development of International Law and was a member of the International Law Association Committee on Rivers.
But he is best remembered for striking down, both as a Supreme Court Justice and later as Chief Justice, politically sensitive and sensational cases dealing with constitutional amendment, including the Golaknath case for the enforcement of fundamental rights, and the abolition of the privy purses of several hundred former rulers of Indian states.
These were issues that a politically crafty, albeit insecure, Mrs Gandhi was forcing, despite a flagrant breach of contract and constitutional propriety, to bolster her party's flagging political fortunes. She tried to bring pressure upon the Supreme Court judges to vindicate her. Sikri, who presided over or was a member of the judges' bench on all these cases, ignored Gandhi's covert coercions and, much to her wrath, ruled against parliament.
In one of his judgments, dealing with the election of VV Giri as president of India, Sikri referred to Gandhi as a liar, an observation she neither forgot nor forgave. Despite his immense capabilities and accepted tradition, she never appointed him a state governor or ambassador or to any quasi-government organisation or commission. But such was Sikri's integrity and legal credibility that, 11 years after laying down office, he was made head of the Citizens' Inquiry Commission into the anti-Sikh pogrom that followed Indira Gandhi's assassination by two Sikh bodyguards in 1984. And, though the commission had no legal locus standi, its findings succeeded in confirming to a disbelieving public the involvement of police officers and senior Congress politicians in inciting India's worst ever riots.
Sikri was born in Lahore (then in India) in 1908, the son of an eminent doctor, and after graduating from Government College, Lahore, he went to Trinity Hall, Cambridge. In 1929 he was called to the Bar at Lincoln's Inn and returned home a year later to practise as one of the youngest criminal lawyers at the Lahore High Court in 1930. In 1947 he was asked to advise independent India's government on the dispute over sharing the Indus river waters with the newly created Pakistan. He was appointed Advocate General of Punjab in 1951 and was the first ever to be elevated directly to the Supreme Court in 1964. He became India's 13th Chief Justice in 1971 and retained the ascendancy of the Supreme Court until he retired in 1973.
Shy and unassuming, Sikri was a charming and quietly humorous person, passionately fond of golf which he doggedly continued to play for years despite a debilitating ailment. A formidable tennis player - he was a Cambridge blue - he once had one of his wrists specially broken and re-set to gain greater flexibility and went on to win several local championships in India and abroad.