Justice Hosbet Suresh, a champion of human rights

Published : June 12, 2020 19:23 IST

With the passing of Justice Hosbet Suresh (1929-2020) on June 11, the human rights movement has lost a man of conscience with a strong legal voice.

Teesta Setalvad of Citizens for Justice and Peace described him as “an extraordinary human being… whose ultimate and lasting commitment was the constitutional commitment to the common people of India”.

Justice Suresh had the human touch and the common touch and was not at all distant when dealing with the problems of the majority. It is probably this deep connect that he had with the masses and their problems that drew him to human rights work after he retired.

He was born in Hosabet, Karnataka, on July 20, 1929. After his BA from Mangalore University and his MA from the Visvesvaraya Technological University in Belgaum, he got his LLM from Bombay University. Along with his work as a practising advocate, he also taught law in a Mumbai college. In 1968 he was appointed a judge of the Bombay City Civil and Sessions Court. A decade later he was promoted to Second Additional Principal Judge of the Bombay City Civil & Sessions Court. In 1980 he chose to go back to his practice as an advocate but six years later returned to the judiciary as Additional Judge of the Bombay High Court, where, in 1987, he was appointed a permanent Judge of the Bombay High Court. He retired from the High Court in 1991.

One of his most notable judgements was in 1991 when he set aside the election of a Member of the Legislative Assembly on the grounds that he had misused religion for political reasons. Subhash Desai of the Shiv Sena and Sharad Rao of the Janata Dal were both contesting the Goregaon seat in Mumbai. Sharad Rao contested the victory. Justice Suresh in his judgment upheld this and wrote, “The moment he canvasses and appeals to the voter on the basis of his religion and thereby springs religion into politics, and politics being a concern involving masses of people, any such attempt on the part of the citizen is bound to come in conflict with an equally large number of persons on the other side who hold contrary beliefs, as regards their conscience, religion, beliefs, rights and tenets of their religion, the charge stands indicate. Therefore, section 123 (3) or section 123 (3-A) of 1951, (so also section 153-A of the Indian Penal Code), all are reasonable restrictions as against any such indulgence on the part of any citizen, if such a citizen wants to propagate religion through politics.”

But it was after his retirement that he really shone. He was regularly appointed to various commissions and tribunals to investigate injustices across the country. One of his first and most notable investigations was when the Indian People’s Human Rights Commission asked him to probe the Mumbai riots of December 1992 and January 1993. The findings published in a report called “The People’s Verdict” indicted the police and the government. Justice Suresh also testified in front of the Justice Srikrishna Commission that was appointed by the government to probe the riots.

Three years down the line he wrote another report commissioned by the Indian People’s Tribunal on the eviction of slum people. His report “Forced Evictions— An Indian People’s Tribunal Enquiry into the Brutal Demolitions of Pavement and Slum Dwellers’ Homes” documented the use of brutal and indiscriminate force against slum dwellers in Mumbai.

Justice Suresh, along with retired Justice P.B. Sawant, was a part of the Indian People’s Tribunal fact-finding team headed by retired Supreme Court judge retired Justice Krishna Iyer that examined the riots in Gujarat after the train was burnt at Godhra. Their report revealed that former State Home Minister Haren Pandya had told them that the then Chief Minister Narendra Modi had reined in the police during the riots thereby giving the rioters a free hand to burn, pillage, murder and rape victims who were primarily Muslims. Pandya was murdered the following year.

After the riots Justice Suresh was one of the drafters of a proposed law “The Prevention of Genocide and Crimes against Humanity Act 2004”. This was a proposed law on the principles of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, 1948, to which India is a signatory. The law aimed to make Ministers and government officials criminally responsible if they failed to control mass violence against any group of citizens.

He was also a part of inquiries that looked at the public food distribution system, human rights violations in the Kashmir Valley, Cauvery Waters Dispute, the disastrous effects on the environment of prawn farming on the eastern coast (this led to a ban on prawn cultivation by the Supreme Court), the death by shooting of Adivasis in Devas, Madhya Pradesh, and even an international tribunal that scrutinised food scarcity in Myanmar when it was under military rule.

A forthright critic of the judicial system, he would often tell reporters to criticise it openly but with respect and with all facts verified. Deeply disturbed after the Gujarat riots, which he plainly called a genocide, he was saddened that there was no justice. He also said that the 1984 riots in Delhi after the assassination of Indira Gandhi were a genocide on Sikhs and again expressed his sorrow at justice being delayed.

It is examples like this that leads Teesta Setalvad to say, “Ever since he retired, he has mentored thousands of human rights activists. And he has inspired judges all over the country.”

In his 60 years of public life, Justice Suresh has always been vocal against draconian laws, state repression and judicial corruption.

Many would say it was life well led. Justice Suresh, known for his quiet ways, would just have said his voice is his conscience.

He was 91 when he died very peacefully at his home in Andheri in Mumbai with his daughters by his side.

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