NEW DELHI, 15 January 2007 — Justice Konakuppakatil Gopinathan Balakrishnan, 61, was sworn in as the 37th chief justice of India by President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam at an impressive ceremony at Rashtrapati Bhawan yesterday. Balakrishnan is the first Dalit, the lowest in caste hierarchy in Hindu society, to hold this office. Unlike his immediate predecessor, whose term lasted less than two years, Balakrishnan’s tenure will be for three years and four months, until May 12, 2010. While outgoing Chief Justice Y.K. Sabharwal retired after a tenure of 14 months, his predecessor R.C. Lahoti held office for 17 months.
Among those who attended the ceremony were Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, Lok Sabha Speaker Somnath Chatterjee, outgoing Chief Justice Sabharwal, Supreme Court judges, several former chief justices, Congress President Sonia Gandhi and several Cabinet ministers. Balakrishnan’s mother K.M. Sarada attended the ceremony on a wheel chair. Expressing her happiness on the occasion, Sarada said: “He is getting a good position and I am very happy about it. When he was studying, he faced some difficulties but now that he has achieved this, I am very happy.”
When Balakrishnan was born in Thalayolaparambu village in Kerala’s Kottayam district on May 12, 1945, his parents had not visualized that their son would ever rise to this position. However, they tried their best to give him a good education. In a newspaper interview, Balakrishnan said: “Though my father was only a matriculate and my mother had her schooling up to the seventh standard, they wanted to give their children the best education.”
After securing a law degree in 1968, Balakrishnan began his practice in Ernakulam. He was appointed a judge in the Kerala High Court in 1985. In 1997, he was transferred to the Gujarat High Court, where he became the chief justice a year later. He assumed charge as chief justice of Madras High Court in 1999 and was appointed a judge in the Supreme Court in 2000.
Balakrishnan credits Indian democracy for his achievement. “Even if you have a lot of disabilities, you can come out of them by working hard. That is, even under our system we can come up, and that is a great thing.”
Reservation of seats in educational institutions and in government jobs did not benefit him from any angle. On this, he said: “In fact, when I joined the service, I didn’t deserve any sort of reservation. At that time, the benefit of reservation was not even available. But there were many people who helped me when the caste prejudice was at its peak.”
Asked whether there should be reservation in higher judiciary, he refrained from commenting on the issue saying these matters are likely to be challenged before courts in the future.
Balakrishnan acknowledged that prejudices related to caste hierarchy are still prevalent in the Indian system.