The first thing you notice about Konakuppakatil Balakrishnan, the Chief Justice of India, is his size: barely 5ft tall. But his diminutive stature is compensated for by a towering intellect.
The 37th Chief Justice since India achieved independence in 1947 has certainly needed that to achieve his present position. Born into a poor, low caste family of Dalits – formerly known as the untouchables – his industrious parents could never have imagined that their son would become the first lower caste Chief Justice in India’s history – a feat he achieved at the beginning of this year. They were Pulayar, a scheduled Dalit caste among the lowest of all castes in the ancient hereditary system. There are approximately 250 million Dalits in India and, despite being outlawed 60 years ago, the Indian caste system remains a stubborn anachronism in a globalised world. Balakrishnan is therefore an important symbol of change.
His father, a judicial clerk in the state of Kerala, was the first in the family to graduate from school – despite serious obstacles. And Balakrishnan had similar educational challenges, not least a six-mile round-trip walking to and from school each day. He feels that his appointment is “important for India” as modern and traditional forces struggle to reconcile the country’s fast-growing economy and large, skilled workforce with widespread poverty and social conservatism.