Remembering VRL: The Legendary IPS Officer Who Didn’t Fear the Establishment

"It is an irony that he never rose to head the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) despite his professional competence and integrity. In fact, it was his unwillingness to compromise and bend while investigating corruption in the highest of places that cost him the coveted job."

Tributes continue to pour in for the legendary Indian Police Service (IPS) Officer and former Tamil Nadu Director General of Police, VR Lakshminarayanan (fondly known as VRL), after he passed away in the early hours of June 23 at the ripe old age of 91.

Known for his remarkable insight into criminal law, VRL had set up a practice before eventually joining the famed IPS in 1951.

Had he chosen to pursue the legal profession, he would have undoubtedly been immensely successful like his brother, Justice VR Krishna Iyer; the path-breaking jurist referred to as ‘the conscience keeper of justice in India’ who introduced many reforms to the Indian justice system.

The brothers were a unique combination.

On the one hand, you had a reformist judge, upholding and interpreting the rule of law with justice in his mind, while the other was a man of fierce integrity and competency who never shied away from enforcing the law like he did when he had arrested former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi on corruption charges.

This incident is captured in his memoir Appointments and Disappointments.

Back in 1977, Emergency had come to an end, a general election was held, and Indira Gandhi lost by a landslide to the Janata Party government, which was then led by Morarji Desai.

Abiding by the government’s orders, VRL had gone to arrest Indira Gandhi on corruption charges. At the time he was the Additional Director of the Central Bureau of Investigation.

Unafraid of the potential consequences of what may happen should she come back to power, he went ahead and performed his duty with both a sense of toughness and courtesy.

V.R. Lakshminarayanan (Source: Facebook/Balamurugan)
V.R. Lakshminarayanan (Source: Facebook/Balamurugan)

“I don’t want the rude hands of a policeman to be laid on the sacred person of a lady who was a former prime minister and who also happens to be Nehru’s daughter,” VRL told her son Rajiv Gandhi when he reached Indira Gandhi’s residence.

Upon hearing VRL’s words, Indira Gandhi came out of her room and asked, “Where are the handcuffs?”

He responded by saying, “I had served you loyally and well and got two medals from your hands for meritorious and distinguished service,” besides adding that since receiving these accolades he had since become lazy, and forgotten to bring the handcuffs with him.

VRL did his duty but was mindful of not humiliating her. However, this show of basic courtesy earned him no favours with her once she came to power in 1980.

“It is an irony that he never rose to head the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) despite his professional competence and integrity. In fact, it was his unwillingness to compromise and bend while investigating corruption in the highest of places that cost him the coveted job. Eased out from his posting as Additional Director of the CBI, he was reverted to the State Police,” recalls former CBI Director RK Raghavan, in a 2014 column for The Hindu.

However, VRL never showed an ounce of bitterness for being denied what should have been his office. Admittedly, he lost his job in the CBI, rank and the perks associated with holding its highest office, but came out of the entire situation with his sterling reputation intact.

Although he was sent back to his home cadre Tamil Nadu as a penalty of his ‘indiscretion’ (read: unwillingness to kowtow to those in power), it’s this very reputation which convinced film star of yesteryear and the then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu, MG Ramachandran to appoint him as the Director General of Police of the state.

So convinced was MGR with VRL that he didn’t even fear the fact that this appointment would deeply offend Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

“The decision to make him DGP was despite the advice of some vested interests that this would greatly offend Indira Gandhi. MGR took the plunge, obviously because he knew what mettle VRL was made of. MGR was the greater beneficiary of this ethical decision. I never gave VRL the chance of survival. But then the two men hit it off very well. This was a tribute to the greatness to both personalities, however different they were in their perceptions of law and order,” says RK Raghavan in a 2019 tribute to his mentor and friend.

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Following his retirement, many young IPS officer would seek his counsel, particularly during moments where their professional career was in jeopardy after a confrontation with those in authority.

Considering the system police officers existed in this country, VRL’s advice usually bordered on standing up for one’s principles in the face of the establishment, but without the necessity to wilfully offend anyone.

He was also known for his charity. “When he retired his pension was more than the salary he earned during his service. He felt this was not right. Hence he donated to different causes. He even donated during the Kerala floods,” says his nephew A Ranganathan, speaking to a national daily.

The objective for this distinguished IPS officer wasn’t to hurt anyone, but to stand up for one’s principles. And that is how he will always be remembered.

(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)

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