'Reason For Police Indiscipline Inherent In Its Colonial Origin' : Interview With Justice Chandru, Who Inspired 'Jai Bhim' Movie

Manu Sebastian

6 Nov 2021 11:31 AM GMT

  • Reason For Police Indiscipline Inherent In Its Colonial Origin : Interview With Justice Chandru, Who Inspired Jai Bhim Movie

    "I strongly feel that leaders like Ambedkar were not exposed enough to the public and more particularly to the students. It is a pity that in law colleges they don't even give Ambedkar writings as a reading material even during pre-law days".

    The Tamil movie "Jai Bhim" is receiving rave reviews across the country for its earnest and moving portrayal of the police oppression against marginalized tribal communities. The court-room drama is based on a real life case handled by Justice K Chandru, former judge of Madras High Court, during his days as a litigating lawyer. The success of the movie has turned the spotlight on Justice...

    The Tamil movie "Jai Bhim" is receiving rave reviews across the country for its earnest and moving portrayal of the police oppression against marginalized tribal communities. The court-room drama is based on a real life case handled by Justice K Chandru, former judge of Madras High Court, during his days as a litigating lawyer. The success of the movie has turned the spotlight on Justice Chandru, who is renowned for his activism and progressive judgments.

    In this background, LiveLaw interviewed Justice Chandru, for a freewheeling discussion about many contemporary issues.

    LiveLaw : The movie is about the real life case of Rajakannu-Parvati handled by you, which involved brutal custodial death of a member of Irular tribe. Your efforts as a lawyer ensured justice to the hapless widow of Rajakannu and secured punishments for the errant police officials. But police custody torture is continuing unabated in our country. The horrific custodial murders of Jayaraj and Bennix which happened last year shook the conscience of the entire country. During the lockdown as well, we witnessed a massive rise in cases of police torture across the country. Despite several judgments and directions passed by courts to discipline the police force, why do you think police torture is continuing? What emboldens the police officials to indulge in such inhuman acts? Is there anything fundamentally and inherently wrong with our police system?

    Justice Chandru :  As shown in the beginning of the film, it was based upon the real case of the death of Rajakannu in the police lock up and he did not belong to Irular Tribe, but belong to Kurava community which is yet to be declared as a ST community. The film Director with his creative literary right converted the film having the canvas of the Irula community (ST), and the innumerable atrocities faced by them which are also similar to the crimes shown in the film. In that process he had taken the victims as being representatives of the Irula community and exposes their living style, food habits, their habitat etc., to the people who are outsiders.

    The 11 guidelines passed by the Supreme Court in D.K.Basu Vs. State of West Bengal (1997 (1) SCC 416) came to be issued regarding the rights of the pre-trial accused. In that case, the Supreme Court also gave liberty to take contempt action against the disobeying police officials and also action against the judicial magistrates who do not follow it. Even though more than 24 years have gone by, hardly anyone was hauled up for contempt.

    The reason for the indiscipline of the police force is inherent in its own colonial origin. Here in Tamil Nadu, we are still governed by Madras City Police Act of the year 1888. From maintaining law and order, they have not scientifically advance in the matter of crime detection. Even in the pre-independent days, the British had divided the country into different areas and were having different systems of administration. Added to that, they also enacted the Criminal Tribes Act under which whole lot of tribal communities were included. By this process, no crime detection is necessary, because if any offence is committed in an area all the tribal men will become suspects and those who do not surrender within 24 hours before the circle police station, he will be presumed as the accused. There was long struggle along with the independence movement for the repeal of this Act, but it came only after the country got independence. The removal of the Criminal Tribes Act did not make the tribals free from victimization. On the other hand, the denotified tribes (DNT) were continued to be the suspects in the eyes of the police for any crimes committed in their area. Only some of the denotified tribes due to their upward mobilization came to possess land, got all civic rights and became an inclusive group. On the other hand, majority of the tribes are continued to be treated as potential offenders and false cases are filed against them day in and day out. They do not have Pattas for their house sites, not included in the voter list, not included in the Public Distribution System. Due to nomadic way of life, they also do not send their children to regular schools. Employment potentials are largely in non-formal sectors. All these were beautifully brought in this film. The first scene itself, though they were released from jail, the policemen were waiting to book them in other unresolved crimes of their areas. Therefore, what is required is the attitudinal change in the police force and also using advanced scientific techniques in crime detection. More than these steps, the tribal people will have to be made part of the inclusive society and the government's system of planning must take note of their basic problems.

    LiveLaw :  Generally commercial films tend to glorify police violence as bravado. Public tend to celebrate trigger happy encounter cops, as seen in the Hyderabad encounter. "Jai Bhim" is notable in its attempt to highlight the brutal side of police violence, by giving the narration from the perspective of helpless victims. Do you think films like these will make the common public to have a more realistic understanding of the police system, and encourage them to seek more accountability from the police than celebrating their excesses as heroism?

    Justice Chandru : Certainly films like Jai Bhim will do a demystification of their understanding of the police force and the court system. The reason for encounter specialist cops being celebrated is largely due to the delay in the justice delivery system. If only there is a timely punishment of the offenders, the faith of the victims on the judiciary will increase.

    LiveLaw :  You were involved in political activism from your student days, and continued your association with left-politics during your legal practice as well. Do you think your political activism helped you as an advocate and later as a judge to understand the problems of common public in a better manner? Do you think advocates should not be apolitical? Is it important for judges to have strong political awareness?

    Justice Chandru : I was an activist with the Left movement for nearly 20 years. I had the role of a student activist, whole time worker, trade union activist and a party functionary. The experience that I had gained during this process of political activities had given me enough insight into the working of the system and gave me sufficient understanding either working as a lawyer or adorning the bench as a judge. I do not think anyone can be apolitical in a political democracy and right understanding of politics is a essential foundation for strengthening the political democracy. If a lawyer understand the politics, it will be easy for him to understand the working of law and the political machine which operates the law. Similarly, a judge who is ignorant of political situation is likely to get misled on many matters especially the background situation.

    LiveLaw : . Have the cases handled by you as a lawyer revealed any pattern in police violence cases, whereby only certain communities get targeted and become the victims? Do you think that State-sponsored violence does not operate in a vaccuum but perpetuate the existing hierarchical inequalities and social prejudices?

    Justice Chandru : The cases handled by me relating to human rights issues definitely showed the true character of the state and how much it is a violent machine. The organized violence unleashed by the uniformed forces has a definite pattern and it was to subjugate the already marginalized and vulnerable people and it will definitely perpetuate the existing inequalities and prejudices.

    LiveLaw : The movie has an interesting scene where Advocate Chandru defies a court boycott call to argue the case of a tribal youth who was unlawfully detained. The other advocates are shown as not appreciating his decision to attend the hearing. Even before the Supreme Court denounced court-boycotts , you, in 1990s, defied the boycott call to attend a court hearing. That was a bold and powerful statement by you that courts are not for lawyers but for litigants. Recently, the Supreme Court has taken serious note of this practice of court-boycotts , and has issued contempt notice to a bar association for calling for a strike. What are your thoughts in this regard? Should advocates think of alternate means for grievance redressal than court-boycotts?

    Justice Chandru : From the year 1976, the year I got enrolled I was a lawyer activist leading many of the agitations of Madras High Court lawyers. There were several court boycotts, picketing and processions organized by me. I was also an elected bar council member from 1983 to 1988. I was an office-bearer of the Madras High Court Advocates Association and also the founder secretary of labour law practitioners Association. I was the Tamil Nadu General Secretary of the All India Lawyers Union for some time.

    However, the continued boycott of courts became counter productive and also denied the rights of the litigants to move the courts even without the assistance of the lawyers. The monopoly status given to the legal profession had prevented any other social activist in moving the court on behalf of the deprived and vulnerable section of the people. After nearly two decades of practice I realized that the lawyers strikes have become counter productive and also highly tendentious and harmful to the future of the legal profession. Therefore, I publicly declare that the courts are meant for the litigants and not for lawyers. If the lawyers want their grievances to be addressed, they can also protest in other ways without closing the courts and also having recourse to law for solving their problems. This probably was not well taken by the Bar. I started appearing in courts even during the periods of court boycotts especially when there are cases relating to human rights violation. When I publicly wrote an article in Indian Express against the court boycott during the CPC amendments, I was also expelled from the Association which I was heading once. Thereafter there was no turning back. Once I filed a writ petition against the Bar Council giving the call for strike and obtained an injunction. After my elevation to the bench, one case came up before me and the Chief Justice relating to creating a standing committee to resolve the differences between the lawyers and police. The Chief Justice asked me to write the order and I extensively traced in my order the origin and the details of various boycotts conducted by the advocates of Tamil Nadu. I also formed a high level standing committee to resolve the disputes so that the boycotts can be averted.

    When I sent the judgment for the signature of the Chief Justice A.P.Shah, he after reading asked me as to where I got such minute details of the various strikes. I told him that I was the author behind those strike and the judgment I had written is a sort of reperation for my past sins. He laughed and signed the order agreeing with me. Though we had constituted a committee to resolve the dispute, till date no lawyer association ever made any complaint and the committee is only on paper.

    This metamorphosis of my thinking though was not in 1993, the director of the film wanted to show so as to register the true character of lawyer Chandru and brought in that particular scene. In the film, Surya acting as a lawyer was shown leaving the lawyers agitation place and jumping over a barricade to attend a court case of a tribal person detained. The lawyers show resentment and even shouts at him. Notwithstanding that, he attends the court and gets the order for the victim. At the same time, he was also wearing a white band in his arm which shows that the lawyer is under protest. Even as a Judge, I had refused to hear any petition filed by lawyer association during the boycott period and put the condition that unless the strike action is withdrawn, the court will not hear that case. One may become unpopular on this account that I am proud atleast a smaller section of the Bar has now realized what I have been saying for the last 25 years.

    LiveLaw : . In the movie, there is a scene where Advocate Chandru is commenting in a school function "All important leaders like Gandhi and Nehru are here. How come Ambedkar alone is not here?". It is a matter of regret that there is little discussion of Ambedkar's thoughts in our school and college syllabus, even in law colleges. Do you think it exposing students to Dr.Ambedkar at a very young age itself, can help them become better citizens with progressive thoughts and social commitment?

    I strongly feel that leaders like Ambedkar were not exposed enough to the public and more particularly to the students. The text books shows him in a slanted manner and most of the people understand him as a leader of the scheduled caste and not as the architect of the Indian Constitution. In order to change this slant history, one must expose him to the school children in an objective manner. I myself after reading the selected works of Dr.Ambedkar got many new ideas and was able to use it whenever any case relating to religion and caste came up before me. After my retirement, I gathered these cases and wrote a book on the background of these cases and titled the book as "My Judgments in the light of Ambedkar". It is a pity that in law colleges they don't even give Ambedkar writings as a reading material even during pre-law days.

    LiveLaw : In the Rajakannu case, you helped the establishment of a new precedent in habeas corpus jurisdiction, by persuading the high court to permit cross-examination of witnesses. You cited the Kerala High Court's precedent in Rajan case. This case showed the power of habeas corpus jurisdiction in securing the most cherished fundamental right to personal liberty. However, of late, we witness a recurring trend of Court's declining habeas corpus jurisdiction citing technicalities. In the Kashmir habeas cases, we saw even the Supreme Court abdicating its role. What are your thoughts regarding this?

    Justice Chandru : Habeas Corpus is one of the potential weapons in the hands of the common man who when oppressed either by the state or by any vested interest can use it to secure freedom from confinement. The concept of habeas corpus has been widened, thanks to the expansive interpretation given by Justice Krishna Iyer. A look at Sunil Batra II case will show that the habeas corpus can be used not only for releasing some body under forced confinement, even for jail reforms, prisoners conditions habeas corpus can be an answer. Unfortunately, after such expansive interpretations done during early 80s by eminent jurists like Krishna Iyer, Chinnappa Reddy, even after 40 years people are made to struggle to get orders from courts. The recent experience from people who are detained under the Kashmir Security Act, even the Supreme Court was dithering to pass orders and delaying matters without any quick solution. Mehbooba's daughter had to seek permission from the Supreme Court to visit her mother in Srinagar. The CPM leader Sitaram Yechuri had to get permission in the court to meet his party MLA Tarigami. Many of the cases from J & K are yet to be heard by the highest court in this country. All this reduced the Habeas Corpus petitions potency and its efficacy in delivering justice.

    LiveLaw : In a subtle manner, the movie highlights the motto of Ambedkar "Educate, Organize and Agitate". But these days, we are witnessing a shrinking space for expressing dissent, with more clampdown on NGOs and protest movements. The case of Rajakannu reached you through social activists only. But 'activism' is seen as a dangerous activity these days, and we see invocation of sedition and UAPA against social activists. What are your thoughts regarding this?

    Justice Chandru :
    The detention of 13 intellectuals under UAPA in the Bima Koregan case for the last 3 years has really shown the weakness of the judicial system and the might of the despotic government. The movie portraying the famous quotation of Ambedkar "Educate, Organise and Agitate" is only to emphasize that the Scheduled caste and Scheduled Tribe people to become literates so that their self-respect and dignity is guaranteed. That was why the Tribal woman in the first phase of the film instead of signing the court petition was shown as affixing her thumb impression. On the contrary, at the end of the film, her daughter confidently perched on a chair in front of the lawyer and reading a newspaper. The message was that such people are getting educated after realizing that only by literacy they could advance. But the problem in our country is it is the highly educated literates who are failing the nation by either their indifference or by acquisence to the state's despotic actions.

    LiveLaw : We have published a review of the movie, which was written by a law student. We are getting messages by several law students saying that they feel inspired to take up litigation and help the downtrodden, after seeing your story on screen. Do you have any message for them?

    Justice Chandru : I am glad that apart from the storyline of the movie, and after seeing the protagonist lawyer successful in courts, there are many youngsters who want to take law practice seriously. I also heard from neighbourhood school final students that they are going to join law school next year. My only message to the young lawyers is that they must get trained thoroughly and use the skill for the betterment of the underprivileged.

    Read the 2013 interview of Justice Chandru here : Justice Speaking: Justice Katju opposed my elevation says Justice K Chandru

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