Monday, Jun 27, 2022

Raising The Bar

The lawyers, who constitute the Forum for Judicial Accountability, responsible for the petition against Justice Dinakaran, wanted no publicity. Characteristically, they were made the target of vicious rumours

Raising The Bar

The Justice Dinakaran case appears to the have taken a decisive turn. There is a strong feeling that he may not be elevated to the Supreme Court after all. The reports emanating from Kaverirajapuram village in Tamil Nadu, the ground zero of the controversy, in the last week has not helped the cause of the judge. Once meek and supplicant villagers are now threatening to pull down the fence and enter the judge's sprawling acres to take back their common property. With the Communist parties, farmers' and Dalit organisations getting involved in the reclamation process, there is a scent of a popular movement. This has undoubtedly checkmated the DMK government and has forced it to assume a neutral role. 

After Outlook wrote a couple of weeks ago that the allegation of land grab that were being laid at the doorstep of the judge were not being made by 'sour' upper caste members, but by repressed and landless Dalits themselves, the veneer of a caste-based defence building around the judge across the country has also slowly dissolved. After the villagers in Kaverirajapuram began to speak, it clearly turned out to be a case between a rich and empowered Dalit versus the poor, illiterate and powerless members of the same community. 

After the courts re-opened in the first week of October, following the Dussehra vacation, and an initial brazen act of holding court, Justice Dinakaran, who is currently the chief justice of the Karnataka High Court, has decided to abstain from work. One is not sure if his withdrawal is on account of his own discretion or if he has been advised to do so, until the 'discreet' enquiry ordered by the Chief Justice of India is completed. The system is too opaque to find out anything. Even as we wait for further news to trickle in, let us throw some light on the Chennai lawyers behind this extraordinary exercise of 'exposing' the honourable judge.

Focusing on the lawyers, who form part of the Forum for Judicial Accountability (FJA), is important not to create a razzamatazz in television studios and launch a new set of heroes, but to further emphasise the element of credibility, integrity and pure public interest at the heart of this institution-saving effort. In fact, the lawyers want no publicity. They refused to meet me or help me with any documents they had collected when I approached them a few weeks ago. They only spoke with some astonishment as to how the petition they had dispatched to the Supreme Court Collegium had leaked to the press. "The leak happened in Delhi and not in Chennai," was the only thing that they were willing to communicate. They wouldn't listen when I tried to reason with them that it was the media, for good or bad, which had ensured that their petition was not buried like any other reaching the portals of the SC at the time of a judge's elevation. Still, they wouldn't budge.

As is usual, and something with which journalists are all too familiar, when the petition hit the headlines in the middle of September, instead of being shocked by the charges levelled against the judge, a number of people started questioning the motive behind the lawyers submitting such a petition. In both the legal and media circles a skewed and cynical line of thinking was being established all too quickly. It simply held on to the assumption that no matter what the charges are they cannot be proved, because a man well-versed with the law would never be legally culpable. There was also this seemingly mysterious question about the timing of the petition: Why are they doing it now? Something that they did not do when he was a judge of the Madras High Court or when he was elevated as the chief justice of Karnataka. So why now? As if the delayed discovery of a problem or aborted attempts made over a period of time to build a solid case or time lost in the gathering of evidence was by itself a crime.

Then there were a number of stories, speaking with an accent of certainty, pinning down the reason for the petition. It went this way: Apparently, the prime-mover behind the petition was thrown out of the judge's court a few years ago and that person had sworn revenge, Draupadi-like in Mahabharata, and this was a manifestation of that bruised ego. Yet another tale was that this petition had been provoked by AIADMK chief J Jayalalithaa to embarrass the Karunanidhi government as well as the UPA. To create a ring of authenticity to this tale, it was also said that a couple of lawyers who were signatories to the petition had represented Jayalalithaa in her disproportionate assets case years ago. I even got a call from an unknown source saying that the judge, a few days back, had gone to the Bangalore airport to see off Tamil Nadu chief minister Karunanidhi. Complementing these tales were mythologies that the judge came from a family of landlords and the wealth he had come to acquire was not so alien after all. Needless to say, all this was unsubstantiated rubbish. But, it made me sufficiently curious to verify the antecedents of the Chennai lawyers. It had also in some sense become mandatory.

So, here's what I found about the lawyers: There were eleven signatories to the original petition printed on the letterhead of the FJA, located on Armenian Street, the road that runs perpendicular to the High Court in Chennai Parrys. R. Vaigai was the convenor of the organisation, which was started about ten years ago and inaugurated by Justice Rajinder Sachar, now well-known for his report on the socio-economic status of Muslims in India. All eleven of them were public interest lawyers, who had for a number of years represented the landless poor, minorities, hapless consumers, women and Dalits.

In fact, R Vaigai and Anna Mathew had appeared for the Dalits of Sivaganga district who were denied participation in the Kandadevi car festival and had secured a landmark judgment in their favour in 2005. Sudha Ramalingam and Nagasaila are PUCL activists. Geeta Ramaseshan has been a child rights activist. She had also led a fact-finding committee into atrocities on Sikhs in Coimbatore in 1984 after Indira Gandhi's assassination, on the basis of her report the High Court had awarded compensation to the victims. S S Vasudevan was a former regional director of Greenpeace and a legal aid activist fighting corruption. T Mohan and S Devikarani are environmental and consumer activists. Sriram Panchu, is a senior advocate and founder of the Consumer and Civic Action Group in Chennai, which has been a pioneer in the mediation programme initiated by the Madras High Court and has been a frontrunner for mediation programmes in other High Courts. 

The members of the FJA were also petitioners and counsels in the famous Justice Kannadasan case, in which the judge's appointment as president of Tamil Nadu State Consumer Commission was questioned on grounds of corruption and lack of integrity. The Madras HC had quashed the appointment of the judge and the SC, in a historic decision on 6 May 2009, had upheld it. In this case Anna Mathew, S S Vasudevan and Sudha Ramalingam were petitioners and R Vaigai, D Nagasaila, T Mohan and S Devikarani were counsel on record.

Interestingly, R Vaigai is also the daughter of P Ramamurti, the veteran Communist leader, one of the founding politburo members of the CPI(M) and a parliamentarian, whose birth anniversary was celebrated in 2008. It was Ramamurti who had filed the first ever public interest litigation in the country against the nomination of C Rajagopalachari to the Madras Legislative Council in 1952.

These assorted facts should to a very large extent erase doubts of any mala fide purpose behind the petition against Justice Dinakaran. The members of the FJA may have gone wrong on some facts, unintentionally exaggerated a few others, but have functioned by making public interest paramount. Whatever may be the outcome of their petition, it has certainly raised the integrity bar for all those who dispense justice.