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Saturday, 17 October 1998

When the Law Becomes a Mischievous Ass


(Originally appeared in the 1990s in the Times of India, as published in M. D. Nalapat's book "Indutva", Har-Anand Publications, 1999)


Ten years ago, the Malayalam newspaper Mathrubhumi ran a
series about rotten apples in the Indian Union Muslim League
basket in Kerala. One of those who had been featured telephoned
the present writer-who was then the editor of the newspaper-
and warned that unless the series was withdrawn, "you will
spend all your time in the courts". On getting a laugh as a reply,
he rang off.

Weeks later, a spate of defamation cases began to get filed.
In a few months, I became familiar with courts across Kerala,
waiting for hours to catch my name—defendant so-and-so—
shouted out for me to appear before the magistrate, who would
usually give a fresh date for this ritual and move on to the next
accused, this time a rapist or a pickpocket.

One of the cases was filed in Badagara, a town in north
Kerala. Almost every month for a year, my appointments diary
would block an entire day for "appearance at Badagara". The
defamation had been the reporting of a taluk-level politician’s
fulminations against another, an act of journalistic impropriety
so gross that the editor himself—though not the reporter—had
to shamble to the dock to make appearance after appearance or
face a warrant of arrest. The Badagara sojourns ended only after
the magistrate got transferred, and the replacement took a
somewhat less apocalyptic view of the report, and excused me
from appearing. With that, the ’defamed’ individual dropped
the suit. The rash of defamation suits disappeared only after the
IUML leader—again in the columns of the Mathrubhumi—was
exposed giving dud cheques, and had to bow out of major-
league politics.

Years later, I attended another hearing, this time in the 
Supreme Court. An elderly relative had been sued for some 
property by other relatives, and after their case had, in the 
remarkably quick time of 12 years, been thrown out of the lower
courts, an appeal by the losers had been admitted in the Supreme
Court, and all property transactions by my relative stayed "till 
the matter was disposed of". As a result, even while paying taxes
on the assets, he could not sell them, nor had he the funds to 
properly maintain them. 

Finally, after years of waiting, his petition for dismissing the 
stay was to come up for a hearing. By then he was nearly 80 and 
in poor health. Chief Justice S. Mukherjee himself took up the
matter. After a glance, he ordered that the matter be listed again
after six months. Not a long time, surely, for a country with a
history going back several thousands of years. As it transpired,
both Chief justice Mukherjee and my relative died within a few
months of that order, the latter without escaping from the legal
quicksand into which he had been thrust by a suit that was, after
his death, dismissed by the Supreme Court, just as it had been
in all the lower courts. Later on, I asked some of those on the
opposing side why they had filed the case. One gave me an
honest reply, "We knew we had no case, but because legal
procedures in India take so long, we thought he would
compromise and give us something". In other words, use legal
action as an instrument of blackmail. 

Those travelling between Trivandrum and Quilon could, for
more than 10 years, see a half-finished bridge on the road to
Attingal. Work had stopped, we were told, because of a court
order. The quickest way to abort a project, evidently, was to go
to the courts and get a stay. Finally it would be seen that the 
grounds for the stay were non-existent, but by then children 
would have become grandparents. In the courts, time is a
concept akin to the vastness of space: six months is an instant.
10 years, incredible speed.

The danger in all this judicial power—to halt, to delay—is 
that in some hands it might get misused. Years ago, when just 
starting out in the newspaper profession, I visited a judge of the
Kerala High Court. Justice Namboodiripad did not call out for
handcuffs when cheekily queried about judicial corruption by a
rookie journalist. "Look, I like orange juice", he replied. "But I
can't afford to drink it except once a week, it’s too expensive.
Therefore, I often wonder how some of my brother justices can
afford to drink liquids far more expensive than orange juice, that
too every day", he added with a mischievous smile.

A democracy cannot afford official arbitrariness or lack of
accountability. Rather than reach for the bludgeon of contempt
at every comment on their shortcomings, our judicial watchdogs
need to better police—and punish—themselves. Charges of
collusion against the person who gave bail in Madras to a
notorious fugitive and that of manslaughter against the Delhi
individual who in effect ordered the execution of Rajan Pillai,
seem to be the minimum that justice warrants. Mere verbal raps
on the knuckles or transfers—the preferred mode of 'punishing'
judicial misderneanours—are not enough. More deterrent action
needs to be taken to ensure that such unconscionable anomalies
do not recur.



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