Jai Bhim, the hard-hitting Tamil film on Amazon Prime starring Suriya Sivakumar, has caught the imagination of cinegoers from around the country for its stark depiction of the justice system and how people from disadvantaged sections of society struggle to navigate it.
(Image above of Justice K Chandru on the left courtesy YouTube and the film poster for Jai Bhim on the right.)
Directed by TJ Gnanvel, the movie brings to life the story of Sengani (played by Lijomol Jose), a woman from the marginalised rural tribal community, who struggles to locate her husband Rajakannu (played by K Manikandan) falsely accused by the police of theft and escaping custody. With assistance from lawyer Chandru (played by Suriya), Sengani files a habeas corpus petition and the audience learns how Rajakannu was murdered by the police.
This film is based on true events that took place in Cuddalore district in 1993. In the original story, Rajakannu, a member of the Andai Kurumbar tribe whose main occupation was making bamboo baskets and agricultural labour, was accused of stealing jewels from a house that employed him. Based on the complaint, Rajkannu was taken into police custody.
After suffering torture at the hands of the police, Rajakannu died in custody. To cover up their crimes, the local police moved his body late into the night, disposed of it in the neighbouring Tiruchirappalli (Trichy) district and later claimed that he had escaped from custody. Rajakannu’s wife Parvathi, however, did not buy this story and sought help to locate her husband. Finally, she found a lawyer of the Madras High Court, K Chandru, who joined her quest for justice.
K Chandru, who would later on become a well-respected and popular judge in the Madras High Court, filed a habeas corpus petition in the same court. After a 13-year legal battle, the court adjudicated that this was a case of custodial death and the accused police officials were sentenced to 14 years of rigorous imprisonment for the murder of Rajakannu. In an interview with The News Minute, he recalls how the police attempted to bribe Parvathi and him during the case. Chandru responded by throwing out the suitcase of money and the police from his office.
Getting Parvathi justice for the custodial muder of her husband, however, is only one among the many incredible contributions of Justice K Chandru for the marginalised and downtrodden.
In his six and a half years as a judge of the Madras High Court, he disposed of 96,000 cases, a remarkable feat which was only possible because of his immaculate planning and organisation.
Besides incredible feats like hearing an average of 75 cases a day, he passed some landmark judgements centered on social justice which include why women can become priests in temples, that there should be a common burial ground irrespective of caste and ensuring government employees with mental health illnesses are offered protection from dismissal under Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act.
What stood out even more was his conduct as a lawyer and judge.
Contrary to the craven and avaricious image that the legal profession suffers from today, Justice Chandru was a man of modest means who dedicated his life to fight for the downtrodden.
During a 2013 interview with the legal publication Bar and Bench, he said, “Money was never a criteria. I had lived an entirely different lifestyle. My ambition was not to become a ‘5-star lawyer’.”
As a judge, he would ask lawyers not to address him as ‘My Lord’ in court as is customary. He didn’t want his arrival in court announced by a mace bearer, refused a Personal Security Officer (PSO) because he thought it had become “more of a status symbol rather than being based on any actual threat perception” and declared his personal assets on his first and last day as a judge. In fact, upon retirement, he surrendered his official vehicle and took the local train home.
Fight for Justice Starts Early
Born into a middle class orthodox family, Chandru’s life in college was a total antithesis to his personal background. A student leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), he would often lead agitations fighting for the rights of students and workers. It would get him into a lot of trouble with the authorities first at Loyola College, Chennai, from where he was expelled for leading student agitations, before eventually graduating from Christian College.
As an activist and trade unionist, he visited factories, addressed meetings with their workers, travelled all over Tamil Nadu in lorries and buses, met with families of Dalit labourers, agriculttural workers and trade union leaders, and gained invaluable experience and understanding of how the underprivileged and marginalised survived the system.
His desire to enter the legal profession was sparked by a Commission of Inquiry set up by then leader of the DMK party, M Karunanidhi, investigating the death of an Anna University student after a police lathi charge. The commission was led by an Additional Judge of the Madras High Court and Chandru appeared before him on behalf of the students.
Upon seeing how meticulously prepared Chandru was before the commission, the judge suggested to him that he should get into the legal profession. He enrolled into law college in 1973. Initially denied admission into their hostel, because of his past as a student activist, Chandru went on a hunger strike for three days before the authorities eventually relented.
During and after graduating from law school, Chandru worked for a law firm called Row & Reddy, which offered legal representation for the poor. After working there for eight years, he started his own private practice, became the youngest lawyer elected as a Member of the Bar Council of Tamil Nadu and sometime around the second half of the 1990s was nominated a Senior Advocate by the Madras High Court. In the interim (1988), he had quit the CPI (M) over differences in how the Rajiv Gandhi government handled the Tamil issue in Sri Lanka.
Justice for the People
His appointment as an Additional Judge of the Madras High Court in July 2006 was made permanent in November 2009. During his tenure as a judge, he passed a myriad of judgments which had a lasting impact on the social fabric of the state. Take his judgement in September 2008, when he directed that a woman priest be allowed to perform a pooja (prayer ceremony) in a village temple where the presiding deity is Goddess Durga. This was a total rejection of the claim put forth by the petitioner’s male cousin, who argued that he should be allowed to perform the said ‘pooja’ given that only a male member can be a priest.
“It is ironic that when the presiding deity of the temple is a Goddess, objections are being raised against a woman in performing poojas in such temples…Neither provision of law nor any scheme prohibits women from performing poojas in the said temple,” said Justice Chandru.
However, a standout judgement, is the one passed in October 2007 when he overturned the dismissal of an anganwadi worker by the Tuticorin district administration. The rationale given by the district administration was that “it will not be possible to run the ankanwadi [anganwadi] with the service of the petitioner as she is in insane medical condition”, according to court documents. She was suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, a mental health condition.
A. Tamilarasi, the petitioner, was an anganwadi worker. Court documents state that she had put in 25 years of service and also won an award from the District Collector for her “outstanding service in child care and related activities”. In her spare time, she even taught spoken English to the village children and took care of her aged parents as she remained unmarried.
Unfortunately, her father died in November 2002. With her brothers having left the house after marriage, she lived with her mother and supported her. In February 2006, she was dismissed from service altogether. After hearing the case extensively, Justice Chandru came down hard on the district administration for using a phrase like “insane medical condition” to justify her dismissal saying it does not find any place in relevant statutes.
He adds that no attempts were made to “find out about the petitioner’s condition including her family background”. More importantly, no attempt was made to “send her to the medical board for an appropriate certificate as required under the Mental Health Act, 1987”.
It took Justice Chandru some time to convince Tamilarasi that to challenge the government’s stand on her dismissal from service, she should undergo a test to determine the state of her mental health.
Despite initial refusals and after much persuasion, she got admitted into the Government Rajaji Hospital, Madurai, where she was examined by an expert team of psychiatrists. Based on their expert findings, Justice Chandru opined that “she is suffering from paranoid schizophrenic illness and all her symptoms are well controlled with drugs and she is in lucid interval”. He added, “Under the supervision of a mental health professional and effective antipsychotic drugs and mood stabilisers, she will be able to carry out official responsibility.”
Even assuming that a Government servant develops a mental illness during the course of his/her employment, Justice Chandru states quite clearly how they should be treated as per the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Fall Participation) Act, 1995. He cited Section 2(i) and Section 47 of the Disabilities Act to make his case and the precedent set by a past Supreme Court judgement (Kunal Singh v. Union of India).
The opening part of Section 47 reads: “No establishments shall dispense with, or reduce in rank, an employee who acquires a disability during his service”. As Justice Chandru notes, “Even if the petitioner was found suffering disability on account of mental illness, S. 47 of Disabilities Act makes it obligatory to provide suitable alternative employment on the same salary drawn before.”
Unfortunately, Tamilarasi didn’t live long enough to enjoy the fruits of her victory in the case. Nonetheless, her case set an important precedent that mental illness is also a disability which is protected by the legal provisions stated under the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act. Those suffering from mental health conditions are entitled to continue working in government service.
Following retirement as a judge in the Madras High Court, Justice Chandru became a very active member of civil society, writing a plethora of columns and books on the law. His latest book is ‘Listen to My Case: When Women Approach The Courts of Tamil Nadu’ published earlier this year, where he narrates the story of 20 women and their struggle for justice.
By all accounts, he has lived a remarkable life, and it’s a wonderful thing to see a mega star of Tamil cinema like Suriya taking the risk to portray an important episode of his life.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)