Anatomy of ‘justice’ in our courts – I
by Radha Rajan on 18 Nov 2010 21 Comments
On 25 May 2010, the Chennai Corporation descended in full strength on First Avenue, Sastri Nagar, Chennai - senior officials and smaller men of the Corporation, a massive bulldozer, two trucks to pick up temple debris, and a posse of policemen to deter public backlash against the Corporation. To the utter dismay of people walking along the busy main road, the Chennai Corporation shoved the bulldozer into the small roadside Chelliamman (Devi) temple and within minutes razed it to the ground. The Tamil Nadu government was using the Corporation to remove all Hindu religious symbols from Chennai’s public spaces. This followed similar demoniac exercises carried out earlier in Madurai and Coimbatore.


A few feet further down on First Avenue road, standing serenely beneath a beautiful banyan tree is a Srinivasa Perumal (Vishnu) temple. The team, knowing well that the banyan tree is protected under law, nevertheless advanced upon this temple with the bulldozer, intent only upon reducing this temple also to a pile of rubbish. Seeing the men advancing towards the temple, one auto-rickshaw driver from the stand close by telephoned the writer for help. By the time the writer could arrive on the scene, the team had already destroyed Nandi Bhagwan standing before the west-facing Shiva sannidhi and had also destroyed Sri Dakshinamurti facing south.


As news of this temple-demolishing drive spread, bhaktas of the Srinivasa Perumal temple began to gather at the spot, but were prevented by lathi-wielding policemen from approaching the temple. It was a potentially explosive situation and the police and Corporation officials knew it only too well. Sensing police unease over what could soon turn into a serious law-and-order situation, one savvy person in the crowd called upon the people to shed their fear and encircle the temple like a human wall. The bhaktas who were only waiting for someone to take the lead, rushed to encircle the temple, making it impossible for the Corporation to move in the bulldozer without having the police use force against them.


This person asked the police to back off from what was obviously an illegal action by the Chennai Corporation and then demanded of the Corporation officials if the temple had been served any notice prior to demolition. Upon being told that no notice was served and that no notice was required to be served, the person then asked the police and Corporation officials to cite the Order which authorized them to demolish temples – Government Order, High Court Order or Supreme Court Order.


Not surprisingly, no one was sure and even as some muttered Supreme Court and some others said it was High Court, some mumbled that the Chief Secretary and the Traffic police had ordered demolition of street temples. All in all a brazen move by the state government which, like every other government from the days of Nehru, was banking on Hindu inaction; the DMK government, like the AIADMK government earlier when it mounted a murderous assault on the Kanchi matham, succeeded everywhere because Hindus either lacked the courage to step forward in confrontation or because they were ignorant that the government modus operandi to remove street temples was totally illegal.


Confronted by a determined group of Hindus in Sastri Nagar, the police and Corporation officials went away, unwilling to allow the situation to spiral out of control. This group took upon itself to patrol the avenue morning and evening to make sure the demolition crew did not return to complete the job at night. Late in the evening on the same day as the group drove past the demolished temple, it was horrified to see a Bible placed under the tree, on the exact same spot where the temple had stood in the morning. The Bible was a sign of things to come. Within two days, on First Avenue, the entire platform close to the spot where the temple once stood, a row of fish stalls sprang up, all run by persons belonging to two minority religions. It does not matter that these two Abrahamic religions are waging murderous wars to the finish against each other in several parts of the world; in India they unite and turn as one against Hindus.


Caught on the back foot over their failure to issue official notice of demolition, the Chennai Corporation beat a tactical retreat; the retreat lasted five months. On the auspicious day of Saraswati Puja during Navratri, on October 16, the demolition crew arrived again at the Srinivasa Perumal Temple with the bulldozer; heeding the advice of one of the bhaktas to not perform the heinous crime of demolishing the temple on a Hindu festival day, the Corporation went back but promised to return in three days time on 20th October.


In the ensuing five month interregnum between May and October, even as a huge pile of turmeric and kumkum from the destroyed Devi temple remained under the tree, the entire platform was taken over by the state government’s fish market. Abutting the tree under which the temple had once stood, a towering wooden scaffolding was raised for political hoardings. The Tamil Nadu state government, it was clear now, was removing Hindu street temples from across the state for several reasons, all of them ignoble and anti-Hindu, not the least of which was to take over the space vacated by demolishing temples to use it for commerce and profit.


Convinced that the DMK government would continue to torment the bhaktas of the temple by sending its officials to issue oral threats of demolition, the writer decided to approach the Madras High Court for relief. What followed deserves to be described in graphic detail to drive home the point that we have created an out-of-control self-perpetuating monster in our criminal justice system whose commitment to duty, decorum and due process must be experienced first hand to be believed. For a better appreciation of what follows readers are requested to keep in mind that the writer is not a lawyer and has no legal training or background, much less any influence in any quarter in the Tamil Nadu Bar and Judiciary.


To stave off the impending threat to demolish the temple on 20th October, the writer went to the Madras High Court at 10 a.m. on Monday, 18 October, and sat with a court typist to type-set a Writ Petition (WP) challenging the government drive against street temples. This consumed two hours of the morning. It was already 12 p.m. The WP had to be filed before 2 p.m. on the 18th if it had to come up for hearing on the 19th so that the demolition could be stayed on the 20th.


The court typist then made a well-intentioned suggestion that the petition will carry weight if it were appended with photographs. Recalling that some pictures were caught on camera on the writer’s mobile phone, the writer rushed out of the court and sought out a photo studio in the vicinity. The writer appended  8 telling pictures of the demolition of the Devi temple in May, the Srinivasa Perumal temple under the Banyan tree, the government-run fish stalls and political hoardings, and submitted the bundle in the ‘filing section’ of the Madras High Court by 2 p.m.


Totally ignorant about the workings of court departments, the writer assumed in good faith that if the Writ Petition is submitted to be filed in the ‘filing section’ on time as mandated, then the personnel in the department would do the needful to ensure that it came up for hearing the next day.


The writer was warned by a good friend, a practicing lawyer in the Madurai bench of the Madras High Court, not to file a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) but to file a WP as a victim-bhakta of the temple. This warning was issued keeping in mind that all PILs have to be admitted for hearing only by the Chief Justice before a division bench in the first court. If the Chief Justice under the sway of a whimsical muse were to decide not to admit the PIL and tossed it out of court at the admission stage, the writer’s purpose to seek redress through the courts would suffer a permanent setback. The idea of the WP was therefore to get it heard by a division bench in the 2nd court where the case stood a better chance of being heard; or so the writer and her friend thought.


The next morning, when the case was not listed for hearing in the 2nd court, after running around between court clerks and unknown lawyers, none of whom could say what went wrong, the writer found out a good two hours later that the bundle of papers that formed the WP had been ‘returned’ to the petitioner (the writer) because some busybody in the filing section thought the petition sounded more like a PIL than a WP and therefore had to come up before the 1st court. After convincing the filing section that the petitioner was literate and knew the difference between a PIL and WP, the case passed muster among different tables within the filing section and at 3 p.m. on the 19th, the writer’s WP was listed for hearing on the 20th, the day the Corporation had threatened to demolish the temple.


The case passed muster in the filing section not because of the writer’s eloquence or the justness of the cause but because earlier in the day, after the writer was informed that the WP had been returned, the lawyer friend from Madurai advised the writer to ‘mention’ at the stroke of 10.30 in the morning when the court sits for the day’s work. ‘Mention for lunch motion’ in legalese is to draw the attention of the judge/judges the nature of emergency so that they may be pleased to take up the matter for hearing on the same day, post-lunch.


The general, acceptable demeanor for lawyers and all gods forbid, for ordinary citizens who enter the portals of our courts to argue their own cases without lawyers and as party-in-person, when appearing before larger-than-gods judges, is to punctuate every sentence with no fewer than a couple of dozen ‘milord’. As a case in point, let us assume that the writer has to say – The Chennai Corporation has threatened to demolish a street temple tomorrow. Request the court to take up this matter urgently for an injunction against the move.


Generally, lawyers will say the same thing as follows and always inaudibly and beneath their breath Milord, the Chennai Corporation milord has milord threatened milord to demolish milord a street temple milord in Sastri Nagar; Request milord to take up milord this matter milord urgently for injunction milord.


This was the only proper way to demonstrate to the judges that the speaker was respectful in the extreme and conscious of their majesty.  


Not given to verbal flourishes, the writer could only stand before their ‘lordships’ waiting to be seen before waiting to be heard. When the eyes of the 2nd court swiveled to look at the writer and as one imperious eyebrow lifted in question, the writer refusing to be intimidated said, “Request the court.......


“Tomorrow” – one-word staccato response.


Please, the Corporation....


‘Tomorrow’ snapped milord and tossed the bundle aside.


Milord did not care to ask what the case was about or what constituted the urgency. Seething with rage but tactically tucking her tail between her legs, the writer had to walk away to come back the next day. The only positive thing about this one-sided relationship in court on that day was that the court clerk in court 2 signed a piece of paper to the effect that the case will come up for hearing the next day; and that is why the WP passed muster in the filing section on the 19th.


On the morning of 20th October, the writer entered the court premises for the third consecutive day and stood before the judges of the 2nd court. When the case came up for hearing, the writer told the judges that the Chennai Corporation had demolished one temple and inflicted grave damages to another temple on First Avenue Sastri Nagar, that the Corporation had now let out that space for fish stalls and political hoardings and also that the Corporation had failed to adhere to the principle of due process.


With a smile bordering on the sneer, the senior judge in court 2, lolling languidly on his throne remarked, “It is easier to remove fish-stalls than it is to remove temples”. The writer had to bite her tongue before it could utter, “Then remove them; and why in ....should temples be removed at all?” Instead the writer said, “The court must ask the Corporation to tell us the justification for putting up fish-stalls and political hoardings after demolishing a Hindu temple and why was no notice given to the temples prior to demolition. Further, the Corporation is not even-handed in the execution; only Hindu temples have been demolished”.


“The temples have been removed as per Supreme Court Orders, but where is Standing Counsel”?


The judge was actually implying that once the Supreme Court issues an order then due process can be waived in the execution of the order. We know that even convicts facing death sentence are not dragged to the gallows directly from the court.


Standing Counsel (Bharatidasan) was not present in court and the second judge in the division bench told the writer kindly that the Corporation would be instructed not to move against the temple until the 26th and the case was being posted for next hearing on Tuesday, 26 October.


On Tuesday, 26 October, the writer presented herself promptly at 10.30 in the morning in court 2. When the case came up for hearing in due course, the Standing Counsel for the Chennai Corporation was absent yet again. The judges posted the case for hearing to the 28th. Another morning and four days down the drain. The writer, for several reasons, could not afford to waste so much time.


On Thursday, 28 October, for the fifth day, the writer was present in court 2 at 10.30 a.m. When the division bench took up the case bundle for hearing, Bharatidasan, the Standing Counsel for the Chennai Corporation, without allowing the writer to say a word pushed his way forward. “Milord, court 1 milord, Traffic Ramaswamy case pending milord, Supreme Court judgment on encroachments milord, binding all over India milord. Milord to transfer this case to court 1 milord”.


“Case transferred to court 1” pronounced his lordship, probably glad to have the responsibility of pronouncing a verdict on temples and illegal demolition taken out of his court.


The writer may not have existed. The judges of court 2 and the Corporation lawyer between the two of them had decided to toss the petitioner, the case and by extension Hindu temples out of court 2 and into court 1.


This time the writer was not going to slink away with tail between the legs. “I wish to register a strong protest in this court. The Standing Counsel was not present in court on two days when the case was scheduled for hearing; he comes on the third day and simply asks for the case to be transferred to another court. This petitioner has been forced to come to the court for five days and the case has not been heard even once”.


“The Corporation Standing Counsel has 100 things to do” said his lordship and turned away signalling end of conversation.


Five days down the drain, but that was of no consequence to the judges or to the Corporation Standing Counsel. Readers are asked to pause a moment to consider whether the judges or the Chennai Corporation or its Standing Counsel would have treated the minorities and their places of worship with the same casualness bordering on contempt that they had so far adopted towards the petitioner and her case.


(To be continued…)

The author is Editor,

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