Visually challenged lawyer S.Sukumaran shows what it takes to champion the rights of the innocent, writes SOMA BASU
B eing a lawyer is tough enough. And practicing the profession when you can't see your clients is even tougher. But when the lawyer is courageous S. Sukumaran, on an arduous journey of ensuring equality and justice, colleagues and friends, acquaintances and family, who have watched and known him for years, say they almost don't realise that he is blind.
And he is quick to add: “I am not a blind lawyer. I am a lawyer who just happens to be blind. In my three decades of practice I have never felt that I have done a case so far where not being able to see was a hurdle.”
And that sets the tone for a rapid fire session with the recently appointed first-ever visually handicapped Senior Panel Counsel, Government of India, Madurai Bench of Madras High Court.
The Union Minister for Law and Justice, Mr.Veerappa Moily, apparently, handpicked Sukumaran for the post. The order came on October 24 and ever since he has been coping with congratulatory messages and compliments. “It is an honour for the Temple City,” say his well wishers.
Brushing aside all praise, he says, “I don't treat legal profession as a means to acquire wealth or status. I work only for the welfare of the people with a true heart and am bothered only about justice and saving the common man from problems.”
A freak accident led to loss of vision in this Periyakulam born boy. As a B.Com student at Raja's College in Pudukkottai in 1970, he was leading a demonstration protesting the abolition of English medium in Government colleges when he got hurt in the ensuing melee. His optic nerve got cut setting in gradual deterioration in his vision and by the turn of the new millennium he completely lost his eye sight.
Somehow, the impending gloom post-injury never scared Sukumaran. This son of a retired railway officer, was bold enough to enrol himself at the Madurai Law College from 1974-77.
Deeply influenced by Mahatma Gandhi and Kamaraj, this “adopted son” of T.P.Meenakshi Sundaram, the first Vice Chancellor of Madurai Kamaraj University, started his career in a different way – by providing legal aid to poor and the downtrodden, with no money or means to fight their case.
From 1982 to 1995, Sukumaran fought hundreds of litigations free of cost for the unauthorised sector including construction workers, drivers, horse-riders, farm workers who were exploited in and around Kodaikanal. Failing health curbed his visits to the hills and he restricted himself within the city limits thereafter.
Having taken up over 1000 civil to crime cases, Sukumaran feels more than 90 per cent of the cases can be settled by simply explaining and convincing out of court instead of arguing inside.
“It takes money and years to resolve a case with no guarantee of a favourable result. People come with one problem but end up with multiple. Humane approach, conscience and values are most essential for any professional but there is lot of corruption these days. Everybody tries to extract mileage out of a troubled person. The mindset needs to change,” he says and shares that he speaks like this in the Bar too and yet is popular and respected.
“This means there are people who realise the need for a change but are not bold enough,” he adds. On his part Sukumaran organises regular meetings of lawyers and law students, who come to him in hordes for tips and advice, to evoke feelings of patriotism in them.
He sees the need for pressing human rights as an issue and whether his client today is big or small, he still charges minimal fee because his basic concern is to safeguard the interest of the common people.
“He is one person who cannot be fooled, purchased or hijacked. He has the guts to turn down even VIP and rich clients if he smells anything foul and sides with whom he finds exploited,” say those who know him well.
“In whatever way possible, I want to live for others. Somebody has to rectify the wrong doings. There is no need to amend Acts but mindset of the people needs to change,” Sukumaran adds vehemently.
But how does he do his job? “By getting help from family and friends and you adapt,” he smiles, adding that technology has also eased his work somewhat.
During the past 40 years of blindness, he has fine-tuned his other senses to the point where he often “sees”' more than those who have perfect vision.
Endowed with an exceptional photographic memory, he has all High Court judgements read out to him by friends and remembers them precisely, he easily recalls what witnesses say and argues only in Tamil. He moves around as a pillion rider with a friend. He frequently quotes from the Gita and practises high values in life.
“I am simply living life with the hand I have been dealt with. Sometimes I wonder whether I am handicapped or those around me because it is worse to have sight and not see than to not have sight and be able to see.”
Surely, it is rare to come across a lawyer like S.Sukumaran. It can be tough fighting for credibility when you can't see. But Sukumaran has won his battles and proves it needs his kind of capacity, competence and determination to cross over bumps along the way.
(Making a difference is a fortnightly column about ordinary people and events that leave an extraordinary impact on us. Email to email@example.com to tell about someone you know who is making a difference)