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‘Listen to My Case! When Women Approach the Courts of Tamil Nadu’ review: Stories about women who fought against the system in court

Approaching courts is a daunting and frightening process for most people. For women it is harder since it is fraught with difficulties as they may have no support most of the time. And when women do so, despite these hurdles, they have to be applauded.

The book, Listen to my Case!, narrates the stories of 20 such courageous women and their interface with the courts in Tamil Nadu primarily the Madras High Court. Justice Chandru takes out their voices from dusty law journals and brings to life the women, who fought the system, sometimes successfully, sometimes with no success but always with great courage.

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Innovative handling

There is the story of Muhabath Beevi who was arrested in the early hours of the morning on a complaint of dowry. She was not permitted to change her clothes and was not informed of the reasons for her arrest. The court found the police officer who arrested her guilty of contempt having violated the D.K. Basu guidelines. However, instead of punitive action which would have served no purpose to Muhabath Beevi and would have resulted in the officer losing her job, the court in a very innovative manner asked the officer whether she was willing to apologise. The officer did so and Beevi accepted the apology.

Or take the case of an intrepid grandmother Janaki, a senior citizen who lived in the by lanes of Kumbakonam where she had two steps on the street that led to her house. All houses on her road were built two feet above street level. Quoting a High Court order that directed all encroachments to be demolished, the Municipality held that these steps were an encroachment and promptly removed them. Fearing that she would be a virtual prisoner and will not be able to come out of her house, she wrote a postcard to the High Court which was treated as a writ petition. Holding that the act of the Municipality was malicious and petty the court ordered the steps to be rebuilt.

Many voices

With moral policing and ‘cultural’ vigilantism on the rise, the story of Umadevi, an Anganwadi worker, is worth narrating. Umadevi was 35 years old and Krishnan, a headmaster of an elementary school, was 51. They were planning to get married. While travelling, they stayed in a hotel which was raided by the police under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act. Showing absolute non-application of mind, the magistrate remanded them to custody. Their pictures were flashed in local papers as persons arrested on charges of ‘prostitution’ thanks to the police. They lost their jobs and were ostracised by their family members and neighbours. Umadevi remained unfazed and challenged her termination. The child welfare officer argued that being unmarried she was staying with a man in a lodge and was arrested under the Immoral Traffic (Prevention) Act and hence her services were terminated. The High Court severely reprimanded the police officers holding that no criminal act can be alleged against two consenting individuals. It further restored both Umadevi and Krishnan in service with full back wages.

The cases are varied. They range from custodial death, police excesses and sexual violence to the right to practise religion, the right to livelihood and the right to life, choice and dignity. The personal journeys of the women, their demands, hopes and despairs are skillfully narrated and in the process our understanding of justice gets enriched.

Most of the stories are from judgments delivered by the author when he was a judge of the Madras High Court.

It is an extremely moving book and a must-read to understand the voices of women who approach the legal system.

It also shows how application of various laws can be done in an imaginative and dynamic manner.

Listen to My Case! When Women Approach the Courts of Tamil Nadu; Justice K. Chandru, LeftWord Books, ₹195.

The reviewer is an advocate at the Madras High Court.

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Printable version | May 19, 2021 9:20:01 AM |

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