Jai Bhim , a Tamil film directed by TJ Gnanavel, depicting a legal drama with actor Suriya in the lead role, brings to life the struggles of Sengani, a woman from the Irula tribal community, in seeking justice.
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Rajakannu, Sengani’s husband, is nabbed by the police on false charges of theft. When he goes missing, the police claim he has fled. With the help of lawyer Chandru, played by Suriya, Sengani files a habeus corpus petition and so the story unfolds.
The film is based on true incidents from a case that took place in Vriddhachalam, dealt by Justice K Chandru in 1993 when he was practising as a lawyer. Justice Chandru, retired from the Madras High Court and who now lives in Chennai, has disposed of 96,000 cases during his tenure, a feat which he says is possible with planning, organisation and classification of cases. On average, as a judge he would listen to 75 cases a day. In this interview, he reflects on the film, the nature of truth and law as a practice.
How did you feel watching Jai Bhim ?
The first time I saw the film, I was watching like anyone else. Soon, in many of the scenes depicting the lawyer, I recognised some of my mannerisms and noticed actions and dialogues which I might have used earlier. The scenes kept reminding me of my life 30 years ago.
In the film, lawyer Chandru strongly believes that the truth will stand by his client and get her justice — it only needs to be uncovered. What is your personal experience in this matter?
In normal circumstances, the victims, or the affected people, without being tutored will tell the correct sequence of events. Only if you start adding your own masala to their story will they be confused and when confronted make a spectacle of themselves.
Therefore, when the woman came to me, I recorded whatever she said about the event leading to the disappearance of her husband and prepared my case on that basis. Later, I read out her statement and translated this into Tamil and got it verified by her. Therefore, when she was put on the witness stand, she said exactly what was in her petition without being contradicted even once by the other side.
...The odds against the poor and disadvantaged getting justice in the courts are heavy. Nevertheless, we put up a brave face against adverse weather. Even when asked how long our poor clients will withstand the tortuous litigation, we used to retort, “As long as they get justice, the fight will go on.”
Besides such bravado, we also do some background work and try to understand our limitations, and at times, have also reached compromises, which may not be fully to our satisfaction. The conviction to fight till the end comes in because even before moving the court we do solid research and only when satisfied fully, are cases filed.
People make decisions based on their perception of reality — which they believe to be the truth. If you grant that each person is not lying when they call different things “truths”, truth itself becomes multilayered…
I know truth is always relative. But that does not mean that because of its relativeness we always run after an approximation of the truth. Take the case of Sengani in the film. That her husband Rajakannu was found missing is a truth. Therefore, our pursuit was to get him back alive or dead; the term habeas corpus literally means “to produce the body”. We moved the High Court and filed a habeas corpus petition seeking for a direction to the police to produce Rajakannu; he was last seen in the police station, and therefore, the police were responsible to answer the court about his whereabouts.
It is only when the police started setting up a false case to hide their felony, the question of a pursuit to unravel the truth arose. In such circumstances truth is not an elusive term, but rather absolute. After filing the habeas corpus and recording the statement of the victim woman, I did not have any other material to prove the murder in the lock up by the police themselves. While they had full infrastructure to prop up new stories, we started our work to find out the whereabouts of the other two persons related to Rajakannu who were found missing.
There my work of lawyering stopped and the work of crime investigator started. It is only when we were able to locate those two in far off Kerala and brought them to speak about the happenings in the lock up that the second stage of the case began. It is in that sense that the truth was elusive and our pursuit of the same was rather dogmatic and necessary in an adversarial jurisdiction.
What are the things a lawyer must guard against?
I always advise young lawyers that in this profession they do not require a six-pack body but keeping the six-ounce brain sharp is necessary.
What is to be guarded against is the lure of quick money, lavish living and lack of legal literacy. You have to be doubly strong to overcome the heavy odds stacked against the deprived by the society and the State.
In the legal profession, the incubation period needed for a young lawyer to earn sufficient income is quite long. That’s why those who come from families of lawyers have a better deal than first-generation lawyers.
What did you do in the early years as a lawyer to understand people, society and the law itself?
I never even dreamt of becoming a lawyer. I was a student activist of a Left movement. After graduation, I decided to do community service and full-time political work. I travelled the length and breadth of Tamil Nadu, lived with different people and understood the plurality of our society and culture.
Thereafter, I decided to do law, mostly to continue my student politics. But during my student days, the Emergency (1975-1977) was declared and a vast majority of people were deprived of their constitutional rights. It was at that stage that I decided that law should be used as a tool for winning the rights of the people.