History & Culture

Memories of Madras - A case for the past

The legal profession of yesteryears, steeped in opulent history, had an aura that was very different from that of today. I read law at The University of Madras, and the first lesson we were taught was Fiat justitia ruat caelum — in other words, ‘May justice be done though the heavens fall.' We lived by that dictum.

We would head to the courts to listen as the cases were argued. There were two sensational cases that caught the public imagination of that time. The first of them was the C.N. Lakshmikanthan murder case. Lakshmikanthan ran a tabloid the Hindu Nesan, Nation which survived on controversial news and gossip about well-known personalities of the time. Suffice to say that he was not a very popular man. At about 10 a.m. on November 8, 1944, two men murdered him in a rickshaw that was rolling down General Collins Road, Vepery. Eight people were rounded up, including M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, the leading dramatist and film actor, and the comedian N.S. Krishnan. Eventually, they were all acquitted. What remains unexplained to this day is that even though Lakshmikanthan was conscious for almost four hours, and the accused were mostly people he knew well, he never once mentioned the name of his assailants.

The second case that had us on tenterhooks was the Aalavandar murder case, involving a man murdered by his paramour Devaki and her husband, who then consigned him to the depths of the Bay of Bengal. To their misfortune, Aalavandar's head washed ashore. There would have been no way to identify him — except for a solitary black tooth. The renowned Justice A.S.P. Iyer presided over the case, and both were convicted.

I enrolled at the Bar in 1954. Everyone would turn up in startling white trousers, black coats, and polished black shoes. We were taught that the two leaves of the bands around our necks stood for two things: Integrity and Intelligence.

We lost one of the historical traditions of our legal system in 1955 — the High Court of Sessions, where cases of murder, dacoity and rape would be heard. An accused arriving here would have to step from the van directly into a secure cell. He would then ascend a spiral staircase, which would lead straight into the dock. That entry alone was enough to create a tremor in the bravest of hearts. The judge who presided over the criminal cases would be dressed in resplendent crimson. To the right of him sat the Sheriff, in a white-laced beautiful black gown, complete with a spear in his hand; to his left, the Commissioner of Police.

An Anglo-Indian Sergeant named Woodman would, just as the court was to begin, bellow thunderously, “Oye! Oye! Oye!” And there would descend perfect stillness in the court. Those courts commanded awe, a certain reverence; there was a ceremonious dignity to it all, one that saw several accused depose the truth.

Each of the objects in the fine Indo-Saracenic structure of the Madras High Court has a story to tell. The furniture has been carved from 400 rosewood trees from a Wayanad estate, the teak was imported from Burma, and the glass panels from Italy. The entire building was completed in four years, at a cost of about Rs.13 lakh. The air-conditioning of the court, introduced after 117 years, has necessitated a false ceiling, which covers astonishing artwork.

Engraved above the head of the Chief Justice, is a pair of sagely owls. It signifies two things — to be as wise as an owl, and second, to be as blind as it is in daylight, to the affluence and status of the accused. The heads of lions were carved into the arms' ends of the Chief Justice's chair — like that of King Solomon's. I believe it vested a certain spirit in all those who sat there; we listened and judged, true always to our conscience.

JUSTICE SHANMUGHASUNDARAM MOHAN Born in 1930, he completed his Law degree from the University of Madras, and was a recipient of the Sri Muthuswamy Iyer Scholarship. He has held eminent positions in the Indian judiciary, including Advocate-General of Madras, Chief Justice of the Madras High Court, Chief Justice of the High Court of Karnataka, and Acting Governor of Karnataka. He has authored several books in English and Tamil. He retired as a Judge of the Supreme Court in 1995.

I REMEMBER A boy was found to have lied about his income to get a Government scholarship. When the aid was withdrawn, the boy went to court. The brilliant Justice K. Srinivasan Iyer ICS, seeing that he had high marks, said, “Throughout my educational life, I've got only third class — and today I'm a High Court Judge. This boy can become so much more!” I intervened, apologetically: “Law is not always logic, sir. For instance, I, with my gold medal, my scholarship, and my Masters' degree, have the misfortune of arguing the case before a third class judge!” He paused, smiled and said, “Mohan, you have a point there!” Anyone else would have hauled me up for contempt! In fact, these repartees kept our courts lively.

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