Tamil superstar Suriya's entry scene in 'Jai Bhim'—where he plays the role of advocate K Chandru, he later became a Madras High Court judge—begins with a close-up of a fist raised up in the air. This was possibly reminiscent of Justice Chandru's quest for justice -- whether as a student activist, a lawyer, senior advocate, or as a judge.
Justice Chandru said that while 'Jai Bhim', the film that is receiving many accolades, portrays a real incident, some parts have been omitted due to the "fear of the censor board".
The student activist-turned judge believes that it was the many roles that he has played in his life that have helped him expand his understanding of society and its deep-rooted problems. "Today I work for the cause with which I was associated over the years and it gives me immense pleasure because I am not constrained by any of the restrictions attached to my earlier office or my profession," he told BOOM in an interview.
What Justice Chandru perhaps hadn't imagined was that his work as a lawyer would be occupying hundreds of screens nearly thirty years later.
'Jai Bhim', the courtroom drama that was released on November 2 on streaming platform Amazon Prime is based on a 1993 case about a tribal woman's fight to find her missing husband Rajakannu. At a time when the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) debates whether human rights are a "stumbling block in fighting evils like terrorism and Naxalism" or Tamil Nadu police is facing heat in the custodial death case of a father-son P Jayaraj and Bennicks, the movie has taken the country by a storm. In the current political scenario in India, 'Jai Bhim' highlights the human rights violations that have been existing in the country.
The film captures the fight of a 42-year-old lawyer who fought the habeas corpus case for R Parvathy—or Sengini (played by Lijomol Jose) as she is known in the film. Rajakannu was picked up by the Tamil Nadu police on suspicion of theft before he went 'missing'. It was subsequently found that Rajakannu did not escape custody as endorsed by the police; he succumbed to his injuries sustained from custodial torture.
The almost three-hour-long film unflinchingly portrays Parvathy's extreme poverty and her long and difficult road to justice. The custodial torture scenes are brutal to watch.
"Justice Chandru did not hesitate to call a spade a spade. This made him stand out as a lawyer and he made his mark at a very young age," advocate Nagasaila told BOOM. Nagasaila worked with Justice Chandru as his junior, when he was a lawyer.
Chandru's 1994 win in the landmark habeas corpus case before the Madras High Court was the first step towards justice. R Parvathy's plea led to the registration of an FIR in this case and compensation for her family. The high court battle portrayed in the film is just a portion of the real story. It's the beginning. "The actual battle began when the matter went back to the district court for trial," advocate Nagasaila said.
What Really Happened In The Case?
In 1994, on Madras High Court's directions, the Crime Branch of the Tamil Nadu Police registered an FIR to investigate Rajakannu's custodial death. A decade later, in 2004 a special fast track court convicted three and acquitted three. Two years after that the high court partly upheld the trial court's verdict. 'Jai Bhim', the movie showcases Parvathy's struggle from March 20, 1993 – the day her husband was arrested, till August 1, 1994 when the high court gave its verdict.
The film is not far from reality. Speaking about the cinematic license taken by the film's writer, Justice Chandru said, "Hardly 5% of the film relating to the lock-up death case would have been modified."
"It's not a crime thriller and not a documentary on the case," Justice Chandru said.
Justice Chandru said that though the film is based on Rajakannu's story, the director has taken creative liberty with certain facts. For example, Rajakannu who belonged to the Kuruva tribe was shown as belonging to the larger Irular tribe. In real life, Parvathy has four kids as opposed to Sengini's two.
In a scene in the film, a second lady—Raja Kannu's sister—is seen facing torture at the hands of the police in the lock-up. At one point, she is seen wearing only a blouse—without a sari or a petticoat. "The police went to the extent of stripping the son and his mother naked. Then they were forced to hug. It was a horrible incident," said Justice Chandru, narrating the details of the incident.
However, it was not shown to the complete extent in the film, because, as Justice Chandru said, "fearing the censor board and also not to affect the sensibilities of viewers."
The 'Radical' Politics Of Justice Chandru
Justice K Chandru, who hails from Srirangam in Tiruchirappalli District of Tamil Nadu, has been an activist almost all of his adult life. As a student, he was expelled from Chennai's Loyola College for leading student agitations. He then completed his graduation from Madras Christian College.
In law school, he was given a hostel seat—denied to him on account of his political activities—after he went on an indefinite fast.
In 2006, Justice Chandru was appointed as an additional judge at the Madras High Court and became a permanent judge three years later. One of the most prolific judges, Justice Chandru delivered 96,000 verdicts, averaging 75 cases a day through his tenure.
Justice Chandru fought against caste discrimination and championed the poor as a lawyer and later as a judge. Securing employment for 25,000 women in the mid-day meal scheme is one of his landmark verdicts.
Justice Chandru shed the red beacon assigned to public officials, did away with the custom of being called 'My Lord' in court, declined an offer for the customary farewell party upon his retirement on March 8, 2014 and after completing work on his last day took the metro home.
"He was very active in the trade union movement. He was a labour lawyer and having been shaped by radical political movements, he was very political in his advocacy in courts," advocate Nagasaila said.
She said that once Justice Chandru was convinced about a cause, he was not afraid to be vocal about it even if it meant going against the establishment. In fact, it was his vocal opposition to the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka which was contrary to the stand of the CPI( M) which resulted in his expulsion from the party.
"As a lawyer, Chandru led many lawyers' agitations and court boycotts. However later as a judge, he authored a judgement holding that lawyers should not boycott courts. The change in his position may also have been on account of the fact that over the years, court boycotts have become an over-used weapon that became counter-productive," she added.
Also Read: Explained: What is Article 32?
The 'Sanctity' Of Habeas Corpus
In 'Jai Bhim', the police show extreme brutality -- in one scene they sprinkle chili powder in the eyes of two unconscious men to ascertain whether they are dead or alive. "Rajakannu's case is a typical case. Custodial deaths happen very often. Very often the police indulge in the torture of the accused when there is a direct monetary benefit for them from the complainant, especially if the accused is from an underprivileged background with no support," Nagasaila said.
Rajakannu, who died in a police lock-up did not belong to Irular Tribe, but rather belonged to the Kurava community which is yet to be declared as an ST community, Justice Chandru told Livelaw in an interview.
"The problem faced by the tribal was many folds," Justice Chandru said. "Even in the non-tribal areas, there are innumerable hardships faced by the tribal people and they do not come within the inclusive society. Many of them do not have shelter, land for cultivation, PDS, voting rights etc. Many of them are kept as bonded labours. The atrocities committed by the police and forest department go unchecked. It is both an institutional as well as a societal problem," he said. "We don't even accept as part of our society," he added.
Justice Chandru said, "in their anxiety to control the tribals", the British introduced the Criminal Tribes Act, 1871 by which every major men of the tribe were considered as a potential criminal.
"It was a long struggle. The ensuing campaign saw the repeal of the said act but things did not improve. The De Notified Tribes (DNT) continue to be treated as criminals by the police and that is shown in the first scene of the film itself," Justice Chandru said.
The Indian government repealed the Criminal Tribes Act on August 31, 1952. However, this was simply replaced by the Habitual Offenders Act, 1952.
On the issue of habeas corpus cases, Justice Chandru rued that "of late we are going in a reverse direction."
A writ under Habeas Corpus—a Latin term that literally means "you may have the body"—"requires a person under arrest or illegal detention to be brought before a judge or into court, especially to secure the person's release unless lawful grounds are shown for their detention". A habeas corpus plea is considered to be one of the most significant tools for individual freedom.
"Even the traditional habeas corpus petitions are not heard on time and many a time they become infructuous because the detenues come out after the expiry of the detention period," he said.
"No sense of urgency is shown," Justice Chandru said referring to the "classic case of detenues from Jammu and Kashmir" whose habeas corpus petitions are kept pending by the Supreme Court. The habeas corpus cases filed by the kin of those political leaders who were detained after the August 5, 2019 abrogation of Jammu and Kashmir were left pending by the Supreme Court and were only disposed off after their protracted release rendering the plea infructuous.
"This is neither good for the judiciary nor for a constitutional democracy," he said.
Updated On: 2021-11-11T13:24:36+05:30