How did Jai Bhim happen and how did the director come up particularly with the Raja Kannu case?
Though the habeas corpus filed by me on behalf of the wife of Raja Kannu came to an end in 1994, and I wrote about this case later in a few publications as a memorable case, it did not draw much attention then. It is only after my retirement when director T.J. Gnanavel and I travelled together to attend a book fair at Neyveli, I had described this case in detail and showed him the places where the incidents of the case took place, that he took interest in the story. Later, he also collected the documents related to the case and studied it thoroughly. Thereafter he wrote the screenplay and was planning to consider it for a film. Subsequently, Surya got interested in knowing the full story and was willing to act as the protagonist in the film, where he played the role of a lawyer. It took hard work done by the director for nearly two years to make the film successful.
How well would you compare with Surya on screen?
The screen Surya was a better Chandru than the original lawyer that he was seeking to portray for the film. If the original Chandru was known within a small circle, now the circle has become worldwide only because of the film Jai Bhim. Many of my old friends who saw the film wrote to me saying that they were seeing the old Chandru whom they knew in the film. That was a success for Surya, as he was able to recreate a lawyer who fought the case 25 years ago.
While handling the Raja Kannu case in real life, how did you overcome your emotions and handle political pressure?
There was no political pressure at any time in my handling even more serious cases in the courts. As regards emotion, we cannot go through convulsions case after case. I began my lawyer career fighting for the cases of the poor and downtrodden and each case comes with a sorrowful story. Each time when I accepted a brief, though I may want to know details of the case, I cannot drain my emotion for each case. That is the training we get over a period of time. I have seen even cases that are worse than the one shown in the film, both as a lawyer as well as a Judge and have remained calm.
Which political party or people in power supported when you were helping the tribal community people.
When the death of Raja Kannu took place in lock-up, it was the CPI (M) who conducted a demonstration in front of the RDO’s office demanding justice. It was their youth front volunteers who introduced me to the tribal woman for legal help. But at that time I was not in any political party and my connection with CPI (M) ended as early as 1988, though some of its leaders used to keep in touch with me. Even when the notice in the habeas corpus was ordered by the court calling the police to explain, I had sent a letter to the two leaders of the CPI (M) party from that area intimating them about the progress of the case though as a lawyer I was not obliged to do so.
During your college days, you were involved in political activism. Do you think your political activism helped you to be a better lawyer and later as a judge? Do you think advocates shouldn’t be politicians? How important is it for a lawyer to have political awareness?
A lawyer learns the Constitution which is called the mother law, a political document accepted by the major political players at the time of independence. Therefore, being aware of the politics behind the basic document under which the country is run is not taboo either for lawyers or for judges. At the time when we assume the office of a judgeship, we also take our oath of office to uphold the constitution without fear or favour or ill-will. Therefore our commitment is to the constitution and rule of law. I do not think that one can be without politics in the broader sense. My understanding of politics as a student activist and later as a lawyer certainly helped me to understand society better and also as a judge helped me to decide the complexity of the cases arising out of societal problems.
Is there any other story that is more inspiring than the Raja Kannu case and not told in the film Jai Bhim?
The outcome of every difficult case of the underprivileged people if it ends in some success, should always inspire. In fact, you can hear Surya telling the tribal women that he does not require any fees. Winning the case may give him a good night’s sleep, which in itself is very rewarding. Like the story in Jai Bhim, there are a number of cases conducted by me, some even portraying the most torturous of situations. Our inspiration does not come from the cases, but the realisation that the skill obtained by you has helped them to secure some minimum justice.
There are few political parties that are caste-based. What’s your take on that?
Caste-based political parties are not new to India. It is only that some have new names for registering themselves as a political party and they do not disclose it either openly or do not call themselves as such. But their actions cannot be hidden for long and soon they are identified by the caste which they represent. Even the major political parties have caste interests based upon the location of operation. Unfortunately, the Constitution of India does not prohibit the existence of those parties, and the election commission has no law to prevent such parties.
After Jai Bhim, there is a lot of news about tribes on television like celebrities, the government, and the public helping the needy? Do you think cinema influences people at large? If yes, what is your opinion about Tamil cinema stories?
Many times, films are taken from the tales of society and at times people in the society imitate the film images. It is intertwined and in Tamil Nadu, it is also integrated into society. Certainly, cinemas influence society, and that is why the government also compels the film to exhibit warnings against smoking, alcohol, etc. But such messages do not transform society. Otherwise, one good film can change the whole society. In Rambayin Kadhal, a Tamil Cinema which came in the 60s, there is a song indicating that burial grounds are the place where absolute equality between a King and pauper exists. On one occasion, in a case relating to demand for a burial ground for a particular caste, I had quoted the song in my judgment so that the point can be driven home better. Even after my directions that there should not be any caste-based reservation in burial grounds maintained by Municipalities and there must be common burial grounds everywhere, such things never happened even a decade after my judgment. Film director Amshan Kumar also produced a film “Manusangada” was produced on the very same theme and also referred to my decision in that case. But even today many scheduled caste people find difficulty in burying their dead bodies in the common burial grounds. Unless there is a societal change and full implementation of Article 17 of the Constitution abolishing untouchability in all forms becomes a reality these things will continue forever. But films like Jai Bhim have created a certain impact and I have received many messages from young people expressing their distrust and anger and also wanting to know what they can do for the upliftment of the tribal people. This certainly is the positive aspect of any film making.
How did the Jai Bhim team and the Kollywood famous couple Suriya and Jothika react to your noble work?
Their respect and friendship with me had increased considerably after the film effort was made known and the entire film crew has become close friends.
What is your advice for the aspiring lawyers?
I had always told the new lawyers that this profession does not expect them to come up with six-pack bodies, but if they keep their six-ounce brain sharp, they can do wonders. Making money is not the only goal and helping out the poor and downtrodden should be their everyday exercise.
How can the government and people contribute to the betterment of minority communities like SC, ST, and others?
If the government functions true to the letter and spirit of the Indian Constitution, more particularly the fundamental rights and directive principles of state policy enshrined in Part III and Part IV of the Constitution, the hitherto neglected Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes can advance faster and the discrimination and inequality faced by them can disappear.
What are your future plans?
I had retired in 2013 and it is more than eight years since then. What I was doing in the last eight years, I will continue to keep doing. That includes community service, writing articles, answering legal questions of readers, lecturing in law schools and judicial academies.
-By Vinitha Venkatesha