Devil’s Advocates?

Law schools are where the guardians and dispensers of justice are created and nurtured. They are then released into the legal mainstream as lawyers and judges to lord over and guard a key pillar of our democracy, namely, judiciary. But the lawlessness that was on display at Chennai’s law college proves that the foundations of that pillar are quite shaky. Indeed, if the tree can be seen in the seed, the augury is certainy ominous.

‘Law’ translates in Tamil as ‘sattam’. We will call this Sattam-Exhibit no 1. Sattam also means a wooden frame, log or stick. (Exhibit 2). Taking the law or sattam (or, Exhibit 1) into one’s own hands is an oft-used metaphor. This being Tamil Nadu, sattam in both manifestations found ample use in the hands of the students of Dr Ambedkar Law College as they went about thrashing one another in daylight. And lest I forget, besides sticks, (Exhibit 2, you got it), sickles, knives, iron irods, spades, tube-lights and sundry other weapons were liberally employed by ‘counsel’ for defence as well as offence. That the future lawyers, magistrates and judges of this land could so brazenly take all kinds of ‘sattams’ in their own hands, to use a cliche used just a few seconds back, to settle personal scores fills one with dread, for many reasons.

First to the intrinsic incongruity of their acts. If law students themselves have no faith in the law they study (or are supposed to) how can they aspire to be practitioners of that law? Again, the scene of action, the Law college, is to be regarded as a temple of learning but they had no qualms about violating its sanctity either. Had the fracas happened elsewhere, it would still be deemed ugly and unbecoming, but the battle venue makes their acts all the more vulgar. Also the ‘satta porattam’ (war of sticks, that is) happened on an examination day. It is now obvious what kind of a test many students were actually preparing for. It’s no coincidence that the exams have been put off indefinitely and all law colleges in the State closed for some days. A smart way to skip exams, the academic ones, I mean. But whatever, one can visualise what form future ‘courtroom battles’ would take if current trends continue.

Another disturbing facet to the whole imbroglio is caste. The law college is in a way a microcosm of today’s society and politics. The battle lines were on all too familiar lines. The simmering tensions between the Dalit and non-Dalit students, a pattern that is also reflected in the hostel-day scholar divide, are legion. Many students, who were in the law college to study law, not wield sattams,(you know which exhibit I am referring to) claim that the caste hostilities are being instigated by political elements outside the campus. But it is also a fact that many students themselves are inflammable on that count. The spark was only waiting to be ignited and Dr Ambedkar came in handy albeit in absentia. And it is just one episode in what looks like a sordid mega serial. The students apprehend that retaliation is in the offing and sattams, logs of wood, not law of the land, will take their own bloody course.

And not just caste, but the law college is a cauldron of all kinds of politics and affiliations characteristic of TN. Just a fortnight back, a group of students from the same law college laid siege to the Sri Lankan Deputy High Commission in Chennai. Sloganeering soon morphed into stone throwing; Eventually, after lung power within and and stones in the vicinty were exhausted, the students attacked the security post and tried to enter the premises forcibly. Property was damaged and a staff member was injured. Seventeen students, would-be lawyers, magistrates and judges, were arrested and later let out on bail. But not just students, even many lawyers all over the State are in the thick of political agitations, which often turn unsavoury and violent. The number of cases against present and prospective practioners of law is on the rise.

And there is a very sinister side to the whole bloody show. If the law students exceeded their briefs by their violent acts of commission, the police and the Law college authorities gained notoriety through their omissions. There were adequate warnings of the impending events and yet the college administration sat quiet. The police for their part were present in adequate numbers but remained stoic throughout the mayhem that lasted nearly two hours. They too had Exhibit 2 in their hands but the lathi, as it is called, was never called upon to do its lawful duty. The long arm of the law was awaiting the permission of the principal to unfold, it appears. Police insiders talk of another alibi for inaction: They did not want to be dragged into dalit politics, not just students politics, which would have been the inevitable fallout had they taken action! For this they draw upon a painful previous experience of three years vintge when they had to enter the law college hostel to disastrous consequences. Many Dalit students were then injured and the political pot promptly boiled over. Shoot or scoot, the police guns always seem to backfire! But their reluctance and even refusal to do their duty in deference to political considerations or simply out of fear is most distressing.

The day after, Law college students were demanding that the police should not enter their premises. Their demand, though untenable, speaks a lot too: One actually needs protection from those drafted to protect! And with law students and lawyers themselves often at the wrong side of the law, those sworn to defend clients become defendants themselves leaving litigants in the lurch. The macro scenario is no different with the judiciary under the darkest of clouds ever A slew of corruption exposes, a self-srving resistance to transparecy, a marked reluctance for reform, huge backlogs, administrative sloth to name a few have rendered the judicial machinery too rusted to be of any use to the common man. Rather it is most hostile to him. This when the masses actually are looking up to the judiciary for succour, having lost faith in their elected representatives. Indeed the blotting of the legal landscape at all levels would wipe out justice from a land claiming to be the repository of Dharma!

But let such lofty things be! A peril stares at us litigants: Imagine addressing the present sattam-wielders as ‘My Lord’ or ‘Your Lorship’, some time in the future! For, some of them may be wielding the hammer. To what effect, one can’t say!

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Jawahar T R