Sunday, March 8, 2009

A Lament for democracy

A letter from a lawyer…

February 19th was the start of the worst crisis this Bar has seen so far.
It has also been the start of a phase of never-before-seen unity amongst
the Bar. Let us face it, it also has shocked us to see the lack of public and media support we have……………………………………………………….

Yet, the cause we are fighting for is one of the fundamentals that keep a
democracy vibrant. For those amongst the public who talk of degradation of
values and “advocates hooliganism”, we ask the Citizenry – and do not
think ‘Citizenry’ comprises of just the well connected amongst you, who
can pick up your phones and call a bureaucrat or a political player to
help you when you are in trouble, but the real ‘Citizenry’, the common man
who has no bureaucratic or political god-fathers – we ask you to sit back
and think if any of you have ever been able to walk into a police station
and come out with your dignity intact; we ask you to think of those times
you felt helpless when the government of the day wanted to take your
Marina beach and make it into a government building; we ask you to think
of those times when your kids or maidservants families have been picked up
for “questioning” and detained without an arrest for days together; we ask
you to think of house demolition notices with 24 hours notice; cricket
matches being held under huge wasteful wattage when your kids do not have
the electricity to study for her exams; all your hard saved money
invested in a small one-ground property somewhere which takes the fancy of
the local politician who sends his men to squat on your property; of women
visiting their husbands in jail being raped by the custodians – we ask you
to think of those of us who have worn the black robes to keep asking the
government questions, to challenge them into positive action, to ensure
that power never becomes absolute because while power itself corrupts, god
save us from a situation where absolute power corrupts absolutely.

This is not an appeal for your sympathy for the cause we are fighting for
– we can’t blame you for thinking it is “the lawyers cause’ – yes, it is
difficult to think independently when leading Chennai newspapers actively
and aggressively followed a “blame the lawyers” strategy. But you must
know that 6 judges of the Madras High Court were assaulted, clients who
had come to the High Court campus were beaten up, un-involved and innocent lawyers sitting inside their offices 500 metres away were beaten up, the judicial chambers were treated with contempt, the Acting Chief Justice’s
calls to the Commissioner of Police were not responded to, women lawyers
sitting inside the court halls on the second floor of the city courts were
beaten up, lawyers who went to protect the judges were beaten up – now
tell me, do you want the judges who decide your matters against the
government to decide with the fear of punishment by the government? Do you want judges to start fearing the government? And do you want lawyers to meekly submit to all the Affidavits filed by the government in your cases?

This is the Issue.

Even the Srikrishna committee report that enquired into the incident categorically finds that the Police action was excessive,
disproportionate, targeted at the entire community and not just the
miscreants. The Report says that the Police action is “utterly
despicable and needs to be roundly condemned”. The Report says “it was as
if the police force, as a body went beserk… The Police did not spare the
children’s crèche also from the hail of stones. Luckily however no child
was injured though it did traumatize some of the children in the crèche
and the ayah’s attending to them”. For some reason however, the media and
public opinion choose to read selectively the Report as though the lawyer
community is at blame.

Believe me, for those of us used to cracking those ‘lawyer jokes’ let us
think again before laughing at them. Because on 19th Feb I took a long
look at my profession and felt a deep sense of pride. I belonged to a noble cause.

Yes, there have been black sheep – pray, tell me where there have not
been? Engineers who use substandard material to build bridges that
collapse, doctors involved in sex rackets and organ-stealing, teachers
involved in child abuse, bureaucrats who push the files that help people
siphon off constituency funds, policemen who gangrape and collect hafta,
bankers who give away public money to the undeserving business and never
collect it back, chartered accountants who cause investors to lose money
on a Satyam scam, stock brokers who can ruin families with their scams,
NGO’s who use the pretence of public work to route in foreign money with
an agenda; politicians who whip up mass hysteria for votes – tell me,
where do you not have black sheep and degradation? And yes, we do need to
clean up our act and set our own house in order, just like most
professions do.

Can we therefore condemn the entire class of those professions and beat them up? Now, that has been what has happened – “let us teach these
lawyers and judges and the entire legal system a lesson” – with this
agenda some men in uniform, and ordered by some politician, targeted an
entire community. And like the Germans watched on while the Holocaust
happened – are you sitting back and watching?

Remember, somebody had said – “when they came to get someone down the
street, I just watched; when they came to get my neighbour, I just
watched; then they came to get me….”

Remember Emergency has happened – in this very county – not too long ago.
Remember democracy requires you to protect your judicial institutions –
because that is the check and balance that ensures that absolute power
does not corrupt absolutely.


Elizabeth Seshadri

1 comment:

  1. Elizabeth Seshadri wrote:

    > we do need to clean up our act and set our own house in order,
    > just like most professions do.

    A brief list of things to be done, in no particular order:

    * The legal fraternity could not have remained a mute spectator to reports of mass graves, abominable cruelty and shocking injustice to Sri Lankan Tamils. However, lawyers expressing empathy for dying Sri Lankan Tamils have been dealt with an iron hand. Now lawyers themselves stand as victims and need justice and vindication.

    Gandhi said: "I have learnt through bitter experience the one supreme lesson to conserve my anger, and as heat conserved is transmuted into energy, even so our anger controlled can be transmuted into a power which can move the world". We should also remember that he said, "Nonviolence and cowardice go ill together. I can imagine a fully armed man to be at heart a coward. Possession of arms implies an element of fear, if not cowardice." He declared "strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from indomitable will."

    We should seek to explore and exhaust remedies available under domestic and international law to end the genocide and strife in Sri Lanka.

    The greatest promise of courts is that they offer to settle disputes peacefully by doing justice. Quick justice should be rendered to injured lawyers, court staff and other members of the public.

    * Sri A.S.P. Iyer, Retd. Judge of the Madras High Court, wrote, "Judges wear black coats and gowns with four sleeves and white bands for civil work. The two extra sleeves are in imitation of Perumal (Mahapurusha) and his chaturbhujam (four arms)." The demons who defiled our temple of justice and attacked our gods should be punished for contempt brevi manu.

    * We need to introduce medium and vendor neutral citations to make efficient use of judgments published online. The article at is a good example of desirable standards in this direction. Resources at , etc would become more usable with citation standards.

    * Computerisation, e-governance and other attempts to introduce technology are silently killing the role of lawyers in the transition process. "Banking", "Insurance" and "Finance" solutions written by engineers and others who are not so much acquainted with law float around and that is the root cause for scams and rot.

    * Lawyers need to update technical skills and publish software to make better use of computers to improve execution of laws. The Law Commission of India in its 188th Report has made PROPOSALS FOR CONSTITUTION OF HI-TECH FAST – TRACK COMMERCIAL DIVISIONS IN HIGH COURTS
    ( and steps are afoot in that direction. The American Bar Association maintains a list of standards with regard to digital signatures at The professional bodies here need to get more involved with high technology, develop and maintain tools required for use by the legal profession. I would also request all lawyers who are conversant with software standards and tools to come forward and take an active lead in porting law to computers.

    * Under Section 29 of the Advocates Act, only advocates may practise the profession of law, but today we are witnessing the situation where all and sundry don the role. The media and press would like to try every case through its columns and editorials. Encounters are the order of the day. BIF "software packages" by those who have nothing to do with law make room for atrocious scams and scandals. The gullible public swallow all that is sold in this "free market" and ultimately end up as poor losers. We need to watch for violations and take suitable legal steps to keep the quacks and their violations under check.