Exclusive interview: Justice Chandru on why our Constitution matters

Justice Chandru discusses the draconian laws doing the rounds, political movements and why in today’s climate especially the Constitution is highly valuable.

Hyderabad: On December 18, Justice K Chandru – the high court judge popularized by the movie Jai Bhim—was supposed to attend the movie screening followed by a Q and A at the University of Hyderabad.

Unsurprisingly, the university administration was unwilling to allow the event to take place at the Amphitheatre on campus. As a result, the event was shifted to the main gate of the university. When asked about the same, Justice Chandru chuckled and mentioned that the hostility could have been because he was “a part of the independent tribunal investigating Rohit Vemula’s suicide.”

Siasat.com sat down with Justice Chandru for an interview to discuss the draconian laws doing the rounds, political movements and why in today’s climate especially the Constitution is highly valuable.

Excerpts from the interview:

Considering the conversation on student activists and their freedom, could you speak on Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act from your experience? Umar Khalid and Sharjeel Imam are still in jail because of it.

Before one discusses UAPA, it is important to look at Terrorism and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act which came into existence in 1985 to curb the Khalistan movement. There was fear in other parts of the country that the same Act would be used elsewhere to curb dissent. Sure enough, the re-enacted act of 1987 was applicable to the whole of India.

In Tamil Nadu, I witnessed the misuse of TADA / POTA in Jayalalitha’s reign. When after strong resistance for misuse of TADA, the same was withdrawn by the government, only later to be brought in the new form of Prevention of Terrorism Act, 2002. Jayalalitha did not have any qualms to apply POTA against all political enemies. P.Nedumaran (a leader Tamil Nationalist Party) and Vaiko (a Member of Parliament of DMK party) and their followers were arrested.

Nedumaran had spoken in favour of LTTE for which he was implicated. After hearing our arguments that a mere speech in support of a terrorist outfit by itself will not become a terrorist offence under POTA, the police had planted a gelatin box in Nedumaran’sparty secretary’s house to implicate him. The idea was to show that it was mere speech, but also certain actions to disrupt public order. It took for 13 years for Paranthaman to prove that the box was planted and that the so called confession was fabricated one.

This was back in a time when planting evidence was difficult. It is easier today. One does not have to adopt a scientific investigation. We have a Pegasus spyware. If you fought enemies in open war, people could retaliate. But when you resort to cyber attacks which are difficult to grasp, no intellectual will speak.
However, TADA and even POTA were condemned back then. UAPA which is far more draconian hasn’t been condemned owing to fear. Fear was the reason Stan Swamy didn’t get a straw. With a law like this, the officials aren’t compelled to work in a particular time frame and everyone is uncertain about the truthhood of the case.

Even I had to deal with being viewed as a terrorist lawyer because I took up so many cases of this nature which put some pressure on my family. Being a “terrorist lawyer”, means you will face social exclusion and isolation even in the bar.

The point is simple. When you make a draconian law (like UAPA), the vagaries of delay is itself punishment. Such laws are easy to enact. But the darker the provisions, the more difficult to prove its merit. A Superintendent of police could well extract a confession or plant evidence because he wants to do away with crime in his jurisdiction.

The students in Nagaland have been protesting against the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) since the last few days after 13 people were killed in Mon district. This is hardly a new occurrence. Student activists (among other groups) in Nagaland and Kashmir and elsewhere have been affected because of this act. Could you speak about the legal framework of the same?

Pre-independence the British had a policy of ruling border areas and they operated on a simple principle that the “border people” cannot be trusted. But in any democracy people matter. The government cannot on one hand say that they accept these territories but rule them by giving blank powers to the army.

The argument which would be made is that these are “conflict areas” and hence the army needs power.

This is a spurious argument. Then how will they explain controlling the so calledred corridors in Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Telangana also with the para-military forces. Targeting border states with the use of AFSPA is a real assault on the democratic process. In the case of Nandini Sundar v State of Chattisgarh (2011), where Salwa Judum was held to be unlawful and state cannot arm the individuals to protect itself. The army cannot be put above everything and one cannot say that the army is not subject to scrutiny.

How do you deal with the contradictions between the Left and Ambedkarite philosophy as someone who has been very closely molded by both?

I have been a part of the Left movement for twenty years since my student days. However, Marxism is not enough to understand caste. In an oriental society like ours, caste is a phenomena and it has a structure. Reporters time and again asked me what my caste was. But saying that one is a Shudra doesn’t suffice as within that caste, there are again oppressors and oppressed.

So Dr Ambedkar, helped me understand caste. I wrote a book titled My judgments in the light of Ambedkar because his writings helped me to understand the issues better in matters relating to caste and religion.

When I was in University of Hyderabad, a professor remarked that the time has come for there to be synthesis between “Lal Salam” and “Jai Bhim.” He might be right.

Do you think all movements need a clear cut hero or do you think movements are self-sufficient? The CAA-NRC movement just saw masses chiefly and not one clear hero.

There are different ways of looking at the issue. We always keep looking for avatars in this country. The Dalit leader and a Member of Parliament Thirumavalan once remarked that “We have an Ambedkar for SC’s. We need an Ambedkar for non-SC’s.” But then again the leader is an ideological position. The protagonist of Jai Bhim is not a leader for example. He is a tool to help in the process of redemption. With a country so deeply different, we need several leaders because the world cannot spin on the whims of a single person.

The Chief of Defense Staff Bipin Rawat passed away recently and we haven’t had a CDS since the last 15 days. We have been functioning though because the power in any field is never centered and neither should it be.

Aside from Dr. Ambedkar, who are your heroes?

I admire everybody. (laughs). I admire the tribal Sengeni who said no to a bribe. There are heroes everywhere.

Finally, what are the major concerns you have with the Indian constitution?
When the courts back in the day struck down bank nationalization and privy purses, left leaders in the Parliament argued that the Constitution should be thrown stock and barrel into the Bay of Bengal. They said the Constitution was drafted and enacted by Zamindars and landowners. But the Emergency showed how important it is to keep this Constitution alive. Even I used to believe until Emergency that the Constitution should go but that time period showed how this Constitution has to be made use of. Vajpayee and Advani argued that all problems of the people cannot be solved by the Constitution and court.

Then the doctrine of faith was brought in for the Ram Janma Bhoomi judgment to justify the majoritarian claim. Therefore, from people who argue this way, the Constitution has to be defended and preserved. Also unlike other constitutions, the amendments with our constitution are easier. Our Constitution has a social philosophy which if properly understood could bring in some change. I am not saying it is the harbinger of change but today’s smaller issues can be resolved by the Constitution and court.

People argued that Jai Bhim created legal illusions. But suppose for a minute that you are thirsty. I cannot ask you to wait for Nagarjuna sagar issue to be resolved. Many changes can be made with the first-aid and that is the Constitution. I argued as a lawyer for hundreds of people for small relief and that matters. In my student days, the Naxalite movement did not believe in court. They would come to court and shout slogans and then go back to jail. Then the party itself later said if you can get one relief, you should make use of it instead of calling it a bourgeois-landlord court. We all became lawyers for them and got many acquittals because as I mentioned before the police tampers with evidence.

A trained legal mind can expose that. So therefore, from anti-Constitutionalism to Constitutionalism people who were ridiculing the Constitution are now fighting to protect it against the “doctrine of faith” and its advocates. We cannot allow them to subvert the Constitution.

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