Listen to my Case: Justice K Chandru’s new book looks back at 20 landmark judgements made when women approached the courts 

Former Madras High Court Judgel’s new book gives the account of twenty important cases involving women and their struggle for justice 
Justice K Chandru
Justice K Chandru

In his tenure, Justice K Chandru disposed off over 96,000 cases, one of the highest for a Judge. And these cases were not ordinary ones, Chandru has a record of giving some of the most landmark judgements that had massive social impact. These judgements include declaring common burial grounds irrespective of caste, community-based reservation in noon meal centres, women becoming priests in temples, dispensing with police permission for stage plays. 

It wasn’t just in his judgments that Chandru ensured fairness - even in his personal day-to-day actions, he insisted on equality. He told lawyers not to address him as ‘My Lord’ in court, he did not want his arrival to be announced by the mace bearer, he refused security personnel, was one of the first judges to declare his personal assets on his first and last day as a judge and on the day of his retirement, he surrendered his official car and took the local train home. Since his retirement, Chandru has played an active role in public advocacy and written several books and columns on the law. His latest book is a highly significant and essential compilation of cases of women approaching the courts for justice.

Listen to My Case: When Women Approach The Courts of Tamil Nadu tells the stories of 20 women and their inspiring fight for justice. Even though more women are taking up law as a profession, to the common man and especially the women, the gates of the judiciary are not just unwelcoming but also often intimidating. What is particularly remarkable about the book, is that the cases include women from small towns, from marginalised communities and with unique stories of strife. The cases are also cleverly categorised — Life After Loss, Mother, Mothering and Motherhood, On Sexual Violence, On Religiosity and the Right to Practice Religion, Right to Life, Choice and Dignity:Mapping Personal Journeys. The cases thus cover a wide number of aspects and this makes the reading very educative and gives the reader a chance to learn from women across the spectrum. In the introduction to the book, award-winning author Githa Hariharan writes that the book reminds us that the law is not static and that law comes alive every time it is reread and re-interpreted. But more importantly, she says that the book offers hope. And as a reader, I couldn’t agree more. When I reached the last page of the book, hope is the feeling that the book left me with. Because if all these women could do it, maybe justice was not so out of reach, after all. Which is why the book should probably be made mandatory reading not just for law students, but all young female students.

The Madras High Court. Credit:TNIE

We sat down with Justice Chandru and asked him what had motivated him to write this brilliant book, how he chose the cases that ended up in it, what his favourite case was and how we can make the courts more accessible to women.

When and what inspired you to write the book? 

After my retirement from the judgeship at the High Court of Madras (2013), a leading women’s fortnightly approached me for a special article of a case of a woman that I had dealt with. I told them that I had dealt with number of cases of women from different walks of life and having different angles. Then they told me to write a serial for them, thus began my serial on women-related cases that I had dealt with and it was titled ‘Wage War with Law’ in Tamil.  

I had also told them that it had been several years since I delivered judgments in those cases and it would be nice if those women were contacted and their reactions were recorded. With great difficulty, we identified the lawyers who appeared in these cases and got the contact details of those women. The local reporters of that magazine approached and obtained their reaction which was published along with my article and with their photographs. That serial was a hit and the magazine, which has a publishing house, also brought out the accounts as a book. However, many friends suggested that such a book should also come out in English. My friend Githa Hariharan not only helped me to get the book published by Leftword, but also wrote a beautiful foreword. 

How did you finalise on the cases that would end up in the book?

Many of my judgments were not reported in the law journals. Fortunately, I had photocopies of my orders and gathered all of them when I was writing the serial. In choosing the cases, I gave priority to the women who were not economically well off and also to cases that were very unique. I also saw to it that the types of cases were not repeated and ensured that it would be representative. It so happened that each case was a typical representation of a particular gender issue. 

What was the first case that you witnessed, as a law student or in your career, filed by a woman that left an impression on you?

Even as a student, I was a political activist and was closely working with human rights groups as well as the All India Democratic Women’s Association. One particular case which I cannot forget was about Nagammal from South Arcot district. Her family was tortured by some local bigwigs and she had a horrendous experience with the police. It was during the Emergency and she had sent representations to all authorities. It was so stunning that an unlettered woman could petition the highest authorities without any backing. In fact, she once talked about how she travelled to Delhi by train and met the then Prime Minister Morarji Desai. 

Her case came up before the Emergency Excess Inquiring Authority constituted by the central government and presided over by retired Justice M Ananthanarayanan. I had the opportunity to appear for her. Though the commission recommended some monetary compensation and action against the police, later the High Court quashed the proceedings against the policemen. 

That Nagammal could fight such cases was unbelievable. Even when she did not have a single penny in her purse, she had travelled up to Delhi. Many days she would not even eat and would carry around two bags, one containing copies of her petitions and a small yellow cloth bag which she would refuse to show anyone. Even today, a person like Nagammal surprises me especially because of her undiminished energy and clear determination to fight back. That woman made me to realise that if necessary women can stand up against any kind of injustice. 

Which is your favourite case from the book?

Every case in my book is a favourite in its own way. Still I can say, the case of Tamilarasi was unique as she was ousted from service alleging that she was mentally unsound. It took some time for me to convince her that in order to disprove the stand of the government, she should undergo a test to determine the state of her mental health. Though she initially refused it, after being persuaded she got admitted to Government Rajaji Hospital, Madurai in their psychiatric ward and was examined by expert psychiatrists. 

It was a pity that she didn’t survive to enjoy the fruits of her victory in the case. But nevertheless her case made it possible for the court to lay down that mental disability is also a disability which is protected by the provisions of the Persons with Disabilities (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act and are entitled to continue in service, notwithstanding such disabilities and that the act would apply even to government service. 

Justice K Chandru

I thought it was excellent and very inclusive of you to include a transgender woman's story in this book. However, in 'The dying declaration that came alive' the transgender woman was refered to as a 'he'. Do you think this would be accepted by trans women who read the book?

The vocabulary in any language is inadequate in describing the sex of a transgender. Though we now call them as a third gender, the vocabulary of the language is not enriched. Since he was called as Pandian and the case was brought by the elder sister who in her case continued to refer to him in the affidavit as her younger brother, I had to use the word “he” and it was unintentional. In any event, it only shows the vulnerability of the third gender at the hands of the police and the kind of brutalities that they may encounter from the personnel of the uniformed services. 

Today, young women are floored by cases like that of Priya Ramani. But in this book, we see small town women approach the courts and fight for justice, was this intentional?

When the rape of Mathura (a tribal woman of Maharashtra) came up before the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court shockingly acquitted the rapist on irrelevant grounds, there were protests by women’s organisations all over India for a change in the rape law. At that time, the speakers and the writers criticised the Supreme Court and questioned if it would only deliver judgments when the Nandhini Satpathis and Maneka Gandhis approached them for relief. Therefore, I decided that even when women who are ordinary mortals approach the courts, if the courts are sensitive, then their cases would also be heard and decided in their favour. Therefore I picked up the stories of ordinary women who knock the doors of the court. In my Tamil book, the first case was of the case relating to Asan Banu, who was a gardener and temporary employee engaged by the corporation of Madurai. Such persons could not have part of any expensive litigation and it was at that time that the newly constituted Madurai bench of the Madras High Court started functioning. The irony was that Asan Banu was chargesheeted for approaching the court regarding her eviction from her quarters. Hence I put the following concluding note in my judgment:-

“The court also records the fact that the constitution of this bench at Madurai has given an opportunity even to a poor lowly paid mazdoor to knock at its door seeking justice”

The book has a mix of successful cases and some heartbreaking stories. Today, how easy or difficult is it for women to access justice?

For that matter, access to courts by ordinary mortals is as difficult as it used to be before. This is more so for women litigants. However, the starting of legal aid services and growing women’s consciousness regarding their rights by the sustained campaign by women’s associations has brought about some change in this aspect. Today, the subordinate courts are adorned by women judges and the substantial number of female advocates has helped the reversal of the trend. Even then, there is a long way to go. 

How can we make the courts a more accommodating space for women?

Gender sensitisation cannot happen only in courts. There should be an overall effort in society. But sensitising the judiciary and efforts by a conscientious bar and also starting the pedagogical exercise from the law schools will bring in a greater access for women to approach courts to establish their rights. 

What impact do you hope the book will have on our society?

I don’t think it will have any impact on the society. This book is only a narration of my experience as a Judge in dealing with gender issues and it may upto a point prove that a sensitised judiciary can afford a minimum relief to the cause of women. But the women whose cases are discussed in the book had certainly seen a change in their life and are continuing to spread the story of their experience among their friends and relatives. Some of them have also managed to find my address and are continuing to send messages showing their gratitude and tell me how much they were benefited by my order. 

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