Updated: October 28, 2018 6:59:43 am
Earlier this month, four people travelled from Aurangabad to Rajasthan HC to smear black paint on a statue of Manu on its premises. In the 29 years it has been around, the statue has withstood several protests, court cases, and even an order by judges to remove it.
As the autumn sun starts to dip over the western horizon, it casts long shadows on the people coming out of the courtrooms of the Rajasthan High Court. It’s the end of another working day and the crowd — munshis carrying old files, lawyers discussing cases and policemen escorting undertrials — gradually thins out.
Two security guards stationed at the garden in the centre of the court premises keep a keen watch on people passing by, occasionally turning around and throwing furtive glances at a 10-feet-tall statue behind them.
The statue of Manu — according to Hindu mythology, the progenitor of mankind and the author of the controversial Manusmriti, which codifies the rights and duties of various social groups — has seen its share of skirmishes. Most recently on October 8, when two women from Aurangabad in Maharashtra — Sheela Bai Pawar, 35, and Kanta Ramesh Ahire, 32 — were arrested along with their associate Dawood Shakeel Sheikh, 30, for smearing it with black paint.
The two were taken into custody and booked under sections of the Indian Penal Code for hurting religious sentiments, among other charges. They were then sent to Jaipur Central jail, 5 kilometres away, before being granted bail on October 22.
Pawar, Ahire and Sheikh are members of the Republican Party of India-Kharat, a breakaway faction of the Republican Party of India (Athawale).
That day, one of the two sari-clad women clambered on to the statue’s pedestal with a can of black paint, stretched out her arms and sprayed all over Manu’s torso. The other woman, standing on the ground, aimed for Manu’s legs.
Yogesh Salve, another member of the RPI-Kharat who accompanied the two women and Sheikh to Jaipur, says, “All of us are active members of our party and when we got to know that a statue of Manu was installed in the Rajasthan High Court, we felt it was an insult to the Constitution and to Babasaheb Ambedkar. So we decided to blacken the statue. Sheela Bai and Kanta said, ‘How can one expect justice if the statue of Manu, a person whose views on women and Dalits were discriminatory, is placed in the court?’ They said they had no problem going to jail as their actions would be under the laws of Ambedkar’s Constitution.”
Though Salve was also named as an accused, he was not arrested. “Police have alleged that he was clicking photos when the women were blackening the statue,” says Babulal Bairwa, counsel for the women.
A video, purportedly shot after the women blackened the Manu statue, shows them being intimidated by people on the premises. One of them asks the women about the Manusmriti and sounds infuriated when she mentions the word “Brahman”.
“Main Brahman hoon, mere pe pot kaalikh (I am a Brahmin, I dare you to blacken my face),” a voice is heard telling the women.
“Bahut buri tarah maari jayegi (You will be beaten up badly),” another man says as the women ask the crowd not to assault them.
For the past three decades, though it was never formally inaugurated, this statue of Manu has seen several battles — big and small, in courts and outside.
It all began on February 10, 1989, when Padam Kumar Jain, then president of the Rajasthan Higher Judicial Officers’ Association, wrote a letter to then chief justice N M Kasliwal, asking for permission to install a Manu idol on the court premises as part of a “beautification project”. The permission was granted on March 3.
Sandeep Sumahendra, son of the late Sumahendra Sharma, the Rajasthani artiste who worked on the statue, says, “It took my father around two and a half months to build the statue. Until then, there was no other Manu statue, so nobody had any idea what Manu looked like. My father designed it on the basis of his imagination and after reading Manu’s works. Like many of my father’s works on display in Jaipur, including one of Lady Justice at the district and sessions court, this Manu statue is made of cement.”
Sumahendra, who was a student then, remembers how the statue was jinxed from the start. “On the day of the planned inauguration, a large crowd had gathered inside the campus. I remember making a hurried exit with my father as we didn’t want to be part of any controversy. Then acting chief justice Milap Chand Jain was supposed to inaugurate the statue, but it was never done,” says Sumahendra, an artiste himself.
On July 28, 1989, in a full court meeting of the Rajasthan High Court, the judges unanimously decided that the statue would be removed. But just as it was about to taken down, VHP leader Acharya Dharmendra and others filed a PIL against the move.
“Hate was brought to India by the British, along with Islamic and Communist ideology. There is no mention of hate and discrimination in the philosophy of Manu, and therefore, the burning of Manusmriti is like setting fire to all of humanity,” says Dharmendra.
“It was a great idea to have a Manu statue inside the High Court as he was the first person anywhere in the world to draft a law. Those who oppose him are ignorant of Manu’s philosophy. He never mentions the word ‘Dalit’ anywhere,” he adds.
Vibhutibhushan Sharma, former president of the Rajasthan High Court Bar Association who was recently made a member of the manifesto committee of the Congress for the Rajasthan elections, says, “When the statue of Manu was installed in the High Court, it wasn’t for any particular caste. Manu is regarded as the first person to have come up with a written law. If there is any downside to that law, it is open to amendments as is done in our Constitution. The statue shouldn’t be associated with any caste.”
In August 1989, while hearing Dharmendra’s petition, the High Court stayed the removal of the statue and ordered that future hearings will be before a bench of more than two judges, including the chief justice.
That’s where the matter lies now. Many in judicial circles refer to the case as the oldest writ petition pending in the High Court.
“It’s a tragedy that in modern-day India, a statue of Manu, a figure whose ideas are blatantly discriminatory to Dalits, women and weaker sections of the society, is installed inside the court premises,” says 80-year-old P L Mimroth, chief functionary of the Centre for Dalit Rights in Jaipur and the only living intervener in the writ petition.
“Throughout the 1990s and the 2000s, Dalit leaders such as Kanshi Ram and Ramdas Athawale came to Jaipur and protested against the statue, but to this day, it stands as a symbol of oppression against Dalits. Every time there’s talk of shifting the statue, the upper caste lobby in the court unites against it,” says Anil Gothwal, general secretary of the Ambedkar Welfare Society in Jaipur.
Padam Kumar Jain of the Rajasthan Higher Judicial Officers, who was the first to seek permission for the statue, has since disassociated himself from the controversy. “We had decided to install it as part of a beautification project, but after the court ordered its removal, we have stayed away,” he says.
A K Jain, who appeared as a lawyer for Dalit groups during the last hearing of the case in 2015, recounts the commotion that day. “The court was more of a battleground. Almost 300 to 400 Brahmin lawyers, including office bearers of different bar associations of Jaipur, got together. As I started reading lines from the Manusmriti that are offensive to Dalits, these lawyers started protesting and we were hardly able to speak,” says Jain.
That was the last time this writ was listed for hearing, during which the court made the state government and the Central government parties in the case.
Sahebrao Kashiram Salve, father of Yogesh Salve who came to Jaipur from Aurangabad to assist in the process of bailing them out, says that both the women activists work as labourers and are mothers to three children each.
“It’s unfortunate that so many years after Ambedkar burned Manusmriti in 1927, a statue of Manu remains installed here. The only good thing is that these women have helped highlight the issue again,” says Salve, who works as a carpenter in Aurangabad.
Back at the statue, it’s all deserted, except for an ageing gardener trimming the shrubs. “Journalists?” he asks, before turning around.
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