A visit to Delhi would be incomplete without a visit to its nerve centre, a hexagon in the middle of the city in which stands a colonial structure appropriated by our independent federal republic. This is India Gate, circled by several government buildings, large sandstone structures originally intended to be the palaces of princely states but turned over to various state governments after the maharajas’ privy purses were abolished by Indira Gandhi in the 1970s.
One of these palaces now houses the Patiala House courts. This is where I first encountered the practice of law, as a student interning with a criminal lawyer.
Patiala House is where I first understood the tremendous dissonance between the letter of the law and its practice in court. It was a court system which often rejected the liberty of an accused, preferring a judicial approach that was almost deferential to the prosecution. Custodial interrogation and police remands would be granted as a matter of course and often bail was not the rule but a liberty obtained after much perseverance. These were experiences, I thought, that could only be felt but not conveyed to a person who was not a lawyer or a litigant. I was wrong.
Chaitanya Tamhane’s movie, Court, has brought this experience to movie theatres with incredible fidelity. From the architecture of the court, to the structure of a legal argument and even court rules, which require the litigant to be modestly attired, every frame of the movie rings with authenticity.
The plot depicts the prosecution of a folk singer whose verses agitate on the rights of Scheduled Castes and marginalised communities. This prosecution is under legal provisions which seem fictional because of how absurd they are. But they are, in fact, very much present in the law. They include various provisions of the Indian Penal Code, first enacted in 1860, and the Dramatic Performances Act, 1876. In addition, there is a healthy garnish of some recent anti-terror statutes. These are valid legislation and, every day, artists and authors are prosecuted under them.
Only last week, the Supreme Court considered the case of Vasant Dattatray Gurjar, charged with hate speech and obscenity for writing the Marathi poem, “Gandhi Mala Bhetla Hota”. While reserving the case for judgment, the bench remarked, “If some were to put these words in the mouth of Queen Victoria, how would the British have reacted? Linguistic freedom is not a problem but using the linguistic freedom to say something to Mahatma Gandhi is an issue.” If statements like this are heard in the apex court of our country, what hope do we have for those in mofussils?
In spite of the bleak picture painted by Court, there is reason for hope. This strand of hope emerges from the movie itself. It offers an unvarnished portrayal of the Indian legal system, without embellishment or moderation. It is a harsh critique, showing up the law as farce and its processes as punishment. Such commentary has not been censored or ignored but has received mainstream acceptance. Last year, it received the national award and it has now released in theatres across India, to packed audiences. This wide viewership is remarkable, not only because of its theme but also because of the fact that it is a Marathi film. It underscores that more and more people, outside the circuit of judges and lawyers, are questioning legal processes and their colonial legacies. People are questioning the authority of a nation-state that is fearful of dissenting voices, one that gags speech and song, shackles dancing feet.
This questioning is the first step towards a larger introspection, which may lead to a change in how we view the law, especially the enactments passed by the colonial masters and then enforced in a democratic state.
The answers to some of these questions may also be found around India Gate. Not far away, the gates of North Block bear an ominous statement: “Liberty will not descend to a people; a people must raise themselves to liberty. It is a blessing which must be earned before it can be enjoyed”. It prompts the thought that, just as we have appropriated and adapted colonial monuments, we need to claim and mould the law to a democratic polity that values dissent and plurality.
The writer is a Delhi-based lawyer firstname.lastname@example.org
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