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[Video] Mathura: The rape that changed India

Not many remember that 40 years before the horrific events of December 16, 2012, there was another incident, where a girl even younger than Jyoti Singh was raped.

Her name was Mathura and she was raped by police constables.

She survived and appealed to our courts but did not get justice.

Mathura’s journey through the criminal justice system however, gave rise to a women’s movement that spanned the whole of India and led in 1983, to groundbreaking change in the law on sexual violence against women.

It also inspired an extraordinary act of courage from four law professors who dared to raise their voices against the judiciary and pursue legal reform.

Join us to learn from Padma Shri Professor Upendra Baxi, Dean of the Delhi University Faculty of Law Professor Ved Kumari, and Senior Advocate Rebecca John, the story of Mathura’s rape, its transformation of our vocabulary on sexual violence, the changes it brought about in the law, and the inspiring personalities who made it happen.

What’s the issue – Understand why and how courts frame issues in civil suits

JSaiDeepak_OnTrialIt helps to occasionally step back and seek the true meaning of an element of procedure. This is true about the framing of issues in a civil suit since the significance of this step in a trial is often taken for granted.

What is an issue?

The title of Order 14 of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 (“CPC”) is “Settlement of Issues and Determination of Suit on Issues of Law or on Issues Agreed Upon”. Clearly, a suit is determined on the basis of issues of law or other issues agreed upon by the parties in a suit. But what is an “issue”? Although the CPC does not define the term, Sub-rule 1 of Rule 1 of Order 14 says that issues arise when a material proposition of fact or law is affirmed by one party and denied by the other. In other words, both parties must disagree on a material proposition of fact or law.

The Evidence Act, 1872 also defines “Facts in issue” to mean and include any fact which, either by itself or in connection with other facts, has a bearing on a right or liability asserted or denied in a suit. According to the explanation to this definition, when a court records an issue of fact under the CPC, the fact to be asserted or denied in response to such an issue would also be treated as a fact in issue.

What is a material proposition giving rise to an issue? Sub-rule 2 of Rule 1 states that material propositions are those propositions of law or facts which a plaintiff must allege in order to show a right to sue or a defendant must allege in order to constitute a defence. Simply put, a material proposition is one that advances a party’s case factually or legally.

Sub-rule 3 mandates that each material proposition on which the parties disagree shall be framed as a distinct issue. Could it be said therefore, that propositions of fact or law which do not further a party’s case are not material and therefore ought not to be framed as issues? What consequences follow when a proposition of fact or law, although material, is not framed as an issue despite the parties being at variance with each other?

On this, the Supreme Court has held that the non-framing of an issue does not vitiate the proceedings as long as the pleadings of parties bear out that the issue exists and both parties have led evidence at trial to prove their respective contentions on the issue. In other words, a court can rule on an issue even if it has not been specifically framed, so long as it is material to the determination of the suit.

The process of framing

How does a court go about framing an issue? Sub-rule 5 of Rule 1 lays down the procedure for this. At the first hearing of a suit, the court shall, after reading the plaint and the written statement, and after examination under Order 10 Rule 2, and after hearing the parties or their counsel, ascertain upon what material propositions of fact or law the parties are at variance, and shall then proceed to frame and record the issues on which the right decision of the case appears to depend.

What does this mean? Simply, that a court has to understand the contentions of the parties from their written pleadings and oral submissions and distill only those propositions of fact and law on which the parties differ and which are “material” for the adjudication of the suit. The question of materiality in Sub-rule 5 has no bearing on the tenability of the contentions of parties on factual or legal propositions. It simply refers to testing an issue for its relevance to the determination of the case.

For instance, in a suit for patent infringement, if there is no dispute between the parties about the plaintiff’s ownership of the patent, there is no point in framing an issue on it. Even though the question of ownership is material, the parties do not disagree on it. Contrast this with a situation where the plaintiff claims to be an assignee of the erstwhile patent owner and the defendant disputes the fact of assignment. The question of ownership or assignment of the patent is material because under the Patents Act, only a patentee or the exclusive licensee may institute a suit for infringement. In other words, the maintainability of the plaintiff’s action is in question. Moreover, since the parties disagree on this material question, the court has to frame an issue on it.

This procedure of framing of an issue needs to be clearly understood. Some people tend to read more into the mere framing of an issue under Order 14 than is warranted. The framing of an issue does not amount to a court taking a position on the contentions of the parties on a material question of fact or law. The court is merely etching the contours of the trial so that the progress of the trial is not waylaid by a slugfest on immaterial issues that have no bearing on the adjudication of the rights and liabilities of the parties. Reading the Supreme Court’s decision in Makhanlal Bangal v. Manas Bhunia (2001), delivered in the context of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, but relevant since the procedure under the CPC applies to the statute, will help clear the fog around the framing of issues.

In the next post, I will deal with the commencement of trial.

Sai Deepak is an engineer-turned-law firm partner-turned-arguing counsel. Sai is the founder of Law Chambers of J. Sai Deepak and appears primarily before the High Court of Delhi and the Supreme Court of India. He is @jsaideepak on Twitter and is the founder of the blawg “The Demanding Mistress” where he writes on economic laws, litigation, and policy. All opinions expressed here are academic and personal.

More tools for litigators after Commercial Courts Act boosts discovery in India

JSaiDeepak_OnTrialI have often heard it lamented that India lacks U.S.-style discovery mechanisms at trial. While I am no expert on U.S. procedural law, I believe that Indian civil procedure contains substantial mechanisms for discovery. Let us now look at the mechanisms available under the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 (“CPC”) including those recently introduced to the CPC through the Commercial Courts, Commercial Division and Commercial Appellate Division of High Courts Act, 2015 (“Commercial Courts Act“). Employed effectively, they can narrow down the scope of facts and issues that need examination at trial.

Discovery under the CPC

Section 30 of the CPC provides for a court’s power to order discovery. At any time during the conduct of a suit, this provision empowers a court, either of its own motion or on the application of a party, to pass necessary and reasonable orders relating to the delivery and answering of interrogatories; the admission of documents and facts; and the discovery, inspection, production, impounding, and return of documents or other material objects that may be produced as evidence. The provision also empowers a court to issue summons to persons whose attendance is required either to give evidence or to produce documents or other objects that may be led in evidence. A court can also order any fact to be proved by way of an affidavit. While it is commonly assumed that only Order XI of the CPC corresponds to Section 30, Orders XII, XIII, and XVI also contain provisions that relate to Section 30.

What’s the role of a court in discovery proceedings?

The framework that emerges from a combined reading of Section 30 and Orders X, XI, XII, XIII, XVI, and XVIII informs us that the assumption that Indian courts lack powers of discovery because they adhere to the adversarial system of justice may not be true. In Maria Margadia Sequeria v. Erasmo Jack De Sequeria (2012), the Supreme Court, holding that discovery was one of the main purposes of the existence of courts, made some telling observations:

“A judge in the Indian System has to be regarded as failing to exercise its jurisdiction and thereby discharging its judicial duty, if in the guise of remaining neutral, he opts to remain passive to the proceedings before him. He has to always keep in mind that “every trial is a voyage of discovery in which truth is the quest”. In order to bring on record the relevant fact, he has to play an active role; no doubt within the bounds of the statutorily defined procedural law.

41. World over, modern procedural Codes are increasingly relying on full disclosure by the parties. Managerial powers of the Judge are being deployed to ensure that the scope of the factual controversy is minimized.

42. In civil cases, adherence to Section 30 CPC would also help in ascertaining the truth. It seems that this provision which ought to be frequently used is rarely pressed in service by our judicial officers and judges.”

The Court also quoted from the report of the Malimath Committee, which had highlighted the drawbacks in a strictly adversarial system and recommended that courts be statutorily mandated to become active seekers of truth. This fundamental shift in the Indian approach to disputes must be borne in mind when one invokes the mechanisms for discovery. In A. Shanmugam v. Ariya K.R.K.M.N.P.Sangam (2012), the Court, apart from reiterating the ratio of Maria Margadia Sequeria, categorically observed that ensuring discovery and production of documents and a proper admission or denial is imperative for the effective adjudication of civil cases.

Bar raised by Commercial Courts Act

The Commercial Courts Act, 2015 builds on this approach further by introducing an improved discovery mechanism, evident from the language and structure of Rules 1 to 5 in the revised Order XI, which is specific to suits of a commercial nature. The spirit of the revised framework is perhaps best captured by Sub-rule 12 of Rule 1. It unequivocally states that the duty to disclose documents that have come to the notice of the party shall continue until the disposal of the suit. It goes without saying that the reference here is to documents, which are relevant and necessary to decide any question that is germane to the dispute before the court. Critically, both parties are expected to file a list of all relevant documents which are in their power, possession, or control regardless of whether those documents support or undermine their respective positions on merits. Clearly, the bar has been raised under the Commercial Courts Act and both the parties and the courts have access to fairly effective discovery options to facilitate expeditious disposal of suits. The actual employment of these options, of course, remains to be seen.

In the next part of this series, I shall discuss framing of issues and the commencement of trial.

J. Sai Deepak is an engineer-turned-law firm partner-turned-arguing counsel. Sai is the founder of Law Chambers of J. Sai Deepak and appears primarily before the High Court of Delhi and the Supreme Court of India. He is @jsaideepak on Twitter and is the founder of the blawg “The Demanding Mistress” where he writes on economic laws, litigation, and policy. All opinions expressed here are academic and personal.

Inherit the Wind (1960) – The Courtroom as Soapbox

SayakDasgupta_InCameraIn 1960, John T. Scopes, a geologist, returned to Dayton, a town in Tennessee where 35 years earlier, he had been convicted of a crime. Instead of being scorned and spurned, he was celebrated and awarded a key to the city. He had returned to attend the premiere of Inherit the Wind, a film that had been made on his trial. The film, boasting of some of the biggest names in Hollywood, was supposed to tell the true story of the Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial, but it didn’t. Its intention was to use the trial to make a very different point. Then again, even the original trial was not much more than a farce.

The making of the film trial

On January 21, 1925 Rep. John Washington Butler introduced a bill in the Tennessee House of Representatives “prohibiting the teaching of the Evolution Theory in all the Universities, and all other public schools of Tennessee, which are supported in whole or in part by the public school funds of the State, and to provide penalties for the violations thereof.” The Butler Act, as it came to be known, was enacted six days later. This ban on teaching evolution in public schools in Tennessee was reported in newspapers all over America and came to the notice of a young organisation in New York called the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which advocated for freedom of thought and expression regardless of political leanings. It put out a notice in newspapers inviting any teacher from Tennessee to challenge the law. “We are looking for a Tennessee teacher who is willing to accept our services in testing the law in the courts,” it said. “Our lawyers think a friendly test can be arranged without costing a teacher his or her job. Distinguished counsel have volunteered their services. All we need is a willing client.” Enter George Washington Rappleyea.

George Rappleyea, the man who wanted to put Dayton on the map.

George Rappleyea, the man who wanted to put Dayton on the map.

Rappleyea was the Superintendent of the financially floundering Cumberland Coal and Iron Company in Dayton, Tennessee. He read ACLU’s notice and the very next day, met a group of influential men of Dayton and suggested that the law should be challenged in their town. He foresaw that the resulting trial would bring national attention and definitely put Dayton on the map – something that must have appealed to everyone as Dayton was going through hard times. Rappleyea convinced a young schoolteacher called John T. Scopes to be the challenger even though Scopes couldn’t remember if he had actually ever taught evolution in his classroom.

None of these events leading up to the trial are shown in Stanley Kramer’s Inherit the Wind. The film begins with Bertram Cates (Dick York), a fictionalised version of John Scopes, teaching evolution openly in a Southern town called Hillsboro. While Scopes was ambivalent about the law until Rappleyea convinced him to challenge it, Cates is presented almost as a heroic crusader completely unwavering in his noble convictions. None of the prior machinations that led to the original trial are even alluded to.

A well-known reporter named E.K. Hornbeck (Gene Kelly) comes to Hillsboro to cover the trial. Amidst his sarcastic quips and witty one-liners, he informs Cates that his employer, the Baltimore Herald, is willing to finance his defence. The acerbic, cynical Hornbeck is the fictional cognate of H.L. Mencken, the famous and influential reporter who covered the Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial. Mencken was a staunch atheist and detested fundamentalists and “southern yokels”, calling them “ignoramuses” and “morons”. He was also a racist and anti-Semite who distrusted democracy deeply, which made him a natural opponent of the prosecution attorney: William Jennings Bryan.

Above, Gene Kelly and Dick York playing E.K. Horseback and Bertram Cates in Inherit The Wind (1960). Below, H.L. Mencken the journalist and John T. Scopes the geologist (right), the real-life figures that these actors portrayed.

Above, Gene Kelly and Dick York playing E.K. Hornbeck and Bertram Cates in Inherit The Wind (1960). Below, H.L. Mencken the journalist and John T. Scopes the geologist (right), the real-life figures that these actors portrayed.

The prosecuting attorney in Inherit the Wind, Matthew Harrison Brady (Fredric March) is a Bible-thumping, chicken-devouring, moralising caricature of Bryan. Everything about the look of the character – from his baldpate to his pince-nez to the cut of his shirt – is modeled to be identical to that of Bryan’s. In many ways ahead of his time, Bryan had spent a lifetime fighting for farmers, women’s suffrage, and campaign finance reforms, and raising his voice against imperialism and corrupt corporate practices in the early 1900s. But all we see is a screaming blowhard trying desperately to cling to his woefully outdated beliefs. A Bible literalist, his distaste for the theory of evolution came not just from his religious views but also from his mistaken conflation of Darwin’s theory of natural selection to the concept of Social Darwinism – a system of thought that often rationalises racism, eugenics, fascism, and imperialism.

Above, Spencer Tracy and Frederic March playing Mathew Harrison Brady, the prosecuting attorney and Henry Drummond, the defense attorney in a scene from Inherit The Wind (1960). Below, Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, the lawyers who came up against each other in the Scopes 'Monkey' Trial.

Above, Spencer Tracy and Fredric March playing Mathew Harrison Brady, the prosecuting attorney and Henry Drummond, the defense attorney in a scene from Inherit The Wind (1960). Below, Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan, the lawyers who came up against each other in the Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial.

Cates’ defense attorney is Henry Drummond (Spencer Tracy), a fictionalised version of Clarence Darrow, who, in 1925 was perhaps the most famous lawyer in the country, having argued a number of high profile cases. Like Mencken, Darrow was a modernist and atheist, inspired by the writings of Nietzsche, Darwin, Marx, Freud, and Voltaire. He had once been a friend of Bryan and had even supported him in his first presidential campaign, but the two had later parted ways due to the stark differences in their thinking (a fact that is reflected in the film as well). When he heard Bryan had joined the prosecution team, Darrow immediately decided to join the defence to battle “the idol of all Morondom”.

The greatest show in America

Scenes from Inherit The Wind (1960)

Scenes from Inherit The Wind (1960)

The film accurately portrays the media circus this trial became. In an unprecedented turn of events WGN Radio managed to obtain the rights to rearrange the way the courtroom was set up. Despite a burning heat wave in Dayton that year, hundreds of people crowded into the courtroom to witness this clash of titans and their ideas. Journalists sat with typewriters and microphones recording every instant of this great show as if it were a boxing match. Outside the courtroom was a veritable carnival centred around the trial. Shops sold monkey-themed memorabilia, songs written about the trial were sung on the streets, and a pet chimpanzee named Joe Mendy was brought out in a new suit everyday for the amusement of one and all. This fanfare is faithfully portrayed in Inherit the Wind. The people of Dayton, however, are not.

The film paints the residents of Hillsboro (read Dayton) as an angry, ignorant mob ready to lynch Cates. This was, by all accounts, patently untrue. Even Mencken wrote, “The town, I must confess, greatly surprised me. I expected to find a squalid Southern village, with darkies snoozing on the horseblocks, pigs rooting under the houses and the inhabitants full of hookworm and malaria. What I found was a country town full of charm and even beauty […] Nor is there any evidence in the town of that poisonous spirit which usually shows itself when Christian men gather to defend the great doctrine of their faith. […] On the contrary, the Evolutionists and Anti-Evolutionists seem to be on the best of terms, and it is hard to distinguish one group from another.”

From the beginning, Judge Raulston had instructed the jury, prosecution, and defence to keep the trial about the case in hand – Scopes’ contravention of the Butler Act – and not to argue whether the law itself was just or unjust. Of course, neither Darrow nor Bryan had any intention of obeying the judge. As far as both were concerned, this was the most important philosophical and cultural tipping point in their lifetimes. It was the debate that would decide what civilisation itself stands for. Scopes’ ultimate fate meant very little to Darrow. In fact, he hoped that Scopes would be found guilty so that he could appeal to a higher court and argue the merits of the Butler Act there.

The verdict

In the end, the jury in the film, like the one in real life, returns a verdict of “guilty”. And, like the judge in the actual trial, the one in the film goes easy on the defendant, keeping in view the mood of the nation. Cates, like Scopes, is fined $100 and given no jail time. In a sense, both Bryan and Darrow got what they wanted. Bryan got a guilty verdict and, hence, a moral victory, even though he was displeased with the inadequacy of the sentence. Darrow got the opportunity to argue the validity of the law at the Tennessee Supreme Court.

In the film, as indeed in real life, the trial was not really about the case at hand but an opportunity to argue about differing viewpoints, the lawyers on both sides representing not the state and the accused, but two opposing schools of thought. The courtroom became a venue for debating ideology, a soapbox atop which each lawyer, acting as the spokesperson for his side, could stand and deliver loud and impassioned political speeches. So impassioned, in fact, that Brady quite literally screams himself to death. He collapses in the courtroom and dies of a “busted belly”. It is the death knell of an ideology whose time has come. In real life, Bryan had died five days after the trial was over. This too, is a minor liberty.

Charles Darwin, the title page of The Descent of Man and Selection In Relation to Sex (1871) and a figure from the book.

Charles Darwin, the title page of The Descent of Man and Selection In Relation to Sex (1871), and a figure from the book.

The film, therefore, takes all the liberties it deems necessary to make its statement. A lot of the complexities in the characters are done away with in order to reduce them from fully-fleshed people to mere archetypes, the nuances in the arguments and ideas presented are erased to tell a more straightforward story, and a number of important facts that are necessary to contextualise the story correctly are conveniently sacrificed to make a point. And what was the point?

If your answer to that question is something along the lines of “scientific and rational thought is superior to blind faith”, then you’re wrong. Inherit the Wind was adapted from a 1955 play of the same name written by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee. In an interview, Lawrence had said, “We used the teaching of evolution as a parable, a metaphor for any kind of mind control. It’s not about science versus religion. It’s about the right to think.” And why did the writers suddenly feel so compelled to make this point about the right to think? The answer, in a word, is McCarthyism.

McCarthy vs. Free Thought

In the late 1940s, Americans were gripped by the fear of that giant, looming, faceless threat advancing from around the globe: Communism. The Red Scare sent shivers down the spines of patriots and lovers of the American dream. In the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy entered the scene, took that latent fear and whipped it up to the highest levels of mass hysteria and moral panic by painting communists as traitors and Soviet spies living among Americans and infiltrating positions of power and influence. He began a fearsome campaign to identify and convict them. Thousands of Americans would be publicly named, questioned, interrogated, and threatened based on next to no evidence. It was akin to being labeled a terrorist today – they were put on a watchlist, their private lives were investigated, they lost their jobs and became social pariahs. It was one of the darkest moments in modern American history, much like the Emergency was for India.

Joseph Raymond McCarthy, who served as a U.S. Senator between 1947 and 1957, was noted for his claims that there were large numbers of Communists and Soviet spies and sympathisers inside the United States federal government and elsewhere.

Joseph Raymond McCarthy, who served as a U.S. Senator between 1947 and 1957, was noted for his claims that there were large numbers of Communists and Soviet spies and sympathisers inside the United States federal government and elsewhere.

In 1953, Arthur Miller, who was investigated by McCarthy, used the 17th century Salem witch trials to make a lasting statement on McCarthyism in his play The Crucible. This inspired Lawrence and Lee to write Inherit the Wind. Speaking of the Scopes ‘Monkey’ Trial, Lawrence said, “We thought, ‘Here’s another time when there was a corset on your intellectual and artistic spirit.” It was, therefore, perhaps fitting that director and producer Stanley Kramer hired Nedrick Young, a blacklisted screenwriter, to assist in adapting the play for the big screen.

Fact and fiction

At the end of the film, it is revealed that Drummond is actually a practicing Christian. Hornbeck is taken aback and berates him strongly. Drummond says he pities Hornbeck and asks him, “You don’t need anything, do you? People. Love. An idea just to cling to. You poor slob. You’re all alone. When you go to the grave there won’t be anyone to pull the grass up over your head. Nobody to mourn you. Nobody to give a damn. You’re all alone.” Hornbeck replies: “You’re wrong, Henry. You’ll be there. You’re the type. Who else would defend my right to be lonely?” This Voltaire-esque reply is one of the most poignant parts of the film, and in a way, its most moving comment on the McCarthy era. The loneliness of having an unpopular opinion is frightening, but the right to have an independent thought is one that should be defended zealously. The film closes with Drummond picking up a copy of the Bible and Darwin’s The Descent of Man, thumping them together and walking out of the courtroom, showing in no uncertain terms that it is possible for two opposing ideas to live together.

The Tennessee Supreme Court overturned Scopes’ conviction on January 15, 1927, not on the grounds of the unconstitutionality of the Butler Act, but on a relatively minor technicality. Judge Raulston had imposed the $100 fine. However, under the constitution of Tennessee, any fine in excess of $50 has to be assessed by a jury. Reversing the lower court’s judgment, the Tennessee Supreme Court stated, “We see nothing to be gained by prolonging the life of this bizarre case. On the contrary, we think the peace and dignity of the State, which all criminal prosecutions are brought to redress, will be better conserved by the entry of a nolle prosequi herein. The Butler Act would remain in force for 40 more years. It was finally repealed on May 17, 1967.

Inherit the Wind is, therefore, a film about an actual trial, but it isn’t really about the trial. The actual trial was about a man who was accused of committing a crime, but it wasn’t really about the man or the crime. It was a platform for the voicing of opinions on larger questions. With the help of carefully planned and calculated moves made right from the beginning, the trial had ceased to be a process of dispensing justice and was turned into a dais for making political speeches. In much the same way, Inherit the Wind took the events and personalities that shaped the trial, shaved off the inconvenient bits that came in the way of the point it was trying to make, and ultimately presented an inaccurate version of what happened.

It is perhaps the only instance of the real trial being as much of a fiction as the celluloid trial.

(Sayak Dasgupta wanders around myLaw looking for things to do.)

Nanavati v. Maharashtra, the sensational true case behind Rustom (2016)

Rustom, released today, is Akshay Kumar’s latest movie. You probably know that it is based on a true story, but do you know the details of the sensational trial on which it is based? The real story is far more explosive and dramatic than any fictional film could possibly be.

K.M. Nanavati v. State of Maharashtra had all the elements of a thrilling potboiler but it involved real people and events. The cast of the actual case became more famous than movie stars – not just K.M. Nanavati, Sylvia Nanavati, and Prem Ahuja, who were involved in the actual incidents, but even those involved in the subsequent trials, including Y.V Chandrachud, Karl Khandalavala, and Ram Jethmalani. Moreover, the case became forever etched in the legal history of India as the last jury trial held in the country.

Join us as we delve into the events, personalities, and the unbelievable twists and turns of this true story that probably became the first instance of a trial by media in India. With the help of Senior Advocate Sanjay Hegde and legal historian Kalyani Ramnath, we explore how this case has affected the way we deal with circumstantial evidence, what “grave and sudden provocation” means, the Governor’s power to grant pardons, and much more. We also ask the big question: Should the jury trial be brought back?

Witness for the Prosecution (1957) – The Courtroom as Chessboard


I can’t claim to know a lot about chess. I mean I know the basic rules, but put me up against even a semi-competent 6-year-old and I would probably struggle to hold my own. Ask me what a “Sicilian Defence” is and I would guess Vito Corleone’s attorney. Mention “Scotch Game” and I would assume you were challenging me to a round of “Who can drink more Glenlivet?” But as an outsider, I am endlessly fascinated by chess, in much the same way as I am fascinated by quantum mechanics. My rudimentary understanding of the subject gives me enough of an idea of the big, complex things to be intrigued and beguiled by them, but I can barely wrap my head around their intricate workings.

Not just a game

Chess, of course, is a world in itself. Contained within the sprawl of those 64 squares are millions of moves and gambits, hundreds of memorable matches, and 1700 years of history spanning the entire globe. It is not surprising that for chess enthusiasts, the sun can rise and set on that chequered board. For them, chess becomes more than a mere game. Take, for instance, one of the greatest games of chess ever played: the World Chess Championship match of 1972 between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky – the subject of numerous articles, books, documentaries, and at least one major film. Played at the height of the Cold War, the match came to represent far more than a simple game of chess. No one put it better than one of the greatest players of all time, Garry Kasparov: “I think the reason you looked at these matches probably was not so much the chess factor but for the political element, which was inevitable, because in the Soviet Union, chess was treated by the authorities as a very important and useful ideological tool to demonstrate the intellectual superiority of the Soviet communist regime over the decadent West. So that’s why Boris Spassky’s defeat in 1972, when Bobby Fischer took the crown from the hands of the Soviet Chess School… Since 1948, the chess title was firmly in the hands of Soviet players. This event was treated by people on both sides of the Atlantic as a crunch moment in the midst of the Cold War. Big intellectual victory for the United States and huge, painful, almost insulting defeat for the Soviet Union.”

“But, contrary to popular belief,” Kasparov added, “Chess was never part of the education system in the Soviet Union. Soviet authorities had no interest in actually using chess – which I believe has the unique ability to enhance cognitive skills of kids – to use this in the schools, because all they wanted was just to find talent. So it was an investment to make sure that the top tier of Soviet chess would be always reinforced by new talent coming from the bottom of this pyramid.” Winning a game of chess became an end in itself. And it’s not difficult to see how that could happen. Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977) is the story of two noblemen of Lucknow who are so consumed by the game that they fail to realise that Awadh has fallen to the hands of the British. And for all the fuss kicked up over the global political ramifications of the Fischer-Spassky match, wasn’t it much ado about almost nothing? The Cold War would continue for another 19 years. Bobby Fischer, who suffered from various psychological issues including paranoid personality disorder, would refuse to defend his title, which would go to a new Soviet Grandmaster, Anatoly Karpov, who would remain world champion for another decade. Nothing really changed. Despite the historic defeats and victories on the chessboard, the real world takes its own course. And this, it would seem, is what many also believe about the judicial system.

Not just a court drama

WitnessFortheProsecutionBilly Wilder’s Witness for the Prosecution (1957), based on a play adapted from Agatha Christie’s short story of the same name, is a classic that is considered one of the greatest legal dramas ever made (placed 6th on the American Film Institute’s List of Top 10 Courtroom Dramas), which is a well-deserved accolade, given its clever plot, tight pacing, sharp dialogue and some truly memorable performances by the actors. But what really stayed with me is what the film seemed to say about the relationship between the trial process and justice.

Before I move on to the plot, I should warn you that the film hinges on a major twist that the filmmakers were very careful not to divulge. In fact, at the end of the film, a voice-over says: “The management of this theatre suggests that for the greater entertainment of your friends who have not yet seen the picture, you will not divulge, to anyone, the secret of the ending of Witness for the Prosecution.” It is said that Marlene Dietrich may have lost out on an Oscar purely because of the studio’s unwillingness to campaign for her lest they inadvertently give away the ending. Of course, this was much before the days of the Internet – a simple Google search for the film will lead you to hundreds of pages that will readily reveal the ending. This is also before the “twist ending” became a gimmick for every other movie (M. Night Shyamalan, I’m looking at you). The film is now almost 60 years old – whatever novelty the surprise ending once had has surely been around for long enough for us to be able to talk about it. But, if you haven’t seen the film yet and feel that spoilers will completely destroy the film for you, consider yourself warned. Go watch it, come back and read the rest.


Sir Wilfrid Robarts (Charles Laughton) is an accomplished and respected barrister who has just recently suffered a terrible heart attack. Despite the remonstrations of his nurse Ms. Plimsoll (Elsa Lanchester), he takes on a murder case that has been making the headlines in England. Leonard Vole (Tyrone Power), an unemployed young man, is accused of murdering Mrs. Emily French (Norma Varden), a rich older widow. He had befriended her hoping that she would some day lend him money to finance the mass production of a new kind of eggbeater that he has invented. While he had received no money from her when she was alive, Mrs. French has left him a large sum in her will. Naturally, this makes Vole the prime suspect. Believing him to be innocent, Sir Wilfrid agrees to represent him in the trial. Vole has an alibi – he was home with his wife Christine (Marlene Dietrich) at the time the murder is supposed to have been committed – and he is quite certain that she will testify to that fact. She has already confirmed the alibi in her statement to the police. However, when Sir Wilfrid interviews her in the hope of putting her on the stand as a witness for the defence, she turns out to be cold and completely unsympathetic to her husband’s plight.

WItnessForTheProsecutionMarleneDietrichChristineChristine is a German actress who had met Vole while he was serving in the Second World War. She reveals to Sir Wilfrid that she had only married him to get out of war-ravaged Germany, and that her marriage to Vole is actually void as she had already been married to another German man before she had even met Vole. Sir Wilfrid immediately decides not to put her on the stand and tells her that, by law, she cannot give incriminating testimony against her husband. However, during the trial he is shocked when Christine appears as a witness for prosecution. His objection is overruled when it is proved in court that since Christine was already a married woman when she married Vole, she cannot legally be considered his wife – spousal privilege does not apply and she can testify against him. (The law of spousal privilege no longer applies in quite that way in England. While a person cannot be compelled to testify against her/his spouse, s/he has a right to testify if s/he so wishes.) Christine testifies against Vole, denying that he was with her at the time of the murder and contradicting all the statements made in his defence. Vole’s case seems to be completely destroyed. However, just when all hope seems to be lost, Sir Wilfrid gets a call from a woman who, for a substantial sum of money, hands him a bunch of letters written by Christine to a lover, Max, in which she has written about her plot to destroy her “husband”. Armed with this fresh evidence, Sir Wilfrid discredits Christine’s testimony, proving that she has perjured herself. The jury acquits Vole.

Not just a twist

WitnessForTheProsecutionLeonardVoleTyronePowerHowever, as promised, there is a twist in the tale. It turns out that Christine is actually very much in love with Vole. Realising that “no jury would believe an alibi given by a loving wife”, Christine had decided to become a witness for the prosecution and orchestrate a chain of events that would lead to the jurors believing that she had lied under oath to get her husband in trouble. There was no Max – she had painstakingly written fake letters to an imaginary lover to fool the court. The woman who had given the letters to Sir Wilfrid had, in fact, been Christine in disguise (a truly stunning performance by Marlene Dietrich and a fantastic job by the make-up artist; I genuinely had no clue it was her the first time I watched the film). She reveals all of this to Sir Wilfrid after the trial is over along with the chilling fact that Vole had murdered Mrs. French. However, her dreams of reuniting with her “husband” are dashed when Vole, pleased with his acquittal and newfound wealth, tells her that he is leaving her for another woman. When she threatens to go to the authorities and confess to her perjury, he laughs it off, saying he can’t be convicted for the same crime again (we should take another quick moment to note that double jeopardy doesn’t quite work that way – cases can be reopened on the basis of fresh evidence). Enraged at her lover’s infidelity, Christine uses the knife that had been used to murder Mrs. French, to stab Vole to death. When Ms. Plimsoll declares, “She killed him,” Sir Wilfrid corrects her, “She executed him.” As the film comes to an end, he decides to represent Christine in her murder trial.

At the time Witness for the Prosecution was made, the penalty for murder was death (capital punishment for murder was abolished in England in 1965), and so, the film seems to suggest that justice has been done. It also seems to state that the legal system had nothing to do with it. True justice, it seems to say, is an independent concept that stands removed from the process of arriving at justice. The idea that justice by its very nature is a divine, elevated concept marred by flawed and ineffectual corporeal legal systems is not a new one, and is reiterated time and again in various works of fiction. A good example is Graham Greene’s short story The Case for the Defence. A man accused of murder is acquitted because he has an identical twin brother and the eyewitnesses cannot be certain which twin they saw at the scene. But as the brothers walk out of the courthouse, one of them is run over by a bus and dies instantaneously. Although we never really find out whether this was the twin who committed the murder, the narrator hints at an act of divine vengeance. But, once again, the larger point here seems to be that judicial mechanisms are easily manipulated and true justice can only be achieved outside the boundaries of law.

WitnessForTheProsecutionCharlesLaughlinWilfridRobartsFilms and literature often view the trial process like a game of chess, a self-absorbed exercise in futility with strict rules, prone to becoming an end in itself rather than a means to achieve justice. Like chess, the trial becomes nothing more than a competition of wit and cunning, in which clever practitioners can carefully plan their every move, employing every devastating tactic, strategy and gambit in their arsenal to foil their opponents and achieve victory. The players in the system tend to lose sight of the forest for the trees. The trial itself becomes more important than dispensing justice. You can call this outlook cynical, but is it entirely untrue? I’m not sure it is.

Not just a coincidence

But what does this say about the filmmakers’ and perhaps the audience’s perception of the judicial process? Is it that courts of justice really have no agency at all? That the trial is a sham, a sideshow, so much window dressing and going through the motions? Is it, like the Shakespearean idiot’s tale, full of sound and fury signifying nothing? In Witness for the Prosecution, “justice” is delivered through the stabbing hand of Christine, an extra-judicial act of vigilantism that, in the eyes of the film, is not criminal but necessary. In The Case for the Defence, “justice” is seemingly completely beyond the realm of human action and has to be meted out by an act of God. It betrays our weakness for an individual mover and our suspicion of faceless systems. It’s why in our popular fiction, heroes are godlike and government agencies are Kafka-esque. In her final act of vengeance, Christine is Batman, dispensing justice where the legal system failed, while Sir Wilfrid is Commissioner Gordon, a part of the system who watches helplessly as it fails the cause of justice and then decides to work from inside to help the hero.

While speaking about the Fischer-Spassky match of 1972, Garry Kasparov said, “Bobby Fischer was a great player, but he was like a lonely warrior, a guy from Brooklyn taking on the mighty Soviet Chess School. […] Mathematically speaking, the chance of finding Bobby Fischer was miniscule, so Fischer was some kind of miracle while the almost assembly line of champions in the Soviet Union was quite predictable because of the massive investment of the state into the chess infrastructure.” A lonely warrior triumphing over a larger system. Doesn’t that narrative sound familiar? It would seem that, like the trial, the game of chess, with its cold, technical precision and its self-contained, self-regulated mechanism of cause and effect, is not immune to the influence of the fairy tale flights of fancy of the outside world. And even on a square board, it is possible to come full circle.

(Sayak Dasgupta wanders around myLaw looking for things to do.)

[Video] How the President’s Rule drama in Uttarakhand and Arunachal illustrate India’s Centre-State relations

Earlier this year, a constitutional provision returned to the headlines after a brief hiatus. Article 356 was invoked and President’s Rule imposed in the states of Arunachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand. After prolonged political drama, the judges of the Supreme Court and the Uttarakhand High Court struck down these proclamations.

As the situations developed in parallel, it became clear that the Governors of the states played key roles in the use of this constitutional provision as a weapon of political war. This was also evident from a bare reading of the text of Article 356.

What was the constitutional design behind vesting the Governor with these powers? Why did the judiciary not interfere, as Article 356 was repeatedly misused for forty years? What motivated the judges of the Supreme Court and the Uttarakhand High Court to strike the proclamations down?

To answer these questions, we turned to senior advocate and Times Now regular Sanjay Hegde and Alok Prasanna Kumar, the Senior Resident Fellow at the Vidhi Centre for Legal Policy. As they explain judgments of the Supreme Court and narrate tales of political intrigue, you will realise that the history of Article 356 is the history of Centre-State relations in India.

Soft judicial review, conflicts with other rights, and other problems in the Draft Equality Bill


(Tarun Khaitan, an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Oxford and the Hackney Fellow in Law at Wadham College has proposed a draft Equality Bill, 2016 and myLaw has invited some scholars and advocates to comment on it. This is the third response we have published and it is from a team from the Centre for Law and Policy Research. Tarunabh has asked us to convey his gratitude for the comments from Alok and Talha and he has already revised his draft in light of those comments.)

The Draft Equality Bill, 2016 is an ambitious legislative proposal. This Bill aims to advance civil remedies against discrimination by private and public actors on several grounds. It follows a sequence of civil society proposals for a new civil equality law in India like the Bangalore Declaration in 2007 or the Lawyers Collective’s HIV/AIDS Bill 2007. In the last decade, at least two reports by committees established by the Government of India have proposed new initiatives to serve social equality: the Equal Opportunity Commission: What, Why and How? in 2007; the Sachar Report Social, Economic and Educational Status of the Muslim Community of India, 2006. Three new book length works on equality have been published in the last 3 years: Tools of Justice: Non-discrimination and the Indian Constitution by Kalpana Kannabinan; A Theory of Discrimination Law by Tarunabh Khaitan and Unconditional Equality: Gandhi´s Religion of Resistance by Ajay Skaria.

At present, equality law is composed of constitutional rights and a hotchpotch of legislation to provide remedies against different types of discrimination in India. Some legislations provide criminal remedies, like the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 others offer civil remedies, like the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013 and the Equal Remuneration Act 1976; a third category adopts a welfare approach like the Persons with Disability (Equal Opportunities, Protection of Rights and Full Participation) Act, 1995. These legislation address certain aspects of equality in a particular sector or for certain specific groups. There has been no overarching equality law that has inbuilt flexibility to respond to the varied aspects of equality.

The draft Bill aims to fill in this lacuna by protecting an open-ended list of characteristics, establishing new concepts such as separation and boycott, relying on the principle of proportionality, and imposing negative and positive duties on public and certain private parties.

Though well-intentioned, the Bill raises several fundamental questions which have constitutional implications. This essay interrogates whether the Bill goes beyond the constitutionally permissible means to achieve the aims of equality. This analysis is organised in two parts: the first is an analysis of the concept of equality that the Bill proposes and the conflict it poses to other rights while the second part deals with the judicial review approach.

Equality and other rights

Expression and association

The material scope of the Bill is wide enough to cover a wide array of parties and relationships hitherto outside the ambit of the law. The protected grounds are also wide, loosely defined, and open ended. For instance, ‘harassment’ covers any communication or conduct related to a protected characteristic or group that creates an “intimidating, hostile or bullying environment”. Section 7(2) also provides that in order to determine what constitutes such an environment, the point of view of a “reasonable person belonging to that protected group” will be taken into account. The politics of who constitutes the “reasonable person” in the protected group might play out adversely to the detriment of the fundamental freedoms we have in the Constitution, especially with regard to freedom of speech and expression. This is because the Indian courts have tended to disregard the demands of liberty and autonomy.

Similarly, the definition of segregation under Section 9, is too broadly phrased. It covers any “overt or implicit abetment, support, encouragement, facilitation of, or use of force, coercion or manipulation” with the intent of preventing a person from “interacting with, relating to, marrying, eating with, living with, socialising with, becoming friends with…” The import of such drafting is that under the current framework of the Bill, families, inter-personal relationships such as friendship, private contractual relationships between individuals are covered under it.

Further, the legal duties are novel and extensive. In contrast to the anti-discrimination duty under Section 12, which applies to only certain categories of persons (employer, landlord, trader, service provider, public authority, and private persons performing public functions), the duty not to engage in aggravated forms of discrimination, under Section 14 which includes boycott, harassment and segregation applies to everybody. Additionally, while there exists a list of exceptions to the anti-discrimination duty under Section 12, the same does not extend to the case of aggravated discrimination. This list of exceptions includes for instance, “any form of expression protected by Article 19 of the Constitution”. In other words, the duty to avoid aggravated discrimination has been already cast wide and without a list of exceptions qualifying the same, can end up conflicting with autonomy and free speech. If interpreted too literally by the courts, this Bill can have detrimental effects on the autonomy of individuals to freely enter into private relations on the basis of contract.

Trade and Business

Another significant issue that arises with this Bill is the way it will pit one right against the other.

This is chiefly due to the broad, unremunerated list of protected characteristics in the Bill. Sections 3 and 4 the Bill defines the meaning of protected characteristics and groups respectively. Even a cursory glance through these two sections will indicate the wide scope and application of the Bill. Besides expressly mentioned protected characteristics, the Bill provides a guideline for the courts to define new characteristics.

The combination of this open-ended list of protected characteristics and the newly introduced concept of indirect discrimination may end up creating legal uncertainty because an excessive burden will be placed on private parties as they may not foresee the consequences of their own conduct when they enact or enforce a neutral measure at their work place. The private individual may face a variety of different remedies as a legal consequence of indirect discrimination including damages. Thus, this might lead to an undue burden on to the individual´s exercise of the fundamental right to trade and business under Article 19(1)(g).

Furthermore, it is doubtful whether the Bill as it currently stands should effectively hand the powers to the courts to curtail or expand the scope of equality as it deems fit. Judicial doctrine on equality in India is underdeveloped. Given the Indian courts’ reluctance to expand the range of protected groups and an established model of executive identification of disadvantaged groups, it is unclear why courts should be given this important task. Judicial institutions, especially in an adversarial system are not well equipped to carry out an assessment of which groups are disadvantaged. In this regard, it may arguably, be a better suggestion for the Equality Commission to promote a data-driven, transparent, identification of protected groups and characteristics. Currently, the only power before the Central Equality Commission under the proposed Bill is to recommend the inclusion of disadvantaged groups under Section 16. This list of disadvantaged groups is only significant for the imposition of a diversification duty under Section 18.

However, the courts are free to expand and limit the interpretation of protected group and characteristics under Section 3 and 4.

Judicial review approach


The Equality Bill, 2016 relies on the doctrine of proportionality on multiple instances. Under Section 5(7)(i) and Section 6(2), proportionality is used as justification for acts which amount to prima facie direct and indirect discrimination respectively. The Bill however, does not provide an independent clause which defines the doctrine of proportionality. If anything, it provides a negative understanding of proportionality under Sections 5(9) and 6(3) when it mentions that a conduct will not be deemed proportionate if there exists other less discriminatory ways of achieving the objective of the Bill. Such an understanding of proportionality falls short of the definition of proportionality which has been adopted by constitutional courts across other jurisdictions. It can therefore be assumed that the Bill relies on the understanding of proportionality which has been adopted by the Indian courts to complement the limited definition provided in the bill.

The Indian courts’ jurisprudence on the doctrine of proportionality is underdeveloped. Abhinav Chandrachud and Soli. J Sorabjee argue that although the Supreme Court had adopted a test of proportionality in Om Kumar v. Union of India, AIR 2000 SC 3689, its later judgements have gone on to reformulate the doctrine of proportionality so as to make it similar to the Wednesbury principles of unreasonableness by adopting the language of “shocking disproportionality” instead of the three-tier test which the doctrine of proportionality prescribes. In the process, even though the courts have used the language of proportionality, they have lost the essence of the doctrine. However, in a recent judgement of the Supreme Court in Modern Dental College v. State of Madhya Pradesh, Civil Appeal No.4060 of 2009, the court correctly interpreted the doctrine, though it failed to apply the same adequately to the case as it did not adjudicate over whether the method adopted was the least harmful method available when compared to the alternatives available. Though this case brings back the doctrine of proportionality as a test for the validity of a statute, it doesn’t address the lack of clarity with regard to what the principle requires in an adjudication context.

In light of the argument above, it becomes necessary to define proportionality in the Bill so as to ensure that the confusion created by the courts regarding the definition if the doctrine does not get inscribed into the Bill. If the doctrine is left undefined as it has been done in the Bill, it would fail to achieve the purpose it is designed to achieve as it operates as an anchor of the judicial approach to the law.


The Bill effectively establishes a new hierarchy of the Indian legal order which might undermine the Indian constitution. This new hierarchy puts this Bill below the constitution but above every former and future Act of Parliament. It equips the High Court with two novel powers, an interpretation of compatibility and a declaration of incompatibility.

Under this Bill, in Section 26, the High Court has the duty to interpret formerly and subsequently enacted law to be compatible as far as possible with this Bill. This is the first stage, which leads to a new de facto legal hierarchy. In addition to the Constitution, this Bill, if enacted guides the interpretation of other acts. Thus, a claimant may invoke this Bill to challenge an interpretation of another law, which might be incompatible with this Bill. Therefore, this Bill operates as a new standard of validity of all other laws.

Further, another new power given to the High Court under this section is the duty to issue a declaration of incompatibility where a subsequently enacted Act cannot be interpreted in a way which would be compatible with this Bill. Although a declaration of incompatibility has no legal consequence on the validity of the reviewed Act, it amounts to a soft review as it imposes political pressure on Parliament to change the incompatible law.

These two new measures are not novel to persons familiar with public law in the United Kingdom. The key remedies under the Human Rights Act 1998 (“HRA”) are an interpretation of compatibility and a declaration of incompatibility. Although the transfer of legal remedies into other legal system might be beneficial, it should be done with great caution. The HRA and its key measures are seen as a compromise between effective human rights protection and parliamentary sovereignty under an uncodified constitution. This special situation does not apply to the Indian situation. India has a codified constitution under which human rights are protected and fully enforceable by the Supreme Court through hard judicial review. Therefore, there is no need to create an intermediate level of human rights protection that this Bill seeks to do. A higher human rights protection against a legislation may only be achieved under the current legal system by amending the Constitution. This Bill, however, institutes new grounds for judicial review of Acts of Parliament without following the constitutional amendment procedure.

Additionally, this provision also has the powers to upset the principle of federalism under the Constitution. This Bill, by allowing any later act which might include also state legislation to be reviewed under this Bill, impedes upon the law making powers of the states.

Furthermore, there is a risk that the Indian courts will adopt case law of the British courts by interpreting the concept of compatibility. The Indian courts have already a tendency to adopt British principles into Indian law as may be observed in judicial review in administrative law. Therefore, if the Bill draws on a one to one remedy already existing in the British legal system it actually invites the Indian courts to follow their lead by interpreting the remedies in the same way. This blind importation of the case law may even further compromise the current constitutional framework as the British courts constructed the interpretation of compatibility very broadly. All provisions, notwithstanding their wording, may be read down to the extent that it does not compromise the “key features” (Ghaidan v. Godin-Mendoza, [2004] UKHL 30) of that Act. This means, if adopted by the Indian courts, that the hard judicial review under this Bill would apply to almost all provisions of reviewed Acts and effectively amending the hard judicial review under the constitution without following the constitutional amendment procedure.


Even if, the legal issues expressed above are addressed, there remains a concern with an approach to achieving equality through the ordinary civil remedy that relies to heavily on the courts as the key legal institution for enforcement. In a society where access to justice is still beyond the reach of the millions it is questionable whether such an approach would ultimately manage to create a significant, measurable impact in curbing discrimination.

(Sudhir Krishnaswamy, Diksha Sanyal, and Andreas Walter work with the Centre for Law and Policy Research)

Awara (1951) – The Courtroom as Ivory Tower


(In Camera is Sayak Dasgupta’s series of essays that examine the depictions of trials in cinema. He will look at how filmmakers have chosen to use trials and the criminal justice processes and what those depictions tell us about their view of cinema and the societies they made those films for.)

In Raj Kapoor’s directorial debut, Aag (1948), he played Kewal, a boy whose father is a successful lawyer and wants him to become one too. Kewal however, is not interested in the law; he wants to start his own theatre company. When he fails his law exams, he goes to his father and tells him as much. His father responds with an ultimatum: if he wishes to keep living in his father’s house, Kewal must forget about theatre. Kewal chooses to leave home. Aag, to use a rather obvious pun, didn’t quite set the box office on fire. It got a lukewarm response from audiences and quickly faded away. Unlike Kewal, something about the law must have appealed to the actor who played him, because three years later, in his third directorial venture, Raj Kapoor once again told the story of a son whose father is a lawyer. But this time, the story was entirely different.

The context

Where Aag fizzled out, Awara exploded like a ton of dynamite not just in India, but all over the world. It became massively popular in South Asia, the Middle East, Turkey, the Soviet Union and most of eastern Europe. Search for “Awara Hoon” on YouTube and you will come across an array of endearing videos of Russian, Uzbek, Turkish, and Chinese people singing the song, in Hindi or translated in their native languages. It is said that Chairman Mao himself counted Awara among his favourite movies.

Awara was released four years after India gained its independence, and forty years before the liberalisation of its economy. The ideals of Nehruvian socialism were still very much an important part of the zeitgeist in India and would remain so for many decades to come. And at its core, the film is about class struggle. It isn’t surprising that the film appealed particularly to Indian, Soviet, and Chinese sensibilities at the time.

At that crucial moment in India’s history, Raj Kapoor’s films would go a long way in defining how commercially successful melodramas with a social message would be made for years to come. In this film, he chose to frame the narrative within a trial.


The story

Awara_courtroomIn fact, the film begins in a courtroom. A young man called Raj (Raj Kapoor) is accused of attempting to murder the widely respected Judge Raghunath (Prithviraj Kapoor). In true Shakespearean fashion, Raj’s defence attorney is his lover, Rita (Nargis), who questions Raghunath about his long-estranged wife, leading us into a flashback.

We discover that when Raghunath was a young and wealthy lawyer, his wife, Leela (Leela Chitnis), was kidnapped by the notorious thug, Jagga (K.N. Singh). Years ago, Raghunath had apparently managed to get him convicted for a rape that he had not committed, purely on the basis of the fact that his father and grandfather were criminals. You see, Raghunath holds the firm but bewildering belief that crime is a genetically transmitted disease. In other words, criminals are born to criminals, and no child of an honest person can ever get into a life of crime. (Clearly he hasn’t given much thought to what happens if an honest person and a criminal have a child. Perhaps an Indian version of Two-Face? Seriously, who wouldn’t want to watch that movie?)

Here, we get our first glimpse of the theme of the film. Whether Raghunath knows it or not, his beliefs are clearly not based on biology, but on class factors. In his mind, respectable people with respectable jobs and families cannot produce criminals. Criminals come from the other side of society.

Ironically, in Jagga’s case it was the criminal justice system that turned him into a criminal, and his sole aim in life seems to be to have his revenge. So when he finds out that Leela is pregnant, he knows exactly what to do. He uses Raghunath’s own flawed belief system to destroy his life. Jagga sends Leela back to Raghunath knowing that there would always be uncertainty about who the unborn child’s biological father is. And sure enough, Raghunath, like a modern Ram, casts his pregnant wife out of his home.

Leela gives birth to a boy and names him Raj. Despite living in abject poverty, she dreams of her son becoming a lawyer and a judge some day, just like his father. She scrapes together enough money to get him a decent education in a good school. Young Raj (Shashi Kapoor) is an anomaly in his class, which is full of children from far more affluent families. His only friend is Rita (Baby Zubeida), the daughter of a rich lawyer. Raj is a conscientious young boy who is eager to do honest work to help his mother make ends meet, but he finds it difficult to balance work and school. His life completely falls apart when he reaches class late one day and is expelled, and also informed that his best friend Rita has left town. At home, his mother is severely ill and he can’t afford to buy food or medicine. The straits have never been direr. Enter Jagga, who is still not done with his ridiculously elaborate revenge plot. On a quest to prove that even respectable people can give birth to criminals, he takes Raj under his wing and leads him into a life of crime. By the time he is an adult, Raj has become a career criminal and a frequent jail inmate.

The conflict

Raj Kapoor ensures that he keeps our protagonist as everyman as possible. In creating Raj, he borrowed heavily from Charlie Chaplin’s loveable tramp character to ensure our sympathies lie with him. We empathise with Raj’s ambitions of being upwardly mobile. In a revealing reflection of the times, Raj tells Jagga that he met a “political” the last time he was in jail and learnt to speak English from him. Despite working for the ruthless Jagga, Raj never seems to commit any particularly heinous or violent crimes (we mostly seem him commit petty theft). However, he is very acutely aware of his place in society, and when we do see the class struggle embodied in him erupting in acts of violence, it is particularly jarring. An especially disturbing example comes after Raj is reunited with Rita after many years and they fall in love. When Rita jokingly calls him “junglee” (uncouth, uncivilised, ill-mannered, ill-bred), he physically assaults her, twisting her arm, choking her, slapping her. Rita, despite being the one who has been assaulted, begs his forgiveness, even encouraging him to hit her some more. This bizarre scene only makes some semblance of sense if one thinks of Rita as a representation of the upper class, filled with its own version of white guilt, seeking forgiveness from the lower classes – an extraordinarily tone-deaf spectacle of self-flagellation from the affluent makers of the film.

After her father passed away, Rita was adopted by none other than Raghunath, who is now a respected judge, and she is now training to be a lawyer. Having fallen in love with her, Raj tries to leave his life of crime behind and start afresh. He gives up his swank apartment and becomes a factory-worker. However, his employer find out that he used to be a criminal and fires him. Before leaving, Raj asks him an important question: If he didn’t want to employ former criminals, did he want them to go back to a life of crime in order to survive? It is very rare for a mainstream Bollywood film to ask tough questions about the rehabilitation of criminals. This scene serves the dual purpose of exposing our society’s attitudes towards criminals, while also underlining the ability of the powerful upper class to disenfranchise and take away the means of survival of those who have less power.

Judge Raghunath is the very embodiment of this toxic mix of prejudice and power. When Rita tells him of her love for Raj, he insists on meeting him, and when they meet, he humiliates and belittles Raj. When Raj gets back home, he finds Jagga trying to kill his mother. In trying to save her and himself, Raj kills Jagga. In a stunning (and rather convenient) twist of fate his case is brought up before Judge Raghunath. Even before he has heard arguments on the matter, Raghunath has made up his mind to find Raj guilty – a clear demonstration of the unholy marriage of prejudice and power. But Rita takes it upon herself to get Raj acquitted. She asks Leela to testify to her son’s innocence, but when she reaches the court, Leela sees Raghunath from afar and recognises him. As she tries to walk to him she is run over by Raghunath’s car. When Raj hears of this, he is overcome with rage thinking that the judge has attempted to murder his mother. He escapes from prison and goes to Raghunath’s house to kill him. However, he is unable to go through with it and is arrested. And this brings us back to where the film began – the trial of Raj for the attempted murder of Raghunath.

The message

In Damini, Govind (Sunny Deol) repeatedly asserts that the judicial system has become a pawn in the hands of the rich and powerful. In Awara, this is demonstrated. Raghunath, referred to throughout the film as “Judge Sahab”, comes from a wealthy family and benefits from all the privileges that come with it. As a judge he gains power over people’s fates, but he is human, and like many humans, he harbours irrational prejudices that warp his sense of justice. He sits in judgment from atop an ivory tower completely ignorant of the harsh realities of living in poverty and squalor. The big question Awara asks is can you truly judge someone of being guilty of a crime if you can’t understand the circumstances that made her/him a criminal?

AwaraNargis2The film makes repeated references to the gulf between the law and the heart. Towards the end of the film, Rita asks Raghunath: “Kya ab bhi aapka dil use beta maanne ke liye taiyar nahin? (Is your heart still not ready to accept the fact that that this is your son?)”. The presiding judge says, “Rita Devi, kanoon dil ko nahin manta. (Rita Devi, the law does not recognise the heart.)”, to which Rita replies, “Janaab-e-wala, dil bhi kisi kanoon ko nahin manta. (Your honour, the heart also does not recognise any law.)” The film seems to say that the courts can be heartless and cold because the people who are given the job of dispensing justice often come from a privileged section of society that divorces them from the real world, rendering them incapable of having genuine empathy for those who are not like them.

However, does this mean that Awara is purely a polemical exercise in denouncing our criminal justice system? Not really, because, in the end, Raj’s trial has possibly the most just outcome. He is found guilty of attempting to murder Raghunath, but given the singular circumstances and the history of the people involved, the court sentences him to only three years in prison. Even Raj agrees that this is fair, that he must atone for what he has done. While many Hindi films would have acquitted Raj entirely, Awara takes an uncommonly fair and even-handed approach to the case. In the end, the court climbs down from its ivory tower and justice is done.

(Sayak Dasgupta wanders around myLaw looking for things to do.)