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Category: History (page 1 of 50)

12 Angry Men (1957) and Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (1986) – The Courtroom as Red Herring

SayakDasgupta_InCameraIn 1973, a boy named Kevin Edward Noonan took his high school sweetheart to watch a screening of a 1957 movie. She had just earned a full scholarship to Princeton and was considering going to law school in the future. Perhaps he hoped that watching a classic legal drama would inspire her. And it did. She was especially moved by a scene at around the hour mark in which an immigrant speaks about the greatness of the American judicial system. “This, I have always thought, is a remarkable thing about democracy,” he says. “That we are… what is the word? Notified! That we are notified by mail to come down to this place to decide on the guilt or innocence of a man we have never heard of before. We have nothing to gain or lose by our verdict. This is one of the reasons why we are strong.” The young girl, whose only legal inspiration till then had been Perry Mason, was blown away. “I had never thought about the juries and their function until I saw this movie,” she later said. “This was my very first inspiration. When the watchmaker in that scene talked about the greatness of democracy being the jury system? It sold me.” The movie was 12 Angry Men, and the girl was Sonia Sotomayor, the first Latina to become a judge at the Supreme Court of the United States.

The Origin Story

12 Angry Men was originally written as a fifty-minute teleplay in 1954 by Reginald Rose, one of a group of bright, socially-conscious up-and-coming screenwriters of the ‘50s – a decade known as the golden age of television drama in the US (much like the present decade) – that included such legends as Rod Serling and Paddy Chayefsky. Rose was inspired by his own experience of jury duty on a manslaughter case in New York City. Initially, he had been reluctant to serve on a jury, but, as he wrote later: “the moment I walked into the courtroom… and found myself facing a strange man whose fate was suddenly more or less in my hands, my entire attitude changed.” The gravity of the situation, the sombre activity of the court, and the “absolute finality” of the decision of the jurors made a deep impact on him. He felt that since no one other than the jurors had any idea of what went on in a jury room, “a play taking place entirely within a jury room might be an exciting and possibly moving experience for an audience”.

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Opening pages of the stage play book

The result was a taut, gripping story about a jury that must decide the fate of a young Hispanic boy who has been accused of murdering his father. Eleven of the jurors believe that he is guilty, but only one man is unconvinced, and what proceeds is a tense debate on the facts of the case, a dismantling of all the ostensibly damning evidence, and also an airing of social stigmas and ingrained prejudices. A play written in the ‘50s will obviously have its attendant problems of representation; it might as well have been called “12 Straight White Men”. There are no women or persons of colour in the jury. But the plot allows for a range of characters fitting various archetypes. This becomes especially clear from the notes on characters and costumes in the stage play adaptation. Juror No. 2 is “a meek, hesitant man who finds it difficult to maintain any opinions of his own,” whereas Juror No. 3 is “very strong, forceful, extremely opinionated […] intolerant of opinions other than his own, and accustomed to forcing his wishes and views upon others.” Juror No. 7 is “a loud, flashy, glad-handed salesman type who has more important things to do than sit on a jury,” and is, basically “a bully, and, of course, a coward”, whereas Juror No. 11 “is a refugee from Europe […] who speaks with an accent and is ashamed, humble, almost subservient to the people around him.” There is the “man of wealth and position” who feels “a little bit above the rest of the jurors and whose “only concern is with the facts in the case”, and there is a “slick, bright advertising man who thinks of human beings in terms of percentages, graphs and polls”. Our hero, Juror No. 8 is a “quiet, thoughtful, gentle man”, a man “who wants justice to be done, and will fight to see that it is.” In other words, he is a lone warrior fighting an uphill battle against a room full of men opposed to him; an underdog fighting for another underdog. These are all tried and tested archetypes and they work really well.

Film Adaptations

The teleplay was adapted into a film directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Henry Fonda. Although the film didn’t fair very well at the box office, it gained almost universal critical acclaim, and is considered one of the most influential films ever made. The American Film Institute ranked it second in its list of the top 10 courtroom dramas of all time, just behind To Kill A Mockingbird (1962), an interesting decision given that an actual courtroom only appears in the film for less than 2 minutes; the rest of the film’s 96-minute running time plays out in an increasingly claustrophobic jury deliberation room. But there is no doubting its influence. It was remade as a television film forty years later by acclaimed director William Friedkin starring George C. Scott, Jack Lemmon and James Gandolfini. In fact, it has been repeatedly remade in various languages in various countries around the world, including Germany, Norway, Japan, Russia, France, China and, of course, India, despite the fact that most of these countries do not even have a judicial system that mandates jury trials.

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The Indian version, Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, directed by Basu Chatterjee and starring Pankaj Kapur, M.K. Raina and Annu Kapoor was made in 1986. At a run time of 127 minutes, it is half-an-hour longer than the original, but is a more-or-less faithful translation. And I do mean that quite literally. The jurors have the same personalities and even correspond to the same numbers as in the original. Many of the dialogues are direct Hindustani translations of the original English lines. Even some of the jokes are repeated. The racism and prejudice against Hispanics, immigrants and slum-dwellers displayed by some of the jurors in 12 Angry Men have been cleverly reflected in Ek Ruka Hua Faisla as upper-caste bigotry against minorities and the rising hatred for South Indian immigrants in Bombay that was being fuelled by right-wing groups at the time.

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Scenes from 12 Angry Men (left) and Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (right)

The Jury Is Still Out

But the thing to note here is that by 1986, the jury trial was long dead in India. There is nothing in the film to suggest that it is a period film based in the ‘50s when jury trials still happened, and yet there is no explanation for a jury in this case. In the Chinese adaptation, 12 Citizens (2014), the twelve men are assembled from different walks of life to form a mock jury as part of an experiment in a law school, a set-up that makes sense. As we had discussed in our video on the Nanavati trial earlier this year, the East India Company had introduced the jury trial in India as Englishmen considered it their right to be judged by a jury of their peers. However, even under the British Raj, English lawyers felt that Indians did not make good jurors as they were deemed to be irrational, swayed by superstition and religion and incapable of understanding the English language in which court proceedings were conducted. Various law commission reports suggested the abolition of the jury trial, the final one being the 41st Law Commission Report published in 1969. The Nanavati case is widely regarded as the nail in the coffin of the jury trial, which was done away with in the Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973.

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Justice Y.V. Chandrachud (Image from supremecourtofindia.nic.in)

The public prosecutor in the Nanavati trial was Y.V. Chandrachud, who would go on to become the Chief Justice of India. It was during his tenure as Chief Justice that he was a part of the five-judge bench that presided over the landmark case of Bachan Singh vs. State of Punjab AIR 1980 SC 898, in which he and three of his brother judges upheld the validity of the death sentence under Section 302 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. The only dissenting voice was that of Justice Bhagwati who felt that the death penalty was unconstitutional. However, the most important aspect of the judgment was the court’s pronouncement that the death penalty should only be given in the “rarest of rare cases”. In Ek Ruka Hua Faisla as in 12 Angry Men, the judge tells the jurors that if they found the accused guilty, he would be automatically sentenced to death. While this certainly raises the stakes in the films and makes the decision far more difficult, one wonders if a boy would be sentenced to death in India for killing his violent, abusive father keeping in mind the fact that there have been only 56 death penalty cases in Maharashtra since 1947. There are other basic inaccuracies that a layman might miss, but are glaring errors for lawyers who are familiar with the jury system. For example, in Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, one of the jurors is shown casually reading a newspaper just before deliberations begin. Anyone who is familiar with jury trials knows that jurors are completely sequestered during the pendency of the trial and are denied access to newspapers, television and any form of mass media in order to keep them absolutely unbiased. Similarly, while I am not an expert in American criminal law, it seemed improper of the judge in 12 Angry Men to tell the jury that a guilty verdict would necessarily attract the death penalty. It is my understanding that once the jury has given its verdict the judge sets a date for sentencing. Before that date, a pre-sentence investigation is carried out to help the judge determine the appropriate sentence. The pre-sentence investigation may consider the defendant’s prior criminal record, background, possible mitigating circumstances of the crime, the likelihood of successful probationary sentence, and suggested programmes for rehabilitation. It seems a little presumptuous of the judge to offer a foregone conclusion to the jurors before any of this has been done.

Flawed Greatness

Official Portrait of Justice Sonia Sotomayor

Official Portrait of Justice Sonia Sotomayor

But ultimately, there is no point in getting hung up on legal inaccuracies in a film, where the aim is to build tension and keep the audience engaged. While all the characters in the films are interesting, arguably the most important character is mostly invisible: the court. And while 12 Angry Men is a great film that had a positive impact on many people, it is not without its flaws. Justice Sotomayor, who counts the film among her major inspirations, admitted that, as a lower-court judge, she referred to it to instruct jurors on how not to carry out their duties. While speaking about the film in Fordham University in 2010, she said: “I would bring up this movie and explain to them that some of the things that happened, shouldn’t have happened. There’s an awful lot of speculation in the film.” The courtroom proceedings in the film are portrayed as a complete shambles. The defence attorney is described as incompetent and uninterested in the case. However, Sotomayor went further and also criticised the unseen prosecutor, stating that the job of the prosecutor is not merely to convict people, but also to investigate thoroughly beforehand to ensure the defendant’s guilt.

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Scenes from 12 Angry Men (left) and Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (right)

Like many other films based on the law, 12 Angry Men is suspicious of the judicial system and reposes more faith in the efforts and ingenuity of one bright individual warrior for the cause of truth. The largely absent courtroom in the film is cast less as a facilitator of justice and more as a hindrance, where lazy, bored and cynical officers of the court do a shoddy job of conducting a trial, subverting the judicial process, making it a farcical exercise. Rather than bringing some clarity to the case, the courtroom manages to mislead all but one man, making it the largest red herring in the history of crime. The twelve men, it would seem, have every right to be angry.

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[Video] Mathura: The rape that changed India

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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.

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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.)

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

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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?

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The marital exception to rape: How to make a crime disappear

SayakDasguptaSir Matthew Hale, one of England’s greatest jurists, was a simple, humble, and fastidiously honest man. In fact, so unimpeachable was his character that, despite being a royalist who defended the opponents of the Commonwealth of England during the English Civil War, he was still appointed a justice of the common pleas by Oliver Cromwell when the Commonwealth came to power. When the Restoration happened, the King appointed him Chief Baron of the Exchequer, even though he had held office in the government of his mortal enemies. Hale, it is said, had no desire to receive the knighthood, so he literally had to be tricked into it (Lord Clarendon invited Hale to his house where the King was waiting to knight him on the spot).

For all his virtues, though, Hale was as much of a fusty old antiquarian when it came to women, as you would expect from a privileged, white, devoutly Puritan Englishman from the 1600s. In a letter to his granddaughters, he wrote longingly of a time when “the education and employment of young gentlewomen was religious, sober, and serious, their carriage modest and creditable was their habit and dress” and “when they came to be disposed of in marriage, they were themselves a portion whether they had little or much, and could provide for and govern a family with prudence and discretion, and were great helps to their husbands, and knew how to build up a family, and accordingly were instruments in it”. He bemoaned how times had changed and “young gentlewomen learn to be bold, talk loud and more than comes to their share, think it disparagement for them to know what belongs to good housewifery, or to practise it, make it their business to paint or patch their faces, to curl their locks, and to find out the newest and costliest of fashions.” He wrote that he would never allow his granddaughters to be like this, that he would train them to be “good wives and better portions to your husbands than the money you bring, if it were double to what I intend you, for you will be builders up of a house and family, not destroyers of it”. Above all, he wanted them to be “good examples to others, and be thereby a means to take off the reproach that justly enough lies upon the generality of English gentlewomen, that they are the ruin of families”.

Like most men of the time, Hale saw women as some sort of loveable hybrid between a trainable pet and an obedient servant, who should be strictly controlled lest they go out of hand. It is perhaps somewhat revealing that after his wife died, Hale married his housekeeper, Anne Bishop, whom he described in his will as “most dutiful, faithful and loving”, words that can also be used to describe an adoring butler or a loyal dog.

No longer enough to create further exceptions”

Four centuries of faith in wedding vows forming permanent consent for sex. Mathew Hale (left), when he was Chief Justice of the King's Bench and Union Minister for Women and Child Development, Maneka Gandhi. Maneka Gandhi's image is from the Press Information Bureau.

Four centuries of faith in wedding vows forming permanent consent for sex. Mathew Hale (left), when he was Chief Justice of the King’s Bench and Union Minister for Women and Child Development, Maneka Gandhi. Maneka Gandhi’s image is from the Press Information Bureau.

Perhaps Hale’s most famous work as a legal scholar is the Historia Placitorum Coronæ or The History of the Pleas of the Crown, which was published in 1736 (60 years after his death, despite an instruction in his will clearly stating that none of his manuscripts were to be published posthumously) and is considered a seminal work in the development and evolution of common law. It was in this book that he wrote the now (in)famous line that had been used until relatively recently in most common law countries to defend marital rape:

“But the husband cannot be guilty of a rape committed by himself upon his lawful wife, for by their mutual matrimonial consent and contract the wife hath given up herself in this kind unto her husband, which she cannot retract.”

The husband, then, by virtue of marriage, gained complete right over his wife’s body. Wedding vows were meant to be a form of permanent consent for sex. It would not be a stretch to say that for most women at the time, the bond of marriage was akin to bonded servitude mixed with sexual slavery.

This would be the norm in England for the next two centuries, but changes in social attitudes towards marriage began to make the marital exemption to rape seem increasingly more ridiculous with every passing year. In 1990, the Law Commission in England released the Working Paper No. 116 on Rape within Marriage in which it recommended unequivocally that the exemption should be abolished. But the final death knell for the spousal exemption came in 1991 with the House of Lords’ landmark decision in R. v R, in which the court held that “Hale’s proposition is based on a fiction and moreover a fiction which is inconsistent with the proper relationship between husband and wife today.” The judges observed that “courts have been paying lip service to the Hale proposition, whilst at the same time increasing the number of exceptions, the number of situations to which it does not apply. This is a legitimate use of the flexibility of the common law which can and should adapt itself to changing social attitudes,” but then added the powerful line: “There comes a time when the changes are so great that it is no longer enough to create further exceptions restricting the effect of the proposition, a time when the proposition itself requires examination to see whether its terms are in accord with what is generally regarded today as acceptable behaviour.”

On the question of whether the court should step aside to leave the matter to the Parliamentary process, the House of Lords stated: “This is not the creation of a new offence, it is the removal of a common law fiction which has become anachronistic and offensive and we consider that it is our duty having reached that conclusion to act upon it.”

RvR_HouseofLords_ChiefJusticeLordLane

With these words, England removed the marital exception to the crime of rape. In the United States, states had begun to remove this exception since the 1970s, and by 1993, all 50 states had done so. By the dawn of the 21st century, marital rape was a crime in most European nations. Our neighbour Bhutan had declared it a crime as far back as 1996, and Nepal followed suit 10 years later. Today, marital rape is a crime in the majority of the countries in the world. India, however, chooses to remain on the list of countries where it isn’t; a list that includes Afghanistan, China, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

In the wake of the horrific events of December 16, 2012, the Justice J.S. Verma Committee reflected long and hard on how our criminal law system deals with various kinds of sexual violence perpetrated on women and children. Nearly six pages of its Report concentrated on the problem of marital rape. It recommended that the exception for marital rape be removed (Exception 2 to Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860 states that “Sexual intercourse or sexual acts by a man with his own wife, the wife not being under fifteen years of age, is not rape”), and that the law ought to specify that a marital relationship between the perpetrator and the victim cannot be used as a defence against rape and that it should not even be regarded as a mitigating factor justifying lower sentencing for rape.

MaritalExceptionToRapeIPC

The ordinance that was drafted on the basis of the Report included many of its recommendations but left out some of the most important ones, perhaps chief among them the recommendation on marital rape. Defending the ordinance, Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram said that issues like marital rape were difficult and that the government needed more consultations. This was, to put it mildly, perplexing. In modern times, the criminalisation of marital rape seems to be a very simple, logical, rational conclusion. In fact, one needs to perform several extraordinary feats of mental gymnastics to justify and legitimise the opposite. How is it that those who maintain that rape should attract the harshest punishment for the perpetrator suddenly find the act acceptable when a husband does it to a wife, as if a wedding is a Harry Potter-esque invisibility cloak that makes the crime disappear?

As a response to the government’s hedging on the issue, we posted the following comic on Facebook on February 9, 2013:

WSDP - Marital Rape

Now, I confess there are problems with this comic – it’s a little simplistic, and also Einstein might not have been the best choice to deliver this lesson as he was hardly the greatest husband in the world – but, the point was that it does not, or should not, take a genius to understand why the marital exception to rape should be removed.

A family that disrespects individual autonomy together…

And now, it seems the marital exception is one of those things the UPA and NDA governments agree upon. Well actually, while the former claimed that they were at least considering it, the latter seem to have ended the conversation altogether. Maneka Gandhi, the Minister for Women and Child Development has said, “It is considered that the concept of marital rape, as understood internationally, cannot be suitably applied in the Indian context due to various factors like level of education/illiteracy, poverty, myriad social customs and values, religious beliefs, mindset of the society to treat the marriage as a sacrament, etc.” This is a stunning departure from her position on the marital exception to rape just last year and the most puzzling argument I have ever heard about a legal issue. What does illiteracy or poverty have to do with amending a law that demonstrably causes physical and mental trauma to individuals? Did social customs and religious beliefs of some people stop the legislature from making laws against sati, child marriage, dowry and caste-based discrimination?

MaritalRape_CriminalLawAmenedment2012

The “mindset of the society to treat the marriage as a sacrament” point is an old one. The claim is that marriage is a sacred bond between a man and a woman (only between a man and a woman), and that the state has no business interfering in the domestic affairs of a married couple. This argument is woefully flimsy. Laws on domestic violence and divorce would not exist if the state did not think legal intervention was necessary even in a marriage.

A similar argument was used in a report on the recommendations of the Justice Verma Committee prepared by the Department-Related Parliamentary Standing Committee on Home Affairs and presented in both houses in March, 2013. It stated that while some members had suggested that Section 375 of the Indian Penal Code should allow “some room for wife [sic] to take up the issue of marital rape”, that “no woman takes marriage so simple [sic] that she will just go and complain blindly” and that “consent in marriage cannot be consent forever”, several members “felt that the marital rape [sic] has the potential of destroying the institution of marriage.” The report went on to say that “In India, for ages, the family system has evolved and it is moving forward. Family is able to resolve the problems and there is also a provision under the law for cruelty against women. It was, therefore, felt that if the marital rape is brought under the law, the entire family system will be under great stress and the Committee may perhaps be doing more injustice.”

What this suggests is mind-bogglingly terrifying. It seems to assert that the foundation of an Indian family is not based on trust, love, equality, understanding, cooperation, mutual respect and interdependence. It is based on a skewed power structure where one partner gets to inflict violence on the body and mind of the other, where the success of the relationship depends on how much the partner with less power can endure. Imagine being punched in the stomach by your brother and then being told that you should just suck it up because the law says when your sibling hits you, it’s not assault. Now imagine that he beats you up whenever he pleases and you are told that this is not a crime being committed repeatedly on your body because surely, as a family, you can work things out. If you report him to the police, the family system in India will crumble. Surely, the preservation of the “Indian family” is more important than the physical and mental trauma being caused to you.

The Standing Committee consisted of 29 members at the time, none of whom had any specific experience or expertise in women’s issues. Only 3 of the members were women. One of them was Dr. Kakoli Ghosh Dastidar, a Trinamool leader who in December, 2012 had said that the gang rape of Suzette Jordan in Park Street, Kolkata “was not at all a rape case. It was a misunderstanding between the two parties involved between a lady and her client,” thus insinuating that Jordan was a sex worker. When the report was published, a dissenting note was appended to it, and among other things, it condemned the Standing Committee’s position on marital rape as unconstitutional and contrary to the Justice Verma Committee’s recommendations. The note was given by only two members of the Standing Committee: D. Raja and Prasanta Chatterjee, of the Communist Party of India and Communist Party of India (Marxist), respectively. No other member recorded dissent.

India’s relationship with its colonial era laws is simultaneously confounding and tragicomic. On the one hand we puff up our chests with pride when we think of our freedom struggle and victory over our colonial oppressors, and on the other hand we cling stubbornly and blindly to their archaic laws, which have no place in modern times – laws that even they have done away with. But what is truly depressing is that we undervalue women so much that we would rather grasp at half-baked fictions and outdated notions of family than address the real harm being done to real individuals in real time. We are only too happy to declare that our society is too primitive to accept modern ideas and then sacrifice the safety of women on the altar of our own apathy. Yes, laws are often only amended after there has been a change in social attitude towards the issue in question, but in India, we have also had a long history of enacting laws as instruments to bring about such social change. We can either embrace that history and move with the times or throw in our lot with a man who died four centuries ago and a belief that should have died with him.

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

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A brief history of buggery

SayakDasguptaThe year is 1533 and it is a really strange time to be an English citizen. Henry VIII, the larger-than-life king of England, has begun to develop a holier-than-thou attitude. He believes he knows what god wants, despite unabashedly doing the very thing that the Catholic Church insists goes against divine will. He has already annulled his marriage with his long-suffering first wife, Catherine; romanced and possibly fathered children with her lady-in-waiting, Mary Boleyn; and then almost instantly grown tired of her and married her sister, Anne Boleyn. The Catholic Church has not taken kindly to this nearly blasphemous violation of canon law and has excommunicated him. Although Henry will sever all ties with the Roman Catholic Church and establish the Church of England, pompously declaring himself its Supreme Head, he will remain at heart a devout Catholic, adhering fervently to the core tenets of Catholicism. He believes god has bestowed upon him the “divine right of kings”, completely absolving him from being answerable to any temporal, earthly authority. He swiftly introduces this concept to the non-codified constitution of England. He truly believes he knows god’s will.

John Atherton, Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, was hanged for sodomy. The anonymous pamphlet (above) is from 1641. Public domain.

John Atherton, Bishop of Waterford and Lismore, was hanged for sodomy. The anonymous pamphlet (above) is from 1641. Public domain.

Which is perhaps the reason he has, with the help of his wily chief minister Thomas Cromwell, got the Buggery Act passed by the Parliament. It defines buggery as an unnatural sexual act against the will of god and man. And since Henry is in the best position to know the will of both god and man, he decides that the punishment should be death. Moreover, the convicted offender’s property and possessions should go not to his kin, but to the government. The real novel piece of legislation here is that even members of the clergy are not exempted from this law – a stunning declaration, given that in these times, priests and monks are not executed even for murder. Henry now goes about executing monks and nuns with a divine zeal and gaining monastery lands in the bargain. Of course he didn’t draft this law for the land – that’s just the spoils of a righteous war. Where there’s a divine will, there’s a bloody way.

Twenty years in the future, Queen Mary will repeal the Buggery Act, but then ten years after that, Queen Elizabeth I will bring it back. And so it will remain till 1828 when it will be finally repealed for good by the Offences against the Person Act. But not much will change. Buggery will remain a capital offence under the new act.

Fast forward to 1835. In England James Pratt and John Smith become the last British men to be hanged to death for the offence of buggery. In India, the First Law Commission is constituted and Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay is appointed its chairman. Lord Macaulay is the paragon of respectability, sophistication, and brilliance in British society. He has an eidetic memory and is considered a superb statesman, great orator, gifted poet, accomplished historian and expert in Greek, Roman, English, French, Spanish and German literature. But he is not without fault. By his own confession, he is completely ignorant about art and music. He is completely inept at games, sports, and physical skills, having trouble even with simple everyday tasks like shaving and tying a cravat. And he is also a product of his time. Which means he is a racist, colonialist, white supremacist, British chauvinist whose world-view is dipped in a thick, greasy, unpleasant coating of orientalism and Eurocentrism. This leads him to write things like this: “I am quite ready to take the oriental learning at the valuation of the orientalists themselves. I have never found one among them who could deny that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia. […] But when we pass from works of imagination to works in which facts are recorded and general principles investigated, the superiority of the Europeans becomes absolutely immeasurable. It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanscrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgments used at preparatory schools in England.

(From left to right) Henry VIII was King of England from 1509 until his death in 1547. Public domain. Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859), as the leading member of the Law Commission, wrote the Indian Penal Code, 1860, which inspired counterparts in most other British colonies. Public domain. Congress MP Shashi Tharoor tried to introduce a private member’s bill to decriminalise gay sex by substituting some of the language in Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. It was rejected in the Lok Sabha on December 18, 2015. Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 2.0.

(Clockwise, from left to right) Henry VIII was King of England from 1509 until his death in 1547. Public domain. Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859), as the leading member of the Law Commission, wrote the Indian Penal Code, 1860, which inspired counterparts in most other British colonies. Public domain. Congress MP Shashi Tharoor tried to introduce a private member’s bill to decriminalise gay sex by substituting some of the language in Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code. It was rejected in the Lok Sabha on December 18, 2015. Wikimedia Commons. CC BY 2.0.

At around the time Lord Macaulay sits down to draft the Indian Penal Code (“IPC”), the British have just recently discovered that slavery is a bad thing, and are still debating whether the same can be said about child labour. British women are still 83 years away from getting the right to vote and contest parliamentary elections. And homosexuals are considered so disgusting that they are still being hung to death. He submits the draft of the IPC to the Governor-General in 1837, the year Queen Victoria ascends to the throne and the Victorian era truly begins. But it will take another 23 years and several further drafts for the IPC to be finalised – 23 years that the IPC will spend baking and blistering in the searing, claustrophobic oven of Victorian era prudery, conservatism, ignorance and hypocrisy. This is a time when women are the new slaves, becoming the property of their husbands, treated like mildly intelligent breeding animals with no rights to speak of. Their husbands have total ownership and control over their bodies. The concept of consent with respect to sex does not even exist. Our legal provisions on adultery and sexual offences come from this period.

The final draft of the IPC is passed into law on October 6, 1860, but it comes into operation only in January 1862. Between the passing of the law and its coming into effect, something significant happens in England. The death penalty for buggery is abolished. Unfortunately, Lord Macaulay never gets to see any of this. He dies of a heart attack in 1859 at the age of 59.

Fast forward to 2015. Britain has come a long way. Way back in 1967, it legalised homosexual acts in private between two men who were 21 years of age or older. Then in 2001, it lowered the age of consent. In 2002, it granted same-sex couples equal rights to adopt. In 2004, it made it legal for same-sex couples to enter into civil unions. And then finally, in 2014, it made same-sex marriage legal. In India, things are a little different. Shashi Tharoor seeks to introduce a private member’s bill with amendments to the section at the Lok Sabha. It is met with loud nays, jeers, mocking and bigotry. Nishikant Dubey says he is not opposing it because of any “religion, Vedas or Puranas” but because of the Supreme Court judgment. The judgment in which the Supreme Court had said it would leave it to the Parliament to change the law. The bill isn’t even allowed to be introduced. We continue to hold on to a toxic and destructive colonial legacy.

Even the ghosts of Henry VIII and Lord Macaulay are bewildered.

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

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Robed and privileged – how advocates are protected against defamation proceedings for statements made by them in court

vijayaraghavannarasimhamMukul Rohatgi, the Attorney General for India, reportedly said during proceedings before the Supreme Court that the collegium had appointed many undeserving and inefficient judges to the apex court and high courts who went on to “create havoc” in the country. To argue that it was a myth that only judges could appoint good judges, he submitted in a closed envelope, a list of eight cases of what he called “bad appointments and selection” and referred to the questionable conduct of many judges.

Can proceedings be initiated against the Attorney General for these statements bordering on defamation? Do the affected lot have a remedy?

In many settings, if we called someone a liar, cheat or incompetent or worse, we might be on the receiving end of a defamation claim. If we need to say that during litigation, we’re generally protected by the litigation privilege. The litigation privilege confers absolute immunity from defamation claims for statements made during both judicial and quasi-judicial administrative proceedings. The privilege applies to attorneys, parties, judges and witnesses. To qualify for such privilege, the statement must meet two general tests. First, it must have some reference to the subject matter of the litigation. Second, it must be made in connection with a judicial proceeding.

This is the statement of law from American Jurisprudence. The privilege is traceable to the “public policy of securing to attorneys as officers of the court, the utmost freedom in their efforts to secure justice for their clients”. The privilege therefore, is absolute.

But for a subtle change made by the House of Lords recently in Arthur J.S Hall and Co. v. Simons, the British precedent would have been identical. Attorneys continue to enjoy absolute immunity in addressing courts during the proceedings from being sued either in civil law or under the criminal dispensation, but this case removed the immunity enjoyed by advocates from being sued for ‘negligence’.

Defended against a civil claim – many Madras High Court decisions

Closer home, on January 1, 1800, the legendary Eardley Norton was sued by Sullivan, a member of Madras Civil Service for defamatory conduct in addressing the members of the jury in a criminal trial. A full bench of five judges of the Madras High Court ruled that Norton enjoyed

The legendary Eardley Norton

The legendary Eardley Norton

absolute privilege from being sued in civil law for damages. In the absence of proof that Norton was actuated by malice and because the allegedly defamatory utterance was not alien or irrelevant to the matter in inquiry, the High Court accepted Norton’s defence, “I acted under my instructions: all I said and did was within the four corners of those instructions and my duty to my client compelled me to say what I said”.

On December 2, 1926, the Madras High Court relied on Sullivan v. Norton and decisions from the Bombay and Calcutta High Courts in Thiruvengada Mudali v. Thirupura Sundari Ammal and ruled that when the statement imputed with defamatory content was made in the course of a necessary line of submission to aid the cause of a client, then even the presence of malice will not override the presumption of good faith. Advocates who have been accused of defamatory conduct are also protected by the Bombay High Court’s decision in Navin Parekh v. Madhubala Shridhar Sharma, which in fact relied on the ninth exception to Section 499 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860.

When “imputation was made in good faith (which is always presumed) for the protection of interest of the person making it, or of any other person, or for the public good”, then such utterance would not amount to defamation. In February 2008, the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court again rescued an advocate from facing criminal prosecution for allegedly making defamatory statements in the course of pleadings in a suit for partition.


CriminalDefamation_NinthException
A thinner defence against criminal defamation

All may not be lost for persons affected by such submissions. In its decision in Sanjay Mishra in March 2012, the Delhi High Court drew a subtle distinction between English and Indian law.
While in England, there is total immunity for a counsel for such conduct from being proceeded against either for damages in a civil action or under criminal law, that level of protection os confined to a civil action alone in India. Under the criminal law of defamation, the ninth exception to Section 499 actually enables parties to sue a counsel if they can demonstrate malice or a lack of good faith in the utterance or conduct. That, however, is too thin a line, especially in a case of the kind that the Attorney General was arguing – a one-off case, where the submissions were not too alien either.

Vijayaraghavan Narasimhan is an advocate practicing at the Madras High Court.

 

Written by myLaw

Amendments to shield eminent domain from the courts have left the Constitution without private property rights

Since Independence, there have been several special laws that have been used by both Union and state governments to acquire land Suhrith_Parthasarathyfrom private individuals. Many of them continue to exist. But, for more than a century, the Land Acquisition Act of 1894 has stood as the centrepiece of the Indian state’s policy of expropriation, used most frequently to acquire private property.

Viewed broadly, the 1894 statute canonised a power of eminent domain, which was thought to be a facet intrinsic to a sovereign. The law gave the authority to government to acquire private land for what the state perceived to be a public purpose, in exchange for a compensation, which, when determined under the process prescribed by the statute, was almost always grossly derisory.

The Union Minister for Rural Development in the UPA government, Jairam Ramesh (left), and Union Minister for Urban Development in the NDA government, Venkaiah Naidu, addressing press conferences on the land acquisition law in September, 2013 and March, 2015.

The Union Minister for Rural Development in the UPA government, Jairam Ramesh (left), and Union Minister for Urban Development in the NDA government, Venkaiah Naidu, addressing press conferences on the land acquisition law in September, 2013 and March, 2015 respectively.

It also allowed the state the authority to acquire land unbothered by the economic and social impact that the acquisition might have on the landowner. The statute did not prescribe any social or environmental impact assessment as a precondition for expropriation, and it also imposed no obligation on the government to rehabilitate those displaced by the acquisition. The lack of any safeguards in favour of the landowner effectively meant that the poor person’s land was viewed as the sole property of the state, as property that could be subjected to legally sanctioned fraud and plunder. It was in this backdrop that in early 2014, the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013 (“LARR Act”) was brought into force to replace the 1894 law.

The new act was designed to bring an end to a century-long form of oppression. It sought to define the public purpose, for which land could be acquired, with particular clarity; in cases where land was to be acquired for a private project, the consent of at least 80 per cent of the landowners was mandated; the state was barred from acquiring land for the purposes of establishing private hospitals and private educational institutions; a detailed social impact assessment (“SIA”) and an environmental impact assessment was mandated as a precondition to any acquisition; and, most crucially, compensation for lands acquired was to be fixed at four times the market value of the land, in cases where the property was situated in a rural area, and at two times the market value for properties situated in an urban area.

In all, the LARR Act, which was enacted on a largely bipartisan platform, was meant to usher an era of a more participative democratic process, where the people could have a genuine say in how their land is used. Unfortunately, these changes were far too short-lived.

Immediately upon assuming office, the Narendra Modi-led government criticised the LARR Act as a measure aimed at thwarting development. The premise of the new government’s argument was that expropriation of private property through powers of eminent domain stimulates economic growth, and brings about greater commercial expansion. The LARR Act, as they saw it, was simply antithetical to commonly understood notions of eminent domain.

Their solution, while awaiting parliamentary approval to amend the law, was to bring forth an ordinance. This ordinance, which amends the LARR Act, among other things, does the following. One, it removes a previous bar on acquisitions by the state for the purposes of establishing private hospitals and educational institutions. Two, it removes the necessity to secure the consent of landowners when property is acquired for the purposes of redistribution to private entities. Three, it eliminates the requirement for an SIA when land is acquired for a special category of purposes, including for the purposes of national security and the defence of India, and for purposes of establishing “industrial corridors,” and “infrastructure” projects.

As is plainly evident, the proposed amendments, which are presently in force through the operation of the ordinance, seeks to revert us to a slightly modified version of the 1894 law, by virtually removing the spine of the LARR Act. The changes amount, as G. Sampath, wrote in The Mint, to what the Marxist geographer David Harvey might have described as “accumulation through dispossession.” The question now is: would these changes, if ultimately enacted by Parliament, be constitutionally sustainable?

Eminent domain and the constitutional right to property

The Constitution of India, as originally enacted, on the one hand, guaranteed to citizens a right to property, while, on the other hand, implanted in the state an express authority to take property through an exercise of a power of eminent domain. Article 19(1)(f), subject to reasonable restrictions in the public interest, guaranteed to all citizens the right to acquire, hold and dispose off property. Article 31 provided that any acquisition of property by the state may be done only for a public purpose and upon payment of compensation, through a validly enacted law. What this meant was that once a person’s privately owned property was acquired by the state in accordance with Article 31, his or her right to hold the property subject to reasonable restrictions under Article 19 was rendered otiose.

In the earliest cases that emanated in post-Independence India out of the exercise by the state of its power to acquire property, the Supreme Court tended to view Article 31 as an embodiment of a power of eminent domain, which inheres in the state as a sovereign.

The term “eminent domain,” wrote Justice Mahajan in State of Bihar v. Kameshwar Singh, (1952) 1 SCR 889, could be traced back to the year 1625 and to the great jurist Hugo Grotius’s work, De Jure Belli et Pacis. “The property of subjects is under the eminent domain of the State, so that the State or he who acts for it may use and even alienate and destroy such property,” wrote Grotius, “not only in the case of extreme necessity, in which even private persons have a right over the property of others, but for ends of public utility, to which ends these who founded civil society must be supposed to have intended that private ends should give way. But it is to be added that when this is done the State is bound to make good the loss to those who lose their property.”

The meaning of eminent domain, in its irreducible terms, was, therefore, according to Justice Mahajan, (a) a “power to take” land (b) “without the owner’s consent,” (c) “for the public use,” after payment of compensation. In the initial years, the power, thus understood, seemed to impede the state in implementing its socialistically driven policies of expropriating land owned by zamindars more than it benefited it. Yet, as we have seen in the decades since, the very idea of viewing eminent domain as a power that is intrinsic to a sovereign has proved problematic. (Usha Ramanathan, “A Word on Eminent Domain”, Displaced by Development – Confronting Marginalisation and Gender Injustice).

Justice Vivian Bose, however, notably warned against using a “doubtful” term such as eminent domain to understand the Indian state’s power to acquire property. Doubtful, not because the term is “devoid of meaning,” but because it enjoys a different shade of meaning in different countries. “In my opinion, it is wrong to assume,” he wrote in Dwarkadas Shrinivas of Bombay v. The Sholapur Spinning & Weaving Co. Ltd., AIR 1954 SC119, “that these powers are inherent in the State in India and then to see how far the Constitution regulates and fits in with them. We have to interpret the plain provisions of the Constitution and it is for jurists and students of law, not for Judges to see whether our Constitution also provides for these powers and it is for them to determine whether the shape which they take in India resemble any of the varying forms which they assume in other countries.”

The final draft of Article 31, which constitutionalised the power of eminent domain, was arrived at purely through compromise. There were some in the Constituent Assembly who believed that land had to be usurped from zamindars, without payment of any compensation (or at any rate, by paying only a minimal, meagre amount) to help herald a more equal and just society, while there were others who argued for a strong protection of property rights, requiring the fulfilment of elements of due process prior to any expropriation. The ultimate provision, contained in Article 31, which was almost literally adopted from Section 299 of the Government of India Act, 1935, as Namita Wahi has pointed out, pleased neither group. It merely transferred the debate on the right to property to the court halls around the country. And, contrary to popular discourse, barring few instances where the courts have restrained Parliament’s powers, by objecting to specific acquisition laws, judges have predominantly allowed the state substantial leeway in exercising its power of eminent domain.

Amending the Constitution, protecting eminent domain from the courts

The Supreme Court of India

The Supreme Court of India

Yet, it was in fear of intervention by the courts that the First Amendment to India’s Constitution (whose validity was upheld by the Supreme Court in Sankari Prasad Singh Deo v. Union of India, AIR 1951 SC 458) was introduced in 1951, inserting not only Article 31A, which immunised land reform laws from challenges against violation of fundamental rights, but also Article 31B and concomitantly Schedule IX to the Constitution, which protected 13 particular legislation from challenge under Part III of the Constitution, with added retrospective effect. By virtue of these amendments, the crux of the challenge to the Bihar Land Reforms Act, 1950, which had been struck down by the Patna High Court, prompting the first amendment, was effectively rendered futile. Nonetheless, the Supreme Court, in State of Bihar v. Kameshwar Singh, (1952) 1 SCR 889, found that the Act, which sought to redistribute estates in Bihar, was based on a legitimate public purpose, and was therefore in consonance with Article 31.

Immediately after Kameshwar Singh’s case, the Supreme Court rendered a judgment, in State of West Bengal v. Bela Banerjee, AIR 1954 SC 170, which was significant in its elaboration of the importance of the right to property (Seervai, Constitutional Law of India), and which ultimately led to the Constitution’s Fourth Amendment. Here, a provision of the West Bengal Land Development and Planning Act, 1948 was challenged as violating Article 31, as it limited the compensation payable to the market value of the land as on December 31, 1946.

The word “compensation,” as used in Article 31, the Supreme Court ruled, referred to a “just equivalent of what the owner has been deprived of,” and, therefore it found that the provision offended the Constitution. As a result of this decision, Parliament introduced the fourth constitutional amendment and altered Article 31(2) to provide that a law under which compensation is determined for acquisition of land could not be questioned on the ground that such compensation is inadequate.

This amendment, as the legendary constitutional law scholar H.M. Seervai wrote, was considered in four different cases, P. Vajravelu Mudaliar v. Special Deputy Collector, Madras, AIR 1965 SC 1017, Union of India v. Metal Corporation of India, AIR 1967 SC 637, State of Gujarat v. Shantilal Mangaldas, AIR 1969 SC 634, and RC Cooper v. Union of India, AIR 1970 SC 564 (“the Bank Nationalisation Case”). Each of these cases contradicted the other on the issue of compensation under Article 31. Ultimately, it was the decision in the Bank Nationalisation Case, which was heard by a bench of ten judges, that proved most telling, rendering the fourth amendment’s purport nugatory, and reverted the law to the position established previously by the court in Bela Banerjee. The Supreme Court held in the Bank Nationalisation Case that the word compensation as used in Article 31, even after the fourth amendment, continued to denote a just equivalent of what the landowner had been deprived of. As had become common by now, when a court’s ruling tended to affect the ideology of the government in power, what resulted was a constitutional amendment: in this case, the 25th amendment.

Through this, Article 31(2) was altered, and the word “compensation” was replaced with the word “amount”; acquisitions under Article 31 were expressly removed from being subject to the right guaranteed under Article 19(1)(f), as was held in the Bank Nationalisation case; and laws giving effect to the directive principles contained in clauses (b) and (c) of Article 39 could no longer be questioned on the ground that they violated the rights guaranteed in Articles 14, 19 or 31.

Eventually, the Supreme Court in Kesavananda Bharati v. State of Kerala, AIR 1973 SC 1461, struck down the last limb of the 25th amendment alone. Here, a 13-judge-bench famously held that constitutional amendments could not be used as a tool to abrogate the basic structure of the Constitution: in this case, the power of the courts to judicially review Parliamentary law.

For the purposes of the right to property, though, it was Justice Khanna, whose opinion in Kesavananda proved the most decisive, that continues to resonate. He held that the right to property was not a part of the basic structure in his efforts to illustrate the fact that fundamental rights could, in limited circumstances, be annulled through constitutional amendment.

The jagged hole left by the 44th amendment

The decision in Kesavananda heralded an era of a battle between the government and the court over who holds the ultimate authority to interpret the Constitution. The give and take between Parliament and the Supreme Court may not quite have completely thwarted the state’s program to bring forth land reforms—if anything, the courts sought to place the odd impediment that they found was mandated under the Constitution.

But governments, impatient as they were, thought it necessary to bring forth a plethora of constitutional amendments aimed at placing land laws completely beyond the scope of judicial review. Ultimately, in 1978, the Janata Party, which had come into power following the Indira Gandhi-enforced Emergency, through the 44th constitutional amendment, removed altogether the guarantee of the right to property as a fundamental right. Both Article 19(1)(f) and Article 31 were completely obliterated. In their place, Article 300A was introduced, according the right to property the mere non-fundamental status of a legal right. These amendments, as Seervai argued, failed to grasp that Articles 19(1)(f) and 31 “were so closely interwoven with the whole fabric of our Constitution that those rights cannot be torn out without leaving a jagged hole…”

In the short run, the 44th amendment might have even helped in bringing forth more equivalence in land ownership, as desired by the government at the time. But, during the decades that followed, with an atmosphere of neo-liberalism taking over the Indian polity, the amendment has only contributed towards increasing discrimination. The power of eminent domain has been regularly abused to serve private interests. As Namita Wahi has pointed out, a number of measures have been introduced to place property at the hand of select institutions and corporations, often transcending constraints of public purpose contained in the original doctrine of eminent domain. (Namita Wahi, “State, Private Property and the Supreme Court”, Frontline).

For instance, “with the enactment of the Special Economic Zones Act in 2005,” wrote Wahi, “the acquisition of land by government to hand over to private industry which had happened in an ad hoc manner in previous decades became official government policy.” The meaning of “public purpose” has been expanded to absurd lengths, and different governments have overseen the most arbitrary expropriation of land, particularly from farmers, through the archaic, and draconian, Land Acquisition Act of 1894. These acquisitions have been rarely, if ever, disturbed by the courts, and even the compensation paid to individual landowners has been seldom enhanced.

What’s more, state governments also enacted their own special legislation to acquire land, bypassing, in the process, even the minimal safeguards contained in the central law.

Thus far, the Supreme Court has not ruled on the merits of the validity of the 44th constitutional amendment. It has only occasionally taken the pains to point out that the removal of the right to property from Part III has accorded substantial leeway to the state in expropriating land. (See for example, KT Plantation Pvt Ltd. v. State of Karnataka, (2011) 9 SCC 1.) Most of the Supreme Court’s decisions seem to indicate that it too has been equally buoyed by the supposed joys of liberalisation.

When viewed in this context, the LARR Act of 2013 represented a substantial breakthrough. It sought to realign the nature of property in India, by guaranteeing to citizens a right to own and hold land, which ought to ideally enjoy fundamental status. To the extent that it provided not only for an enhanced and more just compensation, but also for a social and environmental impact assessment, and for a voice to landowners, the LARR Act was a decidedly successful piece of legislation. It is therefore that the present ordinance, which seeks to remove many of the integral facets of the LARR Act, has to be considered as an anathema. To make things worse, by virtue of the 44th amendment, the state can today argue convincingly that the ordinance is legally valid and that it stands on substantial constitutional bedrock.

None of the diktats of the LARR Act, which have been removed by the ordinance, can be considered as constitutionally mandated, if we were to assume that the 44th amendment has accorded the state a carte blanche over private property, as some Supreme Court decisions seem to suggest. (See for example, Jilubhai Nanbhai Khachar v. State of Gujarat, AIR 1995 SC 142).

A historic re-interpretation of the Constitution is required

The state, unless convinced by the abiding public sentiment on the matter, would argue in the case of the proposed amendments: firstly, that the consent of landowners and the conduct of an SIA are simply not required as a matter of constitutional guarantee, and secondly that in the absence of an express prohibition of acquisition by the state for private purposes, the argument that the ordinance violates traditional notions of eminent domain, in allowing acquisition of land for private educational institutions and private hospitals, does not pass muster.

To negate such submissions, we would require the Supreme Court to shed its apathy, and to interpret the Constitution in its right spirit. The court will have to reconsider the understanding of eminent domain that has pervaded its jurisprudence, over the years. The removal of the fundamental right to property, by the 44th amendment, cannot be considered as a final nail in the coffin of rights over land.

To rebut the notion that eminent domain inheres in a sovereign, we might require an intervention that transcends mere judicial review, an intervention that is democratically justifiable. But what the courts can do is to examine Article 14, and the basic guarantee to the people of equal protection of the laws. Interpreted in its finest light, the right to equality ought to impose a superior obligation on the state to protect private property, and to give people a genuine say in how their land is used. To not hold so would negate the very idea of citizenship.

(Suhrith Parthasarathy is an advocate practising at the Madras High Court.)

Written by myLaw

Memories Of A Surrender (2015) – reflections about the Emergency

 

Since the time of its inception, myLaw.net has worked on building a video archive of memories about India’s legal profession. In the process of interviewing some of our subjects – senior advocates and Supreme Court judges, we became aware of the immense shadow cast over the entire legal system by the Emergency.

Deep hurt about the Supreme Court’s abdication of its constitutional responsibility predominated their memories about the 21-month period between 1975 and 1977. But there was also a great deal of pride in some acts of brave dissent.

The educational potential of collective memory is immense. These memories about a dark period in our nation’s history should not fade. They should continue to influence our view of the professional and constitutional responsibilities of all lawyers.

On the fortieth anniversary of Indira Gandhi’s proclamation of Emergency, we bring you some of these memories that we were privileged to archive. Memories Of A Surrender is a short film that presents footage from interviews with former judges P.N. Bhagwati and V.R. Krishna Iyer and senior advocates Soli Sorabjee, Ram Jethmalani, Ashok Desai, and Raju Ramachandran.

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With no carrots on offer, USTR Michael Froman won’t have Crowbar Carla’s influence on Indian IP policy

PrashantReddyTwenty years ago, when India finally signed the Agreement on Trade Related aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (“TRIPS”), it did so after several years of arm-twisting by “Crowbar Carla”, as Carla Hills, the then United States Trade Representative (“USTR”) was called by the media. Ms. Hills earned the moniker “crowbar” because of her diplomatic strategy of “crowbar diplomacy”. American economic might was used as a “crowbar” to pry open the closed economies of America’s trading partners.

Those days, the American economy was in dire straits with an ever-widening trade deficit, a fact attributed to two issues. The first was the common complaint amongst Americans that the rest of the world was indulging in protectionism. The second was that a significant portion of American exports were intellectual property and that a lot of trading partners did not have laws that protected American intellectual property. “Crowbar Carla” was tasked by the then American administration to use trade weapons such as “Super 301” and “Special 301” to exert pressure on trading partners to modify their trading policies under the threat of trade sanctions. Her bigger political goal was to use these trade weapons to prod countries like India to sign TRIPS without too much fuss. To the credit of the American administration, they were aware of the limits of brute political power and sweetened the deal by throwing in the offer of allowing Indians to export more textiles to the U.S. Textiles were and continue to remain one of the most lucrative exports from India earning the country its fair share of foreign currency. Given the dire straits of the Indian economy in 1990-91, it didn’t take much for “Crowbar Carla” to convince the Indians to sign the TRIPS. The Indian delegation which finally signed the deal at Marrakesh was headed by a Union Minister called Pranab Mukherjee – today he is the President of India.

Starting with amendments in 1994 to the Copyright Act to recognise the copyright in software programs, the Indian Parliament embarked on a massive legislative agenda to introduce new intellectual property rights as was required by TRIPS. In 1999 and 2002, the NDA government amended Indian patent law. It also enacted a new law for geographical indications in 1999 and a new Protection of Plant Varieties & Farmer’s Rights Act, 2001. In 2005, it enacted the third amendment to the Patents Act, 1970 and brought back product patents for pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals after a 35-year prohibition. Each one of these new laws and amendments were a result of India signing TRIPS, an act which is directly attributable to Ms. Carla’s diplomatic prowess. With such immense powers to influence international trade policy, the USTR is certainly one of the most powerful bureaucrats in the American establishment. The question is how much has changed in the last decade? Does the incumbent USTR Michael Froman have as much power as “Crowbar Carla”?

Carla Hills (left) was the United States Trade Representative under President George H. W. Bush between 1989 and 1993. Michael Froman has held that office since 2013.

Carla Hills (left) was the United States Trade Representative under President George H. W. Bush between 1989 and 1993. Michael Froman has held that office since 2013.

Going by news reports in the recent past, it would appear that Froman has managed to extract significant concessions from India on its intellectual property policy. Apparently Froman, in recent testimony to American lawmakers has commented that the US is making good progress with the new Modi government on the issue of IP protection. While Froman did not provide details of the actual negotiations, there has been gossip from the civil society organisations in India that the government is going to make serious concessions such as the introduction of a data exclusivity regime for pharmaceuticals apart from a possible drug-patent linkage system. The data exclusivity regime will ensure that generics cannot rely on innovator clinical trial data for a certain timespan in order to get regulatory approvals. This will delay the introduction of generics into the market. The drug-patent linkage system on the other hand is meant to ensure that the drug regulator doesn’t provide regulatory approval to those drugs which are still under patent protection. The Drug Controller General of India (“DCGI”) had planned to introduce such a system few years ago but was forced to backtrack after a serious backlash from the manufacturers of generics. They argued that the DCGI was meant to regulate only safety and efficacy and that he was neither, equipped nor required to enforce patent rights under the law.

The big question is whether the Modi government will actually concede to these demands.

Unlike in the times of “Crowbar Carla”, the current USTR has far fewer trade weapons in his arsenal, thanks to WTO laws which place restrictions on the manner in which the US can impose trade sanctions on trading partners. The favoured weapon of the Americans in the old days was hiking up tariff barriers on the imports from foreign countries but the very rationale of the WTO system is to ensure non-discrimination in tariffs between different trading partners. It is therefore questionable whether the U.S. can get away by imposing tariff barriers on imports from India. The USTR of course can embarrass India by painting a sorry picture of the country’s intellectual property policy in its Annual 301 reports – these reports are handy tools for American lobbyists to prod lawmakers in their countries to ramp up pressure for more action. However unlike the nineties, when India was promised greater access to the American market, the American establishment doesn’t appear to be offering any carrots to the Indian government. So where is the incentive for the Modi government to make concessions to the Americans? Why would Modi risk a serious backlash from the powerful combine of the generic pharmaceutical industry and patient group? Will an administration with a strong nationalist sentiment be seen as caving into American pressure in exchange for nothing? Add to this the fact that India is now a massive importer of American defence and nuclear technology and you wonder why the Modi administration would make any concessions to the Americans.

International Intellectual Property

Froman’s testimony is more likely a result of the Indians agreeing to consider the American demands. This usually means that the bureaucrats in the negotiating group will draw up notes and send them to the relevant ministries for comments. The Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion, the Health Ministry, and the Pharmaceutical Department of the Ministry of Chemicals will all express their opposition. Meanwhile, lobbyists from the generic pharmaceutical industry would have leaked the notes to the media and created a furore. The RSS and the Swadeshi Jagran Manch will register their protest. The bureaucrats in the Indo-US Trade Policy Forum will most likely cite the media furore to express their inability to accept American demands, especially when India gains nothing in return.

The cycle will then repeat itself, until the Americans find a way to actually cause economic damage to India without bombing it.

(Prashant Reddy is a Delhi-based intellectual property lawyer.)

Written by myLaw