Who Watches the Watchdogs? Random thoughts on destroying monoliths


In September, 1986, when the first issue of a comic book miniseries called Watchmen hit the stands in the US, no one was really quite ready for it. Although he had already begun garnering respect in the comic book industry, Alan Moore was not yet the household name he is today, and his grim vision of the usually bright, cheerful and simplistic good-triumphs-over-evil world of superheroes was completely unprecedented. Of course, by now everyone with any interest in pop culture has at least heard of the Watchmen series. It is now considered a seminal work in not just the comic industry, but also in the world of English literature at large: in 2005, Time magazine included it in its list of the “All-Time 100 Greatest Novels”, the only graphic novel to be given that honour, and in 2009, against Alan Moore’s wishes, it was made into a major blockbuster by Zack Snyder.


Alan Moore

It seems Alan Moore initially got the idea for Watchmen from a famous Latin phrase: “Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” which can be literally translated to “Who will guard the guards themselves?”, or, more famously, “Who watches the watchmen?” (which also became the popular tagline for the series as well as the movie). The phrase is often attributed to Plato, because it just seems like something he would have said in the Republic whilst waxing eloquent on the nature of power and its corrupting influence on people who have it. But these words were not Plato’s, and the phrase has been taken out of context and given a deeper, more philosophical meaning than was originally intended.

At some point towards the end of the 1st century AD (or towards the beginning of the 2nd century AD; no one’s really sure), Juvenal, a Roman poet we know almost nothing about, wrote a collection of poems called the Satires. It included a poem which was quite unequivocally misogynistic, ruminating on women’s innate tendencies towards “immoral behaviour” and men’s inability to control it. The phrase comes from the following lines:

I know

the plan that my friends always advise me to adopt:

“Bolt her in, constrain her!” But who can watch

the watchmen? They keep quiet about the girl’s

secrets and get her as their payment; everyone hushes it up.



What Watchmen, and the phrase it originates from, illustrate starkly is the fact that things are not as they seem on the surface; culturally/historically accepted and defined “truths” are often unreliable. Watchmen was Alan Moore’s deconstruction of the superhero myth in real-world terms – where he explored the possibility that under the shiny, awe-inspiring surface, beings with godlike powers could be flawed, capricious, disturbed, violent and sociopathic individuals. The superhero as a noble, selfless force for good was a cultural monolith, seldom questioned as a trope. Alan Moore decided to question that one-dimensional viewpoint, and the result was a masterpiece. On a different level, the present use of “Who watches the watchmen” is in itself an example of how words can be de-contextualised and given a different, more socio-culturally acceptable meaning. It tells us that constant deconstruction and analysis is the very least of our responsibilities as thinking, rational beings.

My long-winded and clumsily constructed arguments above have a point, and I should really get to it.

On June 17, 2013, the Hindu ran a now (in)famous article on the now (in)famous order of the Madras High Court, stating unequivocally that the court had proclaimed that if an unmarried couple have sex, they will be considered married. The lack of a nuanced and balanced approach in the piece clearly showed that the reporter hadn’t spent too much time on reading and understanding the order and its context. Within a few hours, a number of articles criticising the Hindu’s simplistic coverage of the complex issue appeared all over the internet. However, by that time social media websites had already exploded with misplaced outrage and more than a few inappropriate jokes. Of course other news sites had also run similar stories, but The Hindu commands a certain degree of respect, even among its detractors, for its high standards of reportage and journalism – misunderstanding an issue isn’t usually a charge levelled against it. Fortunately, we live in an age in which information is readily available and can be disseminated within seconds. Public opinion which, for a while, was positioned strongly against the order is now balancing out as a more reasoned and informed discourse unfolds. The mainstream media stands as a source of factual information and is, by extension, regarded as a purveyor of truth. Here is another historical monolith on which society leans. This is not unreasonable given that searching for the truth and presenting it to the people has been the media’s fundamental function. But recent history has taught us that the media isn’t above selling news space, taking editorial mandates from large corporate investors, blurring the line between reportage and opinion, sensationalising the news through hyperbole and using questionable techniques to get a story. Now, for the consumer of mass media, the “truth” has become a far more complicated and difficult thing to get to.

Chennai_High_Court_1200x800Madras High Court  

It is clear now that the Madras High Court’s decision is quite progressive on women’s rights and reverses an extremely egregious order of the lower court. However, I used the term “misplaced outrage” earlier, because there should be outrage at how the Madras High Court seems to think that the only significant indicator of a marriage is sex. And if that isn’t the intention of the order, there should be outrage at how badly and dangerously the decision is worded. The Madras High Court has defended the order stating that it “protected Indian culture and welfare of women.” The biggest monolith in this case is this “Indian culture” that the court has tried so earnestly to protect – this vast, ethereal, omnipotent, nebulous thing which keeps floating in and out of our consciousness, this undefined entity which is powerful enough to unite a billion people, but so fragile that it needs protection at every moment, especially from the “sinful evil” of the west. “Indian culture” is apparently an intractable monolith that refuses to move with the times. It is formless, but alive. It is whatever a few old, conservative and powerful people say it is. And if they are to be believed, every time consenting adults want to have sex outside wedlock, or women wear skirts instead of saris, or you listen to pop music, it has a massive heart attack.

In India, both the media and the judiciary have a proud history of acting as society’s watchdogs. In their own ways, both constantly endeavour to get to the truth. But they are not infallible. It is essential for the citizens of a democracy to think for themselves, look at an issue from every perspective, get all the facts straight, listen to every argument and form an informed and intelligent opinion. Who watches the watchdogs? We do. It’s up to us to ensure that the pillars of democracy never become monoliths.

(Sayak Dasgupta wanders around looking for things to do. When he finds something to do, he fails at it.)


Controversial Madras HC order signals more progress on maintenance rights in “relationships akin to marriage”

Relationships akin to marriageThe times, they are, a-changing. The final draft of Madhya Pradesh’s Women’s Policy, 2013 – 2017 recognises the need to protect the legal rights of partners in live-in relationships. Yesterday’s controversial order of the Madras High Court equated some such relationships to marriage. Justice Karnan’s order protects the rights of women in partnerships outside of marriage to maintenance and the rights of children born to such couples. The Supreme Court too, in Velusamy v. Patchiammal in 2010, progressively interpreted and applied maintenance laws. It is high time the legislative machinery caught up.

Even parts of the West have been slow to accept this change. For instance, in the U.K., neither partner can legally claim maintenance after the end of such a relationship. However, children born in such relationships are guaranteed child support from the party that holds legal guardianship. Perhaps the most pragmatic view has been taken in the Netherlands. The Dutch recognise three kinds of living arrangements — co-habitation agreements, registered partnerships, and marriage. Ending or dissolving any of these may give rise to the right to maintenance and regardless of the relationship between the parents; Dutch law ensures equal parenting to children. It is time to take a leaf out of their books.

It is especially vital to provide access to basic maintenance in India, because of the large numbers without access to mainstream education. The Madhya Pradesh government will set a very good example if its innovative Draft Women’s Policy is sanctioned and implemented with the spirit intact. Similarly, it is also time to think about the innumerable women and children who can now rightfully claim a life with dignity because our courts are recognising change.

(Suhasini Rao Kashyap is part of the faculty on


History Uncategorized

Pugalenthi v. Ministry of Home Affairs

By Kirthi Jayakumar

The judgment of Chief Justice M.Y. Eqbal and Justice T.S. Sivagnanam of the Madras High Court, in P. Pugalenthi v. The Ministry of Home Affairs, The Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Tribunal, W.P. No. 23141 of 2010 and M.P. No. 1 of 2010, was delivered on September 30, 2010.

The petitioner had filed the writ petition under Article 226 of the Constitution of India and prayed for the quashing of an order passed by the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Tribunal  (“the Tribunal”), on October 6, 2010, that had rejected the petition filed by the petitioner under sub-section 4(3) of the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967 (“the Act”). The crux of the facts were that the first respondent, namely, the Union of India, had issued a notification dated May 17, 2010 under sub-section 3(1) and the allied proviso to sub-section 3(3) of the Act, in the course of which it declared that the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (“the LTTE”) was an unlawful association. The petition claimed that the petitioner was a sympathiser of the LTTE and had a right to appear before the Tribunal. It was further contended that the Tribunal was required to adjudicate whether or not there was sufficient cause for declaring the association unlawful. It was contended by the petitioner that the Tribunal was under an obligation to give an opportunity to be heard before declaring a person or association as unlawful under the Act.
The Tribunal rejected the petition filed by the petitioner on the grounds, inter alia, that the tribunal had had occasion to consider the submissions made by other persons, including the political leader Mr. Vaiko, and none of the submissions made by the petitioner transcended the arguments advanced by Mr. Vaiko. The core contentions of the petitioner were that the LTTE itself was not present in India, but that its supporters and sympathisers were. This being a given, it was contended that notices under sub-section 4(2) of the Act should not only have to be sent to the LTTE in Sri Lanka but also to the alleged sympathisers, supporters and agents, all of whom were present in India. It was submitted by the petitioner, that unless the process prescribed under sub-section 4(2) of the Act was completed, the tribunal could not have commenced the actual process of adjudication under sub-section 4(3) of the Act.

The respondents, however, drew the attention of the court to the relevant provisions of the Act, and went on to submit that the tribunal had fully complied with all the requirements under the Act. Section 3 of the Act empowers the Central Government to declare any association to be unlawful through a notification in the official gazette, if the Central Government is of the opinion that such an association has become an unlawful association. Sub-section (2) to section 3 of the Act provides that such notification shall specify the grounds on which it is issued and such other particulars as the Central Government may consider necessary. However, the Central Government is not required to disclose any fact which it considers to be against the public interest. Section 4 of the Act provides that if any association is declared unlawful under section 3, the Central Government shall within thirty days from the date of publication of the notification, refer it to the Tribunal for the purpose of adjudicating whether or not there is sufficient cause for declaring the association unlawful. The Tribunal shall then call upon the association affected by notice to show cause and then, after holding an enquiry and adjudicating upon it, either confirm or cancel the said notification.

Section 7 of the Act lays down the provisions with regard to the power of the Central Government to prohibit the use of funds of the unlawful association. According to this section, after the association has been declared unlawful by a notification issued under section 3, the Central Government may issue a prohibitory order for the use of funds of the unlawful association. Sub-section (4) of section 7 gives the right to any person aggrieved by such an order to make an application to the District Judge to establish that the moneys, securities or credits in respect of which prohibitory order has been made, are not being used or are not intended to be used for the purpose of the unlawful association. On receipt of such application, the Court of the District Judge shall decide the question.

Sub-section 8(8) of the Act makes it manifestly clear that any person aggrieved by the notification issued in respect of a place under sub-section 8(1) or by an order made under sub-section (3) of sub-section 8(4) may, within thirty days from the date of the notification or order, make an application to the Court of the District Judge for declaring that the place has not been used for the purpose of unlawful association, and the Court of the District Judge shall decide the same in accordance with law.

The Madras High Court held that the Tribunal had indeed given the petitioner a full opportunity to be heard, and it had, with due reasonableness, rejected the petition, thereby warranting no interference by the High Court. The writ petition was thus dismissed.

Although the case hinges upon an issue pertaining to natural justice, the judgment did not quite look at the merits of the case that were presented before the tribunal. In understanding natural justice, the court has not overreached itself. What natural justice mandates is the grant of an opportunity to be heard, and reasonably so. The Tribunal had, clearly, accorded that in the petitioner’s case. It is very essential that courts work in a way that is friendly to the aim of dispensing speedy justice. In keeping with this, the tribunal refused to hear the contentions of the petitioner, since they were essentially the same as those that were raised on an earlier occasion by Mr. Vaiko. The court cannot encourage the re-iteration of the same subject matter by hearing the very same line of arguments submitted in the context of the same dispute.


For Petitioner: Mr. M. Radhakrishnan

For Respondents: Mr. M. Ravindran, Additional Solicitor General of India; assisted by J.Ravindran,           Assistant Solicitor General