The Activist

Written by  //  September 18, 2010  //  Law & The Judiciary  //  4 Comments

Non-miscellaneous days or “Regular Days” are a fairly tame affair in the Supreme Court of India. Judges and lawyers take a breather from the hectic madness of Miscellaneous Days and do what lawyers and judges are actually supposed to do (according to this, ); conduct hearings in a deliberate and patient manner (with one notable exception). In an exercise of futile optimism, about 20 matters are listed before each Bench for the day, but they manage to get through about 4, at best. Most likely, it is one matter that goes on for the whole day before any Bench. That, of course, doesn’t mean that lawyers hired for the other nineteen cases don’t prepare. You never know when an adjournment, a short passover may be sought by someone for some reason and the next thing you know, you are floundering at the Bar trying to arrange the papers and books, and trying hard not to look the judge in the eye for your obvious lack of preparation.

On such days, the pace of life in the Supreme Court is slower. You can take your time to smell the fresh cut grass in the mornings, exchange gossip leisurely over machine coffee with other Advocates in the SCBA cafeteria, or just wander the corridors trying to see if there’s anything entertaining going on (almost always found in one particular courtroom).

On one such day, I spotted her; the activist, the campaigner and the tireless crusader. You know who I am talking about. Well into her fifties, but looking simultaneously, older and younger than that. White crumpled khadi sari with only the barest hint of colour and embroidery. White hair streaked only occasionally with grey and black. Thick glasses. One look and you know which case she is there for. I only needed to look up the causelist to see which court that’s all. I guess you could say she’s a “celebrity” but I don’t think she’d like that. Long after the celebrities abandoned her war as a lost cause, she continues to battle on with a few, dwindling band of trusted allies. She’s back to the same battlefield that you think probably crushed her hopes for the system a decade and more ago. Somewhere in my memory, there’s that image of her openly weeping after the judgment was handed out throwing her (and her cause) out of the courts.

Yet, she’s back here. There’re no mobs of reporters surrounding her for a sound-bite. Her case is no longer cause célèbre and the hearing will probably get a couple of column centimetres in the usual Supreme Court beat of most dailies.

Against her, I reliably learn, are ranged Senior Advocates Smartypants and Shouter. Senior Counsel Smartypants is the darling of the media and a good chunk of the newest members of the Bar. If he’s not on TV expounding on the burning issue of the day, he’s burning up the Supreme Court with the sheer brilliance of his oratory and legal mind. His rates also burn a big hole in the pocket of many a litigant, and he’s usually briefed and backed up up by a law firm or two, apart from his own small army of juniors.

Senior Advocate Shouter is well known for the sheer (auditory) force of his arguments. It is reputed that he doesn’t believe in shuttling between the Supreme Court and the High Court for cases since he can very well make himself heard in one from the other. He is less of a lawyer, and more performance artiste, as most judges are just too dazed by the assault on their senses to do anything but what he wants them to do for his client. Naturally, his rates compare favourably with those of Smartypants.

So there’s this tiny woman, a non-lawyer arguing her own case (party-in-person), for what’s a no-longer-fashionable cause (rehabilitation of tribal families displaced by development) against what, honestly, are insurmountable odds. In her corner, she has the “typical jholawala”, jhola, kurta, beard, thick glasses, burden-of-universe-on-shoulders-demeanour; the “LSR girl” (not my nomenclature since apparently everyone in Delhi knows what this means, i.e., fab india kurta, jeans, big bindi, earnest expression, shrill voice and of course, burden-of-universe-on-shoulders-demeanour); and the Public Interest Lawyer. The last, alas, is a dying species in this day of the Private Interest, the Political Interest, and the Publicity Interest Lawyer, all of whom now claim a greater share of the PIL pie than the Public Interest Lawyer.

Her case hasn’t come up yet, and lacking a proper Supreme Court Chamber, she just sits down with her briefs, bag and books in a corner of the courtyard in front of the Chief Justice’s Court, near the steps. Like any good lawyer, she goes through her briefs, makes sure she has her material, her books and everything she needs to make a proper legal case on behalf of her… cause? Clients? Neither word fits here, so I guess you will have to put in what you think fits best.

To an observer it’s odd and incongruous. Not just the fact that this woman sits here before the Court preparing for her brief in the midst of lawyers taking no note of her as they walk to and fro about their business. It’s odd and incongruous that she retains an iota of faith in the System. Especially when others who claimed allegiance to the same cause made such public shows of their disenchantment with the Courts, judiciary and lawyers, and have now latched themselves on to new causes and new Gandhis.

Her case has finally come up, and she hurries into the Chief’s Court where the matter is being heard. Senior Advocates Smartypants and Shouter are already there. She begins. It is a prayer for interim relief from the Court in the pending litigation. The Smartypants and Shouter, I am informed, have been hired by the State Governments opposing her pleas. I try to follow the case, but get called away as the matter I was working on is going to be taken up in another Court soon.

As soon as that is done, I rush back to the Chief’s Court, but it’s all over.

She’s won.

I ask around for details, and someone confirms it. Adverse interim orders passed against the States in the PIL being monitored by the Supreme Court.

As the next case is being called out, she leaves the Courtroom quickly with her allies. Standing close to the Courtroom’s doors, I get to see her close up. I’m not the best judge of these things, but I don’t detect triumph in her eyes, or anything approaching jubilation. Relief? Probably. Contentment? Unlikely. Just the beginnings of a small smile. This is not the end of her fight. It probably doesn’t have an “end” in the strict sense of the term. Maybe it’s the look of someone who’s been given one small reason to continue believing in, and have faith in “The System”.

I don’t know really.

I guess I’ve got at least one less reason to lose faith.

4 Comments on "The Activist"

  1. Eesvan September 19, 2010 at 10:26 am ·

    Fantastic post Alok, thank you.

  2. Rohan Kaul September 19, 2010 at 7:54 pm ·

    Alok, this is awesome.

  3. Mohsin Alam September 20, 2010 at 12:02 am ·


  4. S. Parthasarathy October 14, 2010 at 3:12 am ·

    I was reminded of Mr.Pickwick after reading the piece.

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