Court: A Tale of Law and Injustice

Now running in theatres, Court, an award-winning multilingual drama, studies caste and criminalisation of political dissent through the prism of judiciary.

By Manisha Sethi,

Baap sarkar… O lord, our Master

How you wield the sword

That stabs the heart

That smashes all life!

With one shot of your gun

The best of people are downed

Down in the dumps!

Yet you did not muffle me

Showed me the courtesy to try me in court

How you rendered a favour unto me

O’ how you rendered a favour to me

Baap sarkar… O lord, our Master

So sings Narayan Kamble upon being released on bail. This ‘ballad of gratitude’ exposes the violence that lies at the heart of law. It places the machinery of law at par with the swords and guns that smash and drown people, much as it may pretend to be its exact opposite.

Court

The Court follows the trial of Narayan Kamble, an ageing ex-mill worker, now part-time tuition teacher and full-time balladeer who sings at street corners, at Ambedkarite meetings, and among workers. Kamble is arrested for abetting suicide of a manhole cleaner who is found dead in the gutters, just days after Kamble has sung his rousing songs in the slum of the now dead man. The prosecution’s case is as follows: How could a man who had cleaned gutters for five years as a contract worker with BMC, who was well aware of the hazardous gases that filled these hellholes, have descended down without proper protection? The absence of any safety equipment amounted to deliberate ignorance of safety norms by the deceased. The dead gutter cleaner had been coaxed and incited by Kamble’s song to inhale toxic gases to gain dignity and respect.

While it may appear to be a satire – and it almost is, given the incredulous charges against Kamble, and even flimsier evidence supplied by the police to support the prosecution’s case – the troubling thing about this plot is that it is wholly plausible in today’s India. There are shades of the Kabir Kala Manch trial as well as Binayak Sen’s, and countless less reported ones. The evidence – recovery of books either never banned, or banned by the British almost a century ago; a stock witness who testifies for the prosecution in several cases; and a letter from a friend in jail urging Kamble to look after his ill mother presented as a conspiracy in code language – is fairly typical of such cases.

Kamble sings, “truth has lost its voice”. But the film also shows us how ‘truth’ is produced in the courtroom.  The messy and unruly claims and counterclaims enter the records through the dictation of the sessions judge, cleaned and flattened, in the service of law. In his cross examination by the public prosecutor, Kamble denies having written or performed the song “Manhole workers, all of us should commit suicide by suffocating inside the gutters”, which may have triggered the suicide in question.

“Ok, have you written such a song?

“Not yet.”

“So you might? You don’t mind?

No.

“Note”, tells the judge to his typist, “The accused is claiming that though he has never written or performed such a song, he doesn’t mind doing it either.”

The judge shakes his head, as if to suggest that this admission on Kamble’s part of the possibility of writing such a song in future is as good as an admission of guilt.

Anti-terror laws have raised the pursuit of the slippery and elusive “intention” into a weighty legal category.  This, combined with the widest possible meaning of terror acts (as the public prosecutor says, “it could be bombs or chemical, or any other means of whatever nature, includes anything”), has made it legally possible to criminalize practically every opinion that the government may dislike.

To those of us reared on a diet of Sunny Deol venting his fury about “tareekh, tareekh aur tareekh”, The Court offers a very calm, even resigned, look at the workings of our lower judiciary.  It unravels the socially conservative skeins of the judiciary: the public prosecutor enjoys an evening out watching anti-immigrant Marathi theatre and wishes that the judge would sentence the accused to 20 years in prison and relieve her of boredom; the judge who gently reprimands the police for not following the police procedure manual during search and seizure and yet doesn’t throw out these tainted seizures; who refuses to hear a litigant who has appeared before him in a sleeveless dress, because it violates his sense of dress code in the court.

The Court is the story of the criminal justice system as well as those it has abandoned: the dead gutter cleaner who drinks himself to insentience so that he can clamber down the manhole, who throws a pebble into the filth and waits for a cockroach to appear so that he knows that there is oxygen down there, who has lost an eye to the deadly gases. This man’s degradation is turned into material evidence of Kamble’s guilt. The Court shows us that law may only rarely be about justice. It is a requiem for gutter cleaners, for the balladeers who sing the truth, for the ideal of justice – and indeed, for all us.

Manisha Sethi is the author of Kafkaland: Prejudice, Law and Counterterrorism in India (Three Essays Collective, 2014). A slightly edited version of this review was first published in The Hindu Business Line.