Different Strokes|Oct 13, 2004 2:35 PM| by:

Face of the Enigmatic Lady

Law never made a man just, but in its slow refinement is reflected mankind’s collective growth of conscience. Only an alert and involved judiciary can check its misuse.

“The trumpet shall be heard on high, / The dead shall live, the living die!” sang Dryden. At Ramnad Sessions Court, sometime ago, the first part of the prophecy came true and luckily not the second part. Mrs. Pandiammal, believed dead turned up alive and the living husband, Mr. Veluchamy, accused of having murdered her, did not have to die. Mrs. Pandiammal was not required to experience the ordeal faced by the heroine in a short story of Tagore, a young lady who was believed dead and was suspected to be her own ghost when seen alive and who chose to die in order to prove that she had not died!

Thoreau’s assertion that law never made men a whit more just can hardly be disputed, but the humanization of law, in a sense, is no doubt a record of the evolution of mankind’s collective conscience. We have come a long way from the days of tooth for tooth and eye for eye, but the gradual conquest of the territories of mechanical or arbitrary laws by conscientious jurisprudence has not been easy. The earliest instance of a challenge offered by a superior consciousness to the authority of mechanical codes is to be found in the Indian mythology, in the legend of Sage Mandavya. A burglar pursued by the king’s officials left his booty in the hut of the sage who sat engrossed in meditation. The sage was arrested and the king ordered his execution. He was put on the spike. But when, the next day, the executioners came to take his body out of that unsophisticated but gruesome instrument of death, they were astonished to see the sage alive and fully conscious, even though the spike had run through his whole person. Alerted of the phenomenon, the king rushed to the spot, removed the sage from the spike and realizing his blunder, prostrated to the sage and begged for his pardon.

The sage said nothing to him, for his was a question too big for any mortal to answer. Straight he went to Yama, the God of Death who was also the guardian of the occult laws of Karma governing human life and demanded of him an explanation for the torture he had to go through.

Said an apologetic god, “Once in your childhood you drove a needle across a butterfly’s body. The Karma just took its toll!”

Only then the sage flared up. “What!” he shouted, “Must one be punished for one’s action performed in total ignorance of its effect?” Mustering all the power achieved through his long askesis, he changed the occult law. Thereafter, it was not the action alone, but the motive behind it that was to determine its consequence.

One aspect of the symbolism in the legend informs us that the necessity of refining a crude law strikes a superior consciousness first and slowly the society rises to a level high enough to appreciate it. Centuries may intervene between a truth realised by an individual and its acceptance by the multitudes.

But even when a reasonably sound law is in force, there are any numbers of possibilities – selfishness, lethargy, prejudice – to subvert or sabotage its judicious application. In 1918 Bertrand Russell was manhandled by a mob for his radical views on war. The police were present, but they looked on and did not interfere. “Rescue him!” shouted a gentleman, but the police did nothing. “Don’t you know that he is a philosopher?” he shouted again. The police remained unmoved. “Good God! But he is none other than Bertrand Russell — a celebrity!” reminded the impatient friend. Even then the police did not intervene.

“Good God, don’t you know that he is the brother of an Earl?” was his next desperate exclamation. And the police rushed to Russell’s rescue.

Respect for the Earl which was nothing but a fear of the powerful – the fear emanating from one’s instinct for self-preservation or survival – proved more important than the qualities meant to ensure a collective civilized existence which the State was obliged to guard.

The police must prove its efficacy to justify its existence. Proofs and justifications can be produced through true efficiency or through fake efficiency. True efficiency involved exercises in intelligence, patience and perseverance. Fake efficiency can be demonstrated through short-cuts, through manipulation of witnesses and application of coercive techniques. That is exactly what the police seem to have done in the Pandiammal ‘murder’ case; it had extracted a confession from the woman’s husband that he had murdered her. As the court observed, when a clever police officer tutored the witness and presented him before the court and depending on the ability of the official,  acquittal or punishment was awarded to the accused.

Cases of the innocents who went to the gallows or rotted in gaols because someone whipped up hot “confessions” from them, will ever remain shut up in the frozen zones of history, but the law of Nemesis will not spare the society which tolerates such practices. The anguish of the unjustly punished and their near ones may not be palpable or visible, but the climate of cynicism it breeds, even if we were to ignore its occult implications, is harmful enough for all. Its corrosive effect is slow but lasting. A society without faith in justice is the spawning ground of anarchy and indiscipline.

Today’s police should feel confident with the modern means of detection at its disposal, the possibility of collaboration among several sophisticated law-enforcing agencies and the availability of vast experience behind it and its access to expertise. It is a disgrace to twentieth century ingenuousness if we had still to depend on the primitive practice of inducing fear in a suspect and compelling him to confirm the suspicion as was done in the case cited. Needless to say, unless the police realised that its taking recourse to the so-called third degree methods only indicated its lack of intelligence and ability, unless it cultivated a certain dignified will to be imaginative rather than smart, courageously truthful rather than successful on the surface, the situation will not change.

And unless the situation changes, the hope lies in the alertness of the judiciary, in the judge remaining ever keen to read between the lines. Once Justice H. R. Khanna, in the course of his Sir Ram memorial lecture, cited an unforgettable instance of the truth behind a thin veil, awaiting the judge’s initiative for its removal:

As we know, much depends on the personal character and credentials of a witness when the judge weighs the veracity of a statement. Now, a lawyer was examining a rustic young man, a newcomer to the city, after treating him to the solemn advice that he was not required to say a word more than Yes or No.

“I suppose you live in a small single-room apartment behind a market, right? Yes or No?”

“Yes,” answered the witness.

“Good. And I hope you will not deny the fact that you are not alone in that apartment; you have put up a lady with you. Yes or No?”


“I put it to you that she is not your mother! Right?”


“Good. I suggest that she is not your sister either. Right?”


“And you are a bachelor! Yes or No?”


“Thank you!” said the lawyer with a chuckle and a very meaningful look at the judge. The young man was about to leave the witness box when the judge suddenly asked him, “Wait, young man, will you tell us who is she?”

“My grandma!”

But in how many cases is the face of the lady unveiled?

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