Madras High Court: Uneven application of rule of law – 1
by Radha Rajan on 01 Nov 2013 3 Comments

Tamil Nadu courts today are more about “process” than “due process” and rule of law, where litigants stepping inside the hallowed walls of a court room are uncertain what procedure will operate on a particular day, or a particular matter. In the last two months alone the conduct of the Madras High Court on issues as divergent as cattle protection, temple protection, sexual harassment and harassment of a woman officer of IRDA has left petitioners perplexed regarding the means of securing justice. A tacit principle of “judicial infallibility”, wherein the Court ignored its own judgments, precedents, and circulars and pronounced contrary judgments has added to their anxiety.

 

IRDA case

 

A small-time advocate on behalf of his client filed a petition in the Madurai Bench of the Madras High Court praying that license to a private insurance company be revoked for failing to fulfil an award given by the trial court. He appended three letters in typeset before the court –

1.      Copy of the first letter praying for cancellation of licence with “CC IRDA” marked at the bottom of the letter

2.     Copy of RTI addressed to Information Officer (IO), Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority (IRDA) Hyderabad, asking what action has been taken in this regard

3.     Reply of the Information Officer to the RTI query

 

The IO in response to the RTI query stated that no action had been taken because the letter asking for license to be cancelled was not addressed to any officer in IRDA but was merely “CC IRDA”. The judge mistook the nature of the facts (an honest mistake, possibly because he gave weightage to the RTI process), pointed out that the letter was addressed to the Information Officer of IRDA and hence the IO must appear personally before the court and explain why no action has been taken.

 

In the opinion of this writer, the judge should have seized the initiative to reform/tweak the RTI process to make it truly productive for petitioners. He should have ordered that henceforth, when IOs find the question not addressed to the proper authority, they must reply helpfully by pointing out how the petitioner can proceed with his case (in this case, the proper authority in IRDA).

 

Thus, at the next hearing on June 17, 2013, Standing Counsel for IRDA pointed out that the original letter was marked only “CC IRDA” and only the RTI query was addressed specifically to the IO, IRDA, who is not even a party to the case and hence should not be summoned to court for doing her routine duty. But the judge insisted the lady officer travel from Hyderabad to Madurai and explain this in person; ordered her arrest; and contradicted a Supreme Court order by Justice Markandey Katju that senior officers should not be summoned to court needlessly or for trivial reasons.

 

This caused consternation in the IRDA which filed a petition in the Madurai court asking that the arrest order be quashed. The case came up for hearing on July 1, 2013 before a division bench and Standing Counsel for IRDA placed all facts before the judges, but they insisted that the ordered passed by the single judge be complied with. The IRDA fell in line.

 

Beef and Hide mafia versus Animal activists

 

Between October 2012 and March 2013, a group of animal activists inspired by the documentary “Their Last Journey: Cattle Trafficking to Kerala” began to stop and seize trucks across Tamil Nadu unlawfully transporting cows and cattle to Kerala for slaughter.  Thousands of trucks transporting around eight million heads of cattle every year, inflicting unspeakable cruelty and pain upon these animals, goaded activists to seize trucks and rescue the animals.

 

Animals rescued by activists and housed safely in different goshalas and cattle shelters were however forced to be returned to the meat and hide mafia by Tamil Nadu courts – both lower courts and the High Court. This was strange because through the years of running around for their cause the animal activists had stumbled upon a Madras High Court judgment dated January 22, 2002 in which the judge ordered that animals rescued from trucks violating Animal Transport Laws, 1978, would not be returned to the accused.

 

To get Tamil Nadu courts to take note of the landmark 2002 judgment protecting rescued cows and cattle, an animal activist filed a PIL in the Madurai Bench praying for stringent action against those violating animal transportation laws, upholding of the High Court judgment of 2002 in toto and to make the judgment binding upon all courts, especially lower courts.

 

The PIL came up for hearing before a division bench in Madurai which, on February 6, 2013, upheld the 2002 single judge High Court order and specifically ordered that cattle rescued from trucks carrying more animals than permitted under Animal Transport Laws, 1978 would not be returned to the offenders.

 

One month later, on March 14, 2013, Judge B Rajendran delivered a blistering judgment against cattle traffickers, resolutely denied return of rescued animals to the accused, and instructed concerned authorities to cancel the licence and permits of trucks charged for violating animal transportation laws and guidelines.

 

Despite three High Court orders – two single judge and one division bench - denying return of rescued cattle to the offenders, the lower courts, even when copies of these orders were placed before them, continued to order return of rescued animals to the cattle mafia.  Animal activists were left running from court to court. One of them approached the Acting Chief Justice of the Madras High Court to bring to his notice the wilful intransigence of lower courts in this matter. On April 16, 2013 the Chief Justice issued a circular through the office of the Registrar-General to the High Court and lower courts instructing them to take note of the Judge B Rajendran judgment of March 14, 2013.

 

But the Villupuram judicial magistrate court ordered Blue Cross of India, a Chennai-based animal welfare organization, to return to the offender 23 bulls housed with them after being rescued from a truck stopped by the police for violating animal transportation laws. Blue Cross filed a Criminal Revision Case in the Madras High Court. But, to its dismay, on June 21, 2013, the Judge ignored the three prior High Court orders and the circular issued by the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court, and upheld the lower court order asking Blue Cross of India to return the rescued animals back to the offender.

 

Unfortunately, judgments delivered in criminal revision cases cannot be stayed, reviewed or challenged in the High Court. The only court of appeal left is the Supreme Court, and ordinary citizens, individual animal activists and Animal Welfare Organizations operating on shoe string budgets do not have the financial and other resources to take the fight up to the Supreme Court. The activists and the cattle were left high and dry.

 

Hindu Temples

 

There is rising discontent among Hindu bhaktas as the unconcern towards Hindu temples big or small, new or ancient, street temples or agamic temples, that fall to State depredations. In 2010, when the DMK government embarked on a street temple-demolishing spree, allegedly upon orders from the Supreme Court (which was a lie), the writer rushed to the High Court to protect a small Vishnu temple located under a banyan tree. To no avail.

 

While more than 250 street temples were demolished by the AIADMK government in 2005, the DMK government, according to a report filed by the Chief Secretary in the Supreme Court, had demolished 138 street temples as being illegal encroachments on the streets of Chennai.  The Chief Secretary’s report failed to mention that in 2010, there were close to 175 Jesus and Mary street-corner churches in just 3 localities in Nungambakkam alone – Pushpa Nagar, Susaipuram and Dharmapuram, which were not touched under the same drive. Why?

 

If the treatment meted out to Hindu street temples was not bad enough, traditional and ancient temples fare no better in Tamil Nadu. Not a single Government Order (GO) grabbing prosperous and affluent Hindu temples away from bhaktas and into government control  has been overturned in the Madras High Court.

 

In June and July 2013 the Madras High Court heard cases pertaining to two very important Hindu temples – the unethical take-over of the Vellore Jalakanteswarar Temple and a case questioning the sanctity and propriety of shops inside temple premises selling packaged food, including samosas and mineral water, in the Chidambaram temple.

 

In the case of the government take-over of the famous Vellore Jalakantheswarar Temple, even as per the GO and according to the letter written by the HR&CE to the trustees of the temple, the trustees were supposed to hand over control of temple to the HR&CE only on July 1. But well before the due date, the government invaded the temple and sealed all Hundis (large metal collection boxes/drums), into which bhaktas make their offering of money, gold, and silver ornaments, as an act of worship.

 

Protesting the indecent haste and unlawful manner in which the temple was overrun by government officials, Senior Advocate G Rajagopal demanded stay of the GO. This was refused on grounds that newspapers had reported that the government has already taken over administration of the temple! And that was that. This is the general fate of Hindus who go to court to protect their temples.

 

Chidambaram Temple and samosas as ‘prasadam’

 

On February 2, 2009, the court upheld a government order appointing an Executive Officer to administer the historic Chidambaram Nataraja temple on grounds of ‘mismanagement’ by the Podu Dikshitars. The state government moved into the ancient temple the very next day and seized full control. The Podu Dikshitars challenged the single judge order and filed a review petition in the High Court against the impugned single judge order validating the GO. This has been pending in court since 2009, and HR&CE continues to lord it over the temple.

 

One of the first things the Tamil Government does after forcibly taking over ancient temples is to explore new avenues to make temple administration a money-spinning enterprise. In the case of the Chidambaram temple, the government auctioned space inside the temple to local shop keepers to put up stalls. One stall began selling food items, including samosas and mineral water, a scandalous violation of agamic guidelines governing temple administration.

 

In temples governed by agama, the only food that can be offered within temple premises to bhaktas is food cooked in the temple’s sacred kitchen called ‘madaipalli”, which is offered as ‘neivedyam’ to the presiding deity a fixed number of times during the day, at the time of ‘kaala poojas’; after which the cooked food is offered to bhaktas who come to the temple for worship. This food is offered as prasadam and cannot be sold. Selling food and water inside the temple constitutes horrendous paapa and violates the sanctity of the temple.

 

Taking umbrage at the deliberate attempt by the state government to take liberties with time-honoured agama, customs and tradition of the Chidambaram temple, a case was filed in the High Court by a devotee, highlighting the defiling of the prasadam tradition. The temple devotee had previously made an RTI query with thirteen questions regarding neivedyam, madaipalli and prasadam, seeking precise answers to each. Armed with the answers to his RTI query, he filed a PIL in the Madras High Court asking the court to quash the impugned notification and cancel all licenses issued by the EO to open food stalls inside the temple.

 

The case was heard on July 1 by the First Bench comprising Acting CJ RK Agarwal and Judge M Sathyanarayanan. Advocate for the devotee placed the response received from the HR&CE before the judges wherein the Executive Officer of the temple had admitted the following –

1] The so-called ‘prasadam’ sold in the shops is not cooked in the Madaipalli

2] The food sold in these shops as ‘prasadam’ is not offered to the deity during ‘kaala poojas’.

3] The Executive Officer, in his response to the RTI admitted that he was not familiar with the specific customs and traditions which had to be followed in the administration of the temple and

4] It was Commissioner, HR&CE, who decided what items will be sold in these shops.

5] Even under the law, the EO had no authority to issue licenses to such food stalls inside the temple.

 

But as one judge observed in silence, the other enunciated, “Devotees who come to the temple must be given something to take away with them. You say what is offered as prasadam does not conform to custom, usage and tradition. Traditions and customs are meant to be broken.”

 

(To be concluded)

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