Honest Lawyer?

“I don’t like lying. Can I be a lawyer?”

Straight question, that was. I had just stepped out after delivering a lecture on Constitutional Law. She had walked up to me a little nervously and had politely enquired if she could present a question that had nothing do with my lecture.

I looked at her, unsure and rather puzzled. A moment passed and all I could do was look at her in wonder. The simplicity of the question was as amazing as the centrality of its ethical content in the world of law and lawyers. She had not asked if she could be a ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ lawyer. She had asked if she could be a lawyer at all if she was averse to telling lies. Apparently, she had some reason to believe that the capacity to lie was an indispensable requirement for being a lawyer.

In that innocent question of this prospective law student there was a challenging ethical issue stemming from the way lawyers are perceived by the common people. To some this might sound like making a big deal of a teeny-weeny issue. What lawyers do is plead the cases of their respective clients without ‘fear or favour’ and then it is for the court to consider the legal tenability of the arguments and decide accordingly. Where does the question of ethics arise at all?

Well, in standing for the parties where does the lawyer stand? Is he so neutral as to be nothing more than the mouthpiece of his clients? If it is so, nothing in law stops a fairly articulate client to present his own case without assistance from a professional trained in advocacy. Of course, that could be suicidal, so to speak, for such a client’s case irrespective of his gift with the words. Certainly, a lawyer is more than just a representative of his client. He is the officer of the court, advisor to his clients and a responsible citizen in the same hierarchical order.

The ethical question is not just relevant but is also of central significance to a lawyer, who would go to extraordinary lengths to win the case for his client.  How far can he go, and where he must draw the line is what the ethical codes for lawyers seek to lay down the world over.

Recently, the ‘truth’ question that the girl put forth came back to my mind when I attended a symposium on Ethical Lawyering: Role of Law Schools jointly organized by the Society of Indian Law Firms and Menon Institute of Legal Advocacy Training.

If the Supreme Court judges like Justice Raveendran, noted lawyers like KK Venugopal and Lalit Bhasin, legal academician of Prof. N.R. Madhava Menon’s stature and foreign dignitaries like Adrian Evans, Chair, Ethics Committee, International Bar Association and Prof. Mizanur Rehman, Chair, National Human Rights Commission, Bangladesh, found the issue of ethics worth discussing at length, it has to be central to the working of all legal systems.

But then, the issue is quite simple. At the heart of it lies our own understanding of the ‘truth’, and the way each one of us, including non-lawyers, justifies lies and deception internally. The problem is not with the system we work in, but with our own selves, and the incessant tussle between ambition and ethical principles that goes on within us. And we are presented with a choice, we tend to take the so-called ‘pragmatic’ approach and choose what is more ‘beneficial’ or ‘fruitful’. Ethical standards are often compromised because abiding by them is looked upon as one of the ‘choices’. A lawyer’s mind is adept at conjuring up arguments based on sound reasoning, and there is no principle that cannot be challenged, howsoever superficially. When ethical standards are opened to such challenges, our moral selves are bound to suffer.

‘What’ and ‘Why’ are just as useful as they are perilous. The moment one hurls the question “What is gained by telling the truth?”, the battle is irredeemably lost.

Frustrated with me, the other day someone remarked, “You are too rigid in your principles?” I wonder if I have a choice. If the length of ‘one meter’ is not rigidly invariable, how would we measure anything at all? Can an ethical principle or standard be pliant and still be a ‘standard’ or ‘principle’?

We seem to have made the fundamental mistake of treating standards as flexible and have arbitrarily introduced exceptions that dilute the very character of the ethical standards. The problem is actually general and does not specifically belong to the legal arena. But yes, it does have very serious implications in the field of law and justice.

For the record, to the girl’s question I responded with a smile and a brief and firm “yes”. And wanted to, but did not, add that in the flood of lies it would indeed be arduous and would take some serious skills to ferry a boat of honesty.

Originally published as part of my monthly column STREET LAWYER in LAWYERS UPDATE [October 2010 Issue; Vol. XVI, Part 10]

Dabangg: Coarse fare

Wham! The door goes off the hinges and Salman steps into the den of the robbers, reminiscent of Aamir’s entry in Ghajini. And then the goggles fly up in the air to find their appointed place on the shirt collar behind Salman’s neck. Rajini effect modified? The action sequence starts and at one place Salman spills oil and slides on it to facilitate the reach of his kicks and punches. It is a straight lift from the opening action sequence of Shoot ’Em Up unless two great action minds thought alike at a temporal distance of 3 years. Flying pieces of glasses are then dodged by bending backwards to an incredible extent while the pieces freeze in mid-air for Matrix effect, replicated once again after Wanted.

Salman’s kicks that send large cans cruising to hit the goons also remind one of the opening action sequence of Wanted, which was shot at a place so remarkably similar that one is inclined to think of it as the same place. So, in one sequence we have Rajinikanth, Wanted, Matrix and Shoot ’Em Up coalescing to produce a much ‘inspired’ action sequence. Well, in a world of ‘inspirations’ what reason do we have to complain?

That was Chulbul Pandey (Salman Khan), no, ‘Inspector’ Chulbul Pandey with just one star on each shoulder (what happened to the other two?), who had just floored half a dozen or more goons single handedly and had taken the money they had looted, part of which was to go to his own pocket and some to the pockets of the posse of other policemen, who had arrived with weapons in their clumsy hands after the fight scene.

One of them wanted a promotion, and Chulbul ji draws his service pistol out and shoots him in the shoulder, thus ensuring both a medal and a promotion along with cash reward. A ballistic report would confirm that the bullet was fired from a police weapon. So, what would be Chulbul say to that? “Sorry, that was own goal”?

Chulbul Pandey is a corrupt police officer who seems to have an autocratic air about him, and goes about dispensing his own brand of justice. Law, order, legality and duty are dead words to him with no meaning to them. Might is right, is all that he understands, and he goes about righting the wrong in his own way calling himself “Robinhood Pandey” alias “Chulbul Pandey”. Of course, he is not interested in the concepts of social justice and does not intend to open the gates to the hoarded wealth for the poor and the needy. All he wants to do is settle his personal scores and make as much money as possible by all means and opportunities available to him.

Chulbul Pandey is, therefore, a goon in police uniform, who misuses the state power at his disposal to the fullest for almost all purposes other than enforcing the law. There seems to be no institutional check on him. So much so that he goes to a politician-gangster with a warrant and hands a bag over to him to be filled with money in a case involving the consumption of spurious liquor.

Since Dabangg is a regular Bollywood fare, there is little one could expect in terms of realism or message of any kind. But one might still think about a policeman of that kind because the existence of such a man in uniform is not entirely unconceivable. Of course, in cities like Delhi and Mumbai, such a person might stand beyond the pale of imagination, but considering the numerous small cities and villages that India is actually made of, it is not difficult for a policeman to use brute force for his own personal gains, and it has certainly happened in the past.

A short trip not so far down the memory lane would bring up the name of a well-known ‘encounter specialist’, who was a sub-inspector with Mumbai police and had movies made after him for his highhanded ways that actually worked, was investigated by the Anti-Corruption Bureau (ACB) for disproportionate income that was said to have come from his underworld connections. The court even rejected the clean chit give to the sub-inspector by the ACB. The ACB has cited paucity of evidence as the reason for not prosecuting the fellow. So, if something of that sort could happen in Mumbai, there can be any number of Chulbul Pandey’s across the country.

The movie certainly does not seek to raise such hard-hitting issues, but Chulbul’s character is not the work of such imagination as, say, Superman or Spiderman are. And this means we have reasons to be vigilant about how the state power is used by these men-in-khaki. We can’t afford to ignore the fact that we have a large populace that has no understanding of the rights they have.

As far as the movie is concerned, it is too far removed from reality and is rather bawdy in treatment. Doubtlessly an entertainer that might appeal to a certain section of people, but, by and large, it has little substance. No comments on Munni.

Originally published as part of my Legal Movie Review column LEGAL SCANNER in LAWYERS UPDATE [October 2010 Issue; Vol. XVI, Part 10]

Law in ‘Hot Pants’?

Spat! I looked around. All looked fine. Smiling faces. Nodding faces. Talking faces. A student was scribbling in his notebook, a foreigner hunched over his Apple laptop, four girls sitting in a huddle giggling away at the far corner, a heavyweight female gorging on a Chocolate Fantasy loaded with two scoops of ice-cream, two immaculately dressed, middle-aged gentlemen having a discussion on some business project and a guy and girl sitting on a couch in a corner not far from me in the usual PDA (Public Display of Affection) positions. In short, it was a normal day in a normal Café Coffee Day (CCD). Where did the sound come from? Was it the electronic insect killer? But it was long way from where I sat. “Anyway”, I said to myself and returned to the pages I was reading.

Chatt! Again. I looked up but could not detect the source of the sound again. But this time I was not alone. Others too seemed to have heard the snap. None, however, had a clue as to what it was.

Soon enough we realized it was the sound of one hand slapping another hand away. The slapping hand belonged to the girl and the slapped to the boy. But this came to light only when the girl got up and paid a visit to the washroom. My peripheral vision noted a number of heads, male and female alike, turning and I followed the gaze only to stop at the girl who took her sweet time to take the smallest possible steps to the washroom that was barely a few steps away.

But it was neither her gait, nor her apparent desire to set the record of the smallest steps ever taken in a CCD, but her bare legs issuing from the shortest possible ‘shorts’. They call these things ‘hot pants’, which sounds terribly sexist to my old-fashioned, puritan ears.

The pink-white, striped ‘hot pants’ this girl wore was so short that it would be a tailoring feat to shorten it any further without running the risk of turning it into an undergarment, if it wasn’t one already.

And then she emerged from the washroom and all eyes rested back on her while she walked back to the couch and settled back. With the next hand-slapping we all knew that it was the girl slapping her boyfriend’s hand off her thighs in anger – mock or real, I couldn’t tell, and wasn’t interested in knowing.

The girls giggled, the overweight female frowned, the student-boy couldn’t take his eyes off, the ‘gentlemen’ promptly paid the bill and left, the foreigner reacted little, having found nothing interesting or shocking in it, and I buried myself into the papers while the CCD staff went about their work with admirable detachment.

Personally I do not have a problem with PDA. In fact, to me an affectionate couple is quite a cute sight. But then, there are still limits of decency that must be respected.

Soon enough I was thinking about the law as applicable to public decency. There is nothing inherently indecent in an affectionate hug and a loving peck; neither is a male hand resting on female thigh essentially indecent (I am certainly treading thin ice here) unless any movement of the hand or any part thereof is overtly and unmistakably sexual in nature.

That’s about the behaviour. How about the dress? Could one be ‘indecently’ dressed? Section 91 of Delhi Police Act, 1978 defines ‘Behaving indecently in public’ thus:

No person shall wilfully and indecently expose his person in any street or public place or place of public resort or within sight of, and in such manner as to be seen from, any street or, public place or place of public resort, whether from within any house or building or not, or use indecent language or behave indecently or riotously or in a disorderly manner in a street or public place of public resort or in any office, police station or station house.

It can safely be assumed that the girl here was not forced into the ‘hot pants’, and wearing something would make the wearer responsible for the parts he or she leaves uncovered so as to fall within the description of ‘expose’.

So, it was indeed ‘wilful exposure’. Was it also ‘indecent’? It would be safe to assume that what is indecent may not always be downright ‘obscene’, but what is obscene is quite certainly indecent unless there could be something that could be described as ‘decent yet obscene’ without the description being self-contradictory.

Section 292 of Indian Penal Code, 1860 defines ‘obscene’ as anything that is “lascivious or appeals to the prurient interest”. The term ‘prurient’, as per the dictionary, stands for “causing lasciviousness or lust” and the term ‘lascivious’ means ‘inclined to lustfulness’.

If the guy’s moving hand, the girl’s slapping it aside in mock anger, the gentlemen’s prompt departure and my burying myself in the uninteresting pages are anything to go by, the ‘hot pants’ seemed to inspire feelings that could not be described as ‘affection’ or any of its platonic variations. Interestingly, ‘hot pants’ is also slang for ‘strong sexual desire’ or ‘a feeling of sexual arousal’.

And I am absolutely disinclined to take the discussion any further, thank you. Feminists are a scary lot. For the record, I am against the law getting into hot pants (pun intended).

Originally published as part of my monthly column STREET LAWYER in LAWYERS UPDATE [August 2010 Issue; Vol. XVI, Part 9]