From Bus Conductor to Civil Judge: The Arrival*

And there I was – an undergraduate teenager – amidst a group of 6 or 7 Civil Services aspirants, around 5 of which aspired for PCS (Judicial). Mishra Bhaiya was among the senior-most in the group, my senior by 8 or 9 years. We three – I, Mishra Bhaiya and Pushpendra Bhaisaab – shared a flat. The others also lived in close vicinity.

Being amidst so many elders could be scary, but somehow none of them thought I needed any disciplining. And soon enough I was the naughty little kid who treated all elder brothers alike. So, none was spared, be it the daily treat of tea and samosas at the roadside stalls, or watching movies.

It was this happy bunch of people who came from well-to-do families, sported Raybans, rode bikes and wore expensive clothes and went to the movies though not very often. Of course, they studied, too, but that was no match for Mishra Bhaiya’s 9 to 10 hours of rigorous studies everyday without fail. He simply refused to be distracted by anything around him. Up at six in the morning, he would be found at his study desk by seven irrespective of the season. By starting early he ensured that the unavoidable worldly intrusions and distractions made no difference to the productivity of the first half of his workday.

The second half of the day moved slower with more than a few interruptions including the lunch break and the tea break. If the day interruptions got longer, he would stay up late and make up for the lost time. Unlike others, he made sure that the wasted time was taken care of immediately.

But since he was not a night person, staying up late was a problem. And I was the problem-solver, as I was never an early-to-bed fellow and stayed up late anyway. So, I made tea for us and kept him company during his late night study sessions. Now, if too much time was lost during the day, he could miss dinner and count on me for not allowing hunger to interfere with his studies. Soon, he realized that late nights were as peaceful as early mornings, and the cups of tea that I so happily made could effectively put sleep down making late night study sessions more productive. Understanding is more about concentration than the time spent with the material, and short breaks, so long as they do not involve straying too far away, help concentrating better. Passive engagement with the material is the key.

Our late night discussions on the terrace over cups of tea between chunky breaks of study revolved around a number of serious and non-serious issues, and I found that it was not only possible but also desirable to talk of serious issues in unserious terms and vice versa.

Those long, attentive study hours gave Mishra Bhaiya amazing clarity and depth of understanding of law and legal concepts. But what was even more amazing, as my late night discussions with him revealed, that he was not just studying, understanding and memorizing, but was also actively thinking. He had a noisy mind under the calm, composed and passive exterior.

With an admirable command of Hindi, he was impressively articulate with a tendency to choose words very carefully so as to avoid needless explanations and unnecessary riders. On serious issues, he always spoke in well formulated, full sentences that could easily be reproduced in writing without change. He argued his point in measured tone without raising his voice even in the face of sharp opposition. Passionate arguments often met a dispassionate, well thought-out and purely rational responses with little hint of emotions. So, Mishra Bhaiya was often looked upon as a man of dry rationale with no trace of emotions, which was far from the truth. He was a deeply emotional human being. Dispassion is not absence of passion but concentration of it. He did not squander passion, but cultivated it. There were things that could move him to tears. When I came to Delhi after graduating while he struggled to succeed and wrote to him, I got the reply over a month later. He later told me when he came to Delhi for an interview that he tried writing back a number of times but was moved to tears in the process and had to abandon writing every single time he tried.

The response that he could finally manage to write and send is around eight pages of near-literary prose in chaste Hindi, lucid and unmistakably emotional with no attempt at suppressing the thick sentimental streak. The letter fondly and nostalgically talked of the past, but it also painted a bleak picture of the present. With no success after having put in years of hard work, he was very disappointed.

But that changed when the UPSC called him for an interview to Delhi, and he was appointed Assistant Public Prosecutor attached to Delhi Police. A year later, he managed to qualify PCS (Judicial) for, not one, but three states – Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. He is now a Civil Judge in Rajasthan. And I am happy for him. After all, it was a hard fought battle of over eight years for Mishra Bhaiya, now, Judge Bal Krishna Mishra.


*Part two of the two-part piece.

Originally published as part of my monthly column — STREET LAWYER — in LAWYERS UPDATE [February 2011 Issue; Vol. XVII, Part 2]



No One Killed Jessica: Truth spiced up

We knew the truth about Jessica’s death before the High Court and then the Supreme Court stamped it shut with a verdict of ‘guilty’ overturning the much criticized acquittal. So, was the acquittal symptomatic of judicial failure, or of the system’s inefficacy? It’s always easy to pin the blame on the ‘system’ because it is far easier to point fingers than to own up. Any movie that aspires to tell the ‘real story’ and manages to stay true to its aspirations even marginally can’t help asking certain hard questions with no easy answers. And it’s not about directorial prowess but simply about the nature of the reality itself. No One Killed Jessica succeeds in telling the story the way it actually unfolded, by and large, which is its only strength apart from Vidya Balan’s performance.

In the movie, as in real life, the catch-word that is thrown around and is regularly taken as self-explanatory is ‘power’. We get to hear “they are powerful people” so often that we have stopped thinking about what constitutes the ‘power’ being referred to with such a curious mix of dread and admiration. Is it about what the powerful ‘have’, or what the powerless ‘lack’? We talk about the inefficacy of the justice delivery mechanism, and conveniently ignore that all human systems function on human endeavour, and a defect in the bricks would manifest in larger defects in the wall.

Jessica Lall case demonstrated, which the movie, too, doesn’t fail to hammer in, that ‘power’ is as much about the powerful having something – money and connections – as it is about the ‘powerless’ lacking something very fundamental – moral courage. What makes it worse is greed and apathy. Nothing and nobody can buy what’s not on sale and nothing can move the immovable. And Jessica Lall case showed that people are always on sale and there are no unshakeable moral rocks in the human world. Funny, that we still want ‘justice’, and also think we deserve it.

The movie starts with a hardcore journalist’s musings about the nature of the city, which she claims to ‘not understand’. The one thing that the narration gets right is that in Delhi everybody is ‘somebody’, and almost nobody is ‘nobody’, and it is from this unflinching, ego-centered intolerance that all violence, from road rage to Jessica-killings, originates.

Soon enough, we are taken to a party awash with dazzling lights, rocking to the peppy music and drunk on unrestricted flow of free liquor. The members of the wealthy and well-connected ‘high class’ are enjoying themselves with some of the lesser mortals serving them in various ways. And just when the party is winding up, the son of a ‘powerful’ politician steps in and demands a drink. The demand is turned down. Since the ‘powerful’ are not accustomed to refusals, the affront doesn’t go down well with the hot-blooded young man. He persists, and a closure signboard is thrust forth to him indicating the finality of the shutdown. The board signified the exercise of authority against a person who thought he was powerful enough to override all authority in that particular setting. Offended, he draws the pistol. And we know the rest.

In the court, the witnesses turn hostile owing to threats and payoffs, and the case falls flat. The movie gives us a foulmouthed, ferociously ambitious journalist with some residual conscience playing the crusader for justice. Outraged, like the rest of the country, she launches a sting operation to uncover the real cause of witnesses’ testimonial somersault. She succeeds in having the ‘hostile witnesses’ spill the beans on camera, and the unsettling truth explodes on the nation through the television. Clearly, miscarriage of justice had occurred. The conscience of the nation is shocked and there are demonstrations. High Court takes suo moto cognizance, and has a thorough re-look at the evidence. Conviction follows.

The director seems determined to give media and media-persons a rose-petals shower, which is why he conveniently compromises certain significant aspects of the case. It was not a certain TV journalist whose conscience was shocked resulting in the highly dramatized sting operation. It was Tehelka that conducted the sting operation, which was telecast on Star TV on September 26, 2010.

Furthermore, the movie wants us to believe that it was after the sting operation that the Delhi High Court took suo moto cognizance, which is far from the truth because the High Court admitted a regular appeal by the CBI against the trial court judgment in March 2006 itself while the sting operation was telecast nearly six months later on September 26, 2006. On December 20, 2006, the Delhi High Court held the accused guilty and sentenced Manu Sharma (Siddharth Vashisht) for life, and on April 19, 2010, the Supreme Court rejected the appeal affirming the High Court verdict.

So, the movie is not as honest with the facts as true realism would demand of it. For the realistic touch we have some of the filthiest Hindi expletives flowing from the mouths of the female characters to paint the bold-woman picture.

The part of the truth it meddles with changes the impression the movie makes in many subtle ways. The idea of a journalist crusading for justice is complete fiction in this case because the truth is that a print magazine conducted the sting and a television channel, which was not a sister-concern, telecast it. Then, nearly all TV channels and newspapers pursued the story rigorously. It was the entire Indian media that did it primarily because the people found it absolutely revolting that somebody could be shot for not serving a drink and the killer could walk away simply because he had the resources and was ‘somebody’. The message that the masses wanted to send across loud and clear was that nobody was ‘somebody’ enough to get away with a senseless murder and no degree of power or influence was sufficient to get one off the hook when the disregard for human life and the law was that blatant.

However, despite the message having been sent across, nothing has changed because the fact that the nation stood by Jessica collectively does not change the fact that the individuals – even her own friends – did not. Justice in Jessica’s case was fought hard for, which is not something to be celebrated but to be upset about because even with so many ‘powerful’ people around, justice had to be ‘fought for’.

Originally published as part of my Legal Movie Review column LEGAL SCANNER in LAWYERS UPDATE [February 2011 Issue; Vol. XVII, Part 2]