Courage & Commitment


Courage & Commitment. In the context of the court battles that I had to face as Collector, I have already referred to Government Pleader N Rajeswara Rao in the case involving the government lanka lands and to Justice O Chinnappa Reddy in my last article on the case of obstruction caused to the dalit women’s passage to their easing grounds.

In the context of the court battles that I had to face as Collector, I have already referred to Government Pleader N Rajeswara Rao in the case involving the government lanka lands and to Justice O Chinnappa Reddy in my last article on the case of obstruction caused to the dalit women’s passage to their easing grounds. In the current article I shall write on the courage of two practitioners of law, K Ramaswamy and P Shiv Shankar, who came to my aid in the case of the dalit women’s right to passage only because they were morally convinced that their support to my cause was right. In this case the Government Pleader concerned was K Ramaswamy. Stunned that the Bench made remarks against the Collector referring to proceedings in an earlier but altogether unconnected case, even before the appellant had started his submissions, Ramaswamy wrote to the Government about these comments by the Bench, indicating that what was said showed that the Bench was prejudiced against the Collector. Judged by any of the highest standards of professional ethics this letter of Ramaswamy was an act of exceptional courage and in doing so he even invited the wrath of that Bench.

My own stand also was that I was a victim of bias and I said this in so many words in my affidavit while seeking expunction of the remarks the Bench had made against me. When we were locked in this battle, this courageous law officer told me that he was ready and prepared to get into the witness box if the need arose and depose on oath on the facts relating to the happenings in the Court. With the battle joined, but the Government in the Panchayat Raj department dragging its feet in regard to defending me or its own case till the doughty SR Sankaran interceded on my behalf, Ramaswamy advised me that I should fight my case on my own and that the appropriate lawyer to fight this case for justice to me was P Shiv Shankar. When I met Shiv Shankar, he readily agreed indicating that he was fully aware of this case and what he thought was injustice done to me. At the end of our discussions, I asked Shiv Shankar about the fee I should pay him. Shiv Shankar replied: “You do not have to pay me a fee for two reasons. Firstly you simply cannot afford it.

Secondly, what is your sin? Going to the rescue of the wronged Harijan women? Why would I take a fee from someone fighting for social justice, in which I too believe?” That I fought my case anchoring it in my knowledge that there was bias against me was on account of just not my own courage such as it might have been but on account of the leadership of these two stalwart lawyers of unparalleled courage and their commitment to social justice. This was seen fully in the Court. During arguments for reconsideration and expunction of the remarks made against me the presiding judge was not inclined to agree and reiterated the stand he had already taken in the original judgment.This elicited a comment from Shiv Shankar that his client would not get any justice from this Court and therefore the matter should be transferred to another court. With the other judge agreeing with the stand of Shiv Shankar, the matter was transferred to another court by the Bench itself. I have given an account of the orders made by the new Bench giving me substantial, if not full, relief in my article last week.

That these two courageous lawyers rose to highest eminence in India’s judicial and political history is a testimony to their competence and leadership. Shiv Shankar went on to head some of India’s most important ministries such as Law and Justice, External Affairs, Human Resource Development, Commerce and Energy ushering in significant reforms. K Ramaswamy would rise to become one of the highly acclaimed judges of the Supreme Court of India and deliver landmark judgments like that in the Samatha case which, while dealing with the rights of the tribes, highlighted the mutually supportive role of parts III and IV of the Constitution; and the Valsamma Paul vs Cochin University case where it was held that a woman belonging to a non-reserved class, by marrying an ST, SC, or OBC, would not be ipso facto entitled to claim the benefit of reservation under Article 15(4) of the Constitution. Justice Ramaswamy would later represent India’s National Human Rights Commission, as its member at the Durban World Conference against Racism in 2001 and articulate its position that “untouchability” is indeed a part of racism as understood in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966 and therefore amenable to discussion in international fora, a stand different from that of the Government of India; at the same time he clarified patriotically that the remedial measures sought by the international community should be within the parameters of laws operating in India.
As for Shiv Shankar, his facilitation of certain far reaching judicial reforms brought significant changes and there would be an occasion later when I would refer to the firm, patriotic way in which he backed his officers who challenged the casualness of an international organisation in breaching presidential protocol, when he was the Union Minister of Human Resource Development.
The echoes of my legal dilemmas lasted till four years after I had left the district as Collector.Yet, the last act of mine in the district was to formally bring together a group of about 40 dalit activists whom I had identified as potential leaders from various parts of the district, who during my tenure had displayed exceptional qualities of leadership especially in adverse circumstances. The chief among them was Koneru Ranga Rao, the dalit sarpanch of Gudavalli near Gannavaram. He later became the Deputy Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh. The group was formally trained for a week at Penamalur village near Vijayawada in a camp organised to hone their leadership skills through a programme of the National Labour Institute, Delhi, a unit of the Union Labour Ministry. Its dean then was the redoubtable Nitish De. A great intellectual and thinker, though frail in health, he stayed in the camp for its duration, which saw the Union Labour Minister KV Raghunatha Reddy visit the camp. My choice of Penamalur as the camp site was inspired by the way the dalits of the village got empowered and mobilised when18 acres of land in the village that they had struggled for assignment over a period of 20 years was assigned to ninety of them. There is a lesson in this for those who want to mobilise the poor around their rights.
With a few days left for me to leave the district I accepted a gracious invitation from the Chairman, Zilla Parishad to dine at his home. We were only four including our ladies. He was a fine, serious politician, a king maker in his own right who had never cared to become a minister. He and I had had our battles for what we respectively thought were the legitimate interests of politics and governance. I have given the illustrations of these in the last couple of articles. He narrated two fascinating human interest stories to us. The first was to my wife, - that he always ensured that his pet dog had at least one of its meals directly under his supervision. Incredibly humane for one so busy as him. And the other was to me. At the height of the several confrontations between the departing Collector and the political electives, he had led a delegation to the Home Minister of India seeking his “good offices” to have the Collector transferred. The Home Minister after fully hearing out the delegation told the Chairman: “I understand your difficulties. The trouble with Venugopal is his extreme lack of capacity to adjust to political situations but he is someone who should at all times be a Collector. Therefore I can be of no help to you”. The name of that Home Minister of India is K Brahmananda Reddy whom I had inconvenienced majorly at least twice while he was chief minister. Yet he gave me thumbs up. A leader, civil servants would miss today.
My friend Father Thomas Pallithanam of People’s Action for Rural Awakening (PARA) with whom I work for Human Rights Education visited Vijayawada ten days ago at my request and has confirmed that Nirmal Hriday Bhavan orphanage, referred in my article of the February 2 2014, still stands on the site given to Mother Teresa in 1974 on the Bandar Road, Vijayawada. That is not a mere echo of a 40-year-old action but a benign vibration wafting from Mother Teresa.
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