Dalit view

Divided on support

Print edition : June 09, 2017
Dalits are unhappy over the turn of events in the judiciary but many of them find it difficult to support Justice Karnan.

“I am like Napoleon, an adopted son of Dr Ambedkar,” said Justice C.S. Karnan. Whether he is on the right side of the law or not, his stand-off with the Supreme Court judges ignited a debate on caste discrimination in the judiciary. While opinion was divided among Dalits over their support to Justice Karnan, there was no disagreement that there was bias against the Scheduled Castes (S.C.) and the Scheduled Tribes (S.T.) in the profession.

Using the example of a single State, Andhra Pradesh, advocate Bheemrao explained how the S.C. quota was seldom filled properly. “There is not a single Advocate General from the S.C./S.T. community in the Andhra Pradesh High Court. Even the post of Additional Advocate General has never gone to a person from these castes. While 800 S.C./S.T. advocates have enrolled, there are not more than 200 practising advocates who come to the court. There is a huge number of dropouts as the profession is economically unsustainable for S.Cs/S.Ts.” The situation in the other States was no different, he said.

Ruing the lack of support for S.C./S.T. advocates within the court system, he told Frontline: “All the big cases, such as land cases, are given to other lawyers. All atrocity case victims approach S.C./S.T. lawyers, whom we support. We fought their cases wholeheartedly, but it does not strengthen us economically to be on a par with other community members. S.C. advocates have no platform like the Reddy, Kamma or Brahmin advocates to push for their cases.”

In the past six years, there has been no elevation of a judge to the Andhra Pradesh High Court from among the S.C. members of the Bar. Bheemrao said the S.Cs who were appointed as judges were those promoted from the lower judiciary. Another difficulty faced by S.C. lawyers was that experienced lawyers did not give juniorships to S.Cs/S.Ts. If at all they got appointed, they would be made to carry papers and books to the courts, without reading the briefs, which did nothing to improve their skills or knowledge. “Training camps should be held for S.C./S.T. lawyers and some of the legal aid cases should be given to them so that they can learn and also earn. The court system works when seniors promote juniors. S.C./S.T. lawyers also need to be promoted,” he said.


While the number of S.C./S.T. advocates is low, the number of S.C./S.T. judges can be counted on the fingers of one’s hand. This is the reason why Dalits appreciate the fact that Justice Karnan was able to become a judge and want to support him. They feel he has been able to oppose discrimination from within the system.

Karthik Navayan Battula, lawyer and activist, told Frontline: “Justice Karnan’s case has exposed the inherent limitations of Indian civil society. He has exposed its prejudice and arrogance against Dalits, supported by status quoist invisible assumptions of what kind of assertion is accepted from the dispossessed. He was asked to go for a medical examination, maybe because they were shocked and frustrated by the fact that a Dalit could point out the existence of corruption. According to existing social standards, Dalit assertion is accepted only if Dalits ask for subsidies, that is, benefits for being loyal. When they act like anyone else and raise their voice as a whistle blower or human rights defender, their voices are simply dismissed so that their contribution is not recognised. This is the reason why civil society has not come out in support of Karnan.”

The SC/ST Association in the Andhra Pradesh High Court, which has 30 members, will stand by Justice Karnan and release a statement after ascertaining certain facts, Bheemrao said. “In principle we are in support of him. Prima facie, the judiciary has been improper in dealing with this issue. We will issue a resolution after we study and interpret the law on it."

Justice Karnan had written to the National Commission for Scheduled Castes about facing discrimination.

Ambedkarite collective

The U.S. Ambedkarite Collective, consisting of the Ambedkar International Mission, the Ambedkarite Buddhist Association of Texas, the Ambedkar International Center, the International Commission of Dalit Rights, the Ambedkar Mission Society of Canada, the Be Educated and the Cherukonda Institute, expressed solidarity with Justice Karnan and demanded reservation for Dalits in the judiciary. Writing in the website Velivada.com, the collective noted: “In the appointment of Supreme Court and High Court judges, there is a lack of adequate representation of the Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Backward Caste judges on the bench. From 1950 to the present, only four Scheduled Caste judges were promoted to Supreme Court. According to a report, 70 percent of the judges come from 132 families thereby giving rise to the nepotistic virtues practised in the highest orders. The Supreme Court in 1993 condemned the ‘self-perpetuating oligarchy’ in the court system which it observed gave rise to a ‘theory of judicial relationship.” It further stated that “generations of same men from the same family or caste, community or religion, are being sponsored or initiated as judges”.

A group of lawyers and other professionals organised a protest in Chennai on May 17 in support of Justice Karnan. The Birsa Ambedkar Phule Students Association of Jawaharlal Nehru University organised a public talk in support of Justice Karnan. The speakers included: Advocate Nithin Meshram, Professor Y.S. Alone, Dr Raj Kumar, Prof. Hany Babu of Delhi University, and Dilip Mandal. Mandal has been active on social media defending Justice Karnan. He said that after Partition, both India and Pakistan had Dalit Law Ministers: Ambedkar and Maharana Jogendra Nath Mandal. “In those days Dalit advocates used to rule the roost as the judges were Englishmen who did not see the caste but the merit of lawyers. After freedom [from the colonial rule] most judges were Brahmins who used to promote same-caste lawyers. Gradually, Dalits left the profession.”

Other voices amongst Dalits were unhappy at the turn of events but found it difficult to sympathise with Justice Karnan, for which they were attacked on social media. Leading figure in Hindi Dalit literature and Ambedkarite thinker Kanwal Bharti said Justice Karnan was fighting a good fight in the wrong way.

“He stayed his own transfer order and registered a report in the S.C./S.T. Commission against it. He sent the complaint about corruption by 20 judges to the President and the Prime Minister whereas he should have sent it to the Chief Justice of India. When the Supreme Court invited him to defend himself, he refused to go and kept giving bytes to the media. He crossed all limits when he sentenced the Chief Justice of India along with eight other judges to five years imprisonment as if in his court a case was going on against them. Was it not wrong on his part? Is it not an insult to the judicial process to issue punishment without a case or hearing?” he said.

Pramod Ranjan, the editor of Forward Press, who believes that a person is an Ambedkarite by thought and not necessarily by birth, said Justice Karnan’s Hindu religious fervour was counter to professing the Ambedkarite ideology.

“It is not a coincidence that on the basis of intelligence inputs, the police forces of Kolkata, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh were searching for Justice Karnan in Hindu temples. He is a deeply devout and religious person. His days begin with pooja-path [religious rituals] and holidays are spent in circling temples. He considers the Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu and Dr Ambedkar as an avatar of the Buddha. He has strong belief in astrology and numerology and teaches the same to people who meet him. His real name was S. Karunanidhi but when he found that based on numerology, the name would be an obstacle to becoming a big man, he changed it to Chinnaswami Swaminath Karnan in 1991,” he wrote on his Facebook wall. Several Dalits found it difficult to defend Justice Karnan in the light of the tilak he wears on his forehead.

Hany Babu is not concerned about Justice Karnan’s ideology and political views but he insists on supporting him in the light of the fact that Justice Karnan had been fighting discrimination in the Madras High Court and then the Supreme Court.

Many lawyers feel that Justice Karnan may have flouted some rules but so did the Supreme Court judges. One of the lawyers, who did not wish to be named, said: “No one can be judge in one’s own cause. This holds true for both Justice Karnan and the Chief Justice of India Khehar. In his open letter, Justice Karnan sought a probe into Kaliko Phul’s letter accusing the CJI of corruption, among other things. An investigation should have been conducted instead of pressing charges against the person who made the complaint. Justice Karnan was not disparaging the institution; he was asking for a probe against an individual. There is a difference between the court and a judge. The CJI was accused in the letter, and therefore should not have presided over his own case the same way as Justice Karnan should not have done. It is a contempt of Parliament.”