The Extraordinary Legal Battle Of Chandru, Whose Life Inspired The Hit Movie 'Jai Bhim'
THE WEEK|November 21, 2021
Justice Chandru, now in the spotlight because of Suriya-starrer Jai Bhim, was an onest lawyer and judge who always fought for people’s rights
Lakshmi Subramanian

As advocate Chandru reads the newspaper, back straight, legs crossed, a tentative Alli reaches for another newspaper to mimic his actions. Seeing the little girl do this, Chandru shakes his head and smiles. Alli smiles back. They both get back to their papers.

This is one of the most widely shared images of the recently released Jai Bhim, but it holds a deeper meaning for Dr C. Sasikala, a senior assistant professor of anatomy at a government medical college in Tamil Nadu.

In 1994, Sasikala, then a young student from a backward village in Pappireddipatti town panchayat in Dharmapuri district, had gone to Chennai to study medicine. She got admission in a private college through the government quota. However, when she and her father reached the college to join the course, the administration backtracked and asked her to pay a huge fee.

Helpless, Sasikala reached out to Chandru through members of the Students’ Federation of India, and he approached the Madras High Court on her behalf. There was no immediate reprieve, and he asked her to write an improvement exam for class 12 and try again next year. She wrote both the school and medical entrance exam the following year and joined Chengalpattu Medical College.

Chandru eventually won the case and the court ordered the private college to pay ₹40,000 in compensation to Sasikala. The college released the money, but it did not reach her. (She did not want to reveal why). Chandru stepped in and covered her expenses till she became a doctor. His house was her second home, and he was like a father to her. After completing her MBBS, Sasikala earned a diploma in clinical pathology and an MD in anatomy. On watching Jai Bhim, she was reminded of her days in Chandru’s home; she sent him the Chandru-Alli image from the film, saying: “This is you and me in the picture, sir.”

Chandru Krishnaswamy, on whom the Suriya-starrer is based, later become a popular judge in the Madras High Court and passed several landmark judgments. These include allowing women to be priests in temples, removing caste considerations from burial grounds and protecting government employees with mental health illnesses from being dismissed. He would hear at least 75 cases a day, and cleared 96,000 cases in six and a half years.

Contrary to what some might think of the legal profession today, Justice Chandru was always simple and modest. On his day of retirement from the Madras High Court, he submitted a final declaration of his assets to acting chief justice R.K. Agrawal (now president, National Consumer Disputes Redressal Commission), returned the key of his official car and walked out clad in a traditional dhoti and shirt. He crossed the road to visit his old office, headed to the railway station, bought a season ticket and took a local train home. He had politely refused a formal farewell ceremony, but visited his fellow judges in their chambers to say goodbye.

He had also vowed that he would neither practise in the Supreme Court nor head tribunals. Upon retirement, he immediately vacated his official residence, moved into a two-bedroom apartment in nearby Mylapore, and took up teaching.

Chandru’s modest office, in Alwarpet, Chennai, welcomes visitors with a sign: “Don’t remove your footwear.” Next to the sign is a seated stone Buddha with two yellow flowers on his shoulders. Inside, the walls are lined with books and mementos, among them a dry peepal leaf and a brick wrapped in polythene. “It is the Uthapuram brick. And the leaf is from Jallianwala Bagh,” said Chandru.

In 2008, when the state government demolished the Uthapuram wall in Madurai—created to separate the living areas of caste Hindus and dalits—Chandru had observed in a judgment: “Uthapuram wall is no Berlin Wall. When the Berlin Wall crumbled, no one wept for the fall of the wall.” He was referring to the caste Hindus’ resentment over the wall being demolished.

For Chandru, who turned 70 this May, the law is a weapon for people to ensure that their social rights are protected. He has, in particular, taken up several cases for women, including the Parvathi case shown in Jai Bhim. His book, Listen to My Case! When Women Approach the Courts of Tamil Nadu, outlines the stories of 20 women from marginalised communities and their fight for justice. Even now, in 2021, he feels that the gates of the judiciary are yet to open up for women.

EARLY LIFE

Chandru was born in a middle-class orthodox family in Srirangam, Tiruchirappalli, on May 8, 1951. He has an elder sister, and is the third of four brothers. His father, an Indian Railways employee, moved the family to Chennai when Chandru was a schoolboy; soon after, he lost his mother. He was put in a Ramakrishna Mission school in T. Nagar.

When they were in Chennai, there was extreme scarcity of food, and the siblings would wake up at 4am to join the long queue at the ration shop. Chandru still wakes up at 4am.

After his father refused to remarry, Chandru and his younger brother started helping with household chores. In time his elder brothers moved abroad, his sister got married and his father died; by then Chandru had learnt to live on his own. He sent his younger brother to live with his sister and moved into a hostel in Chennai.

Growing up, he was spellbound by the speeches of Dravidian leaders. There were days when he had to starve and sleep at the doorstep. “If we returned home late, we would not get food,” he recalled. “But then, the discourse was more important.” Though his family was religious, Chandru started questioning their beliefs after being exposed to Periyar Ramasamy and the Dravidar Kazhagam.

When he joined Loyola College in Chennai for a BSc in botany, the DMK was in power. The city was a hotbed of student agitations, mostly in support of the DMK. But, Chandru had moved on. He wanted a wider worldview. He started reading more about global politics and soon organised rallies against the Vietnam War.

Another hot issue was the Keezhvenmani massacre of 1968—44 Dalits were locked in a hut and burnt, allegedly by landlords over a wage dispute. “This was really shocking. What crime did these innocent people commit?” said Chandru. “I wanted to begin a new movement. This is when I came across leftist leaders. I joined the CPI(M) for two reasons: I liked their ideology and they were staunchly anti-Congress at the time.”

The Communist Party of India (Marxist) was more attractive to him as he had grown up on anti-Congress slogans. Plus, it was part of a global movement. This was when Chandru became a student leader and founded the Chennai wing of the Students’ Federation of India.

His activism cost him, though. He was thrown out of Loyola College in his second year for organising student agitations. This was when future editor N. Ram and future economic adviser to the E.M.S. Namboodiripad government in Kerala, Dr Mathew Kurian, took him to the Madras Christian College. He completed his degree there, but got even more involved in politics.

As he was single, he travelled statewide for the next two years, addressing meetings and mobilising students. “I call these two years my open university,” he said. The SFI grew stronger, too.

This was when the Annamalai University in Chidambaram conferred upon Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi an honorary doctorate. The students’ movement protested, asking why the leader was being given a doctorate when the graduates were without jobs. The police cracked down on the students and Udhayakumar, a student of BSc mathematics, was killed.

The government set up the Justice N.S. Ramasamy commission to look into the incident. When the inquiry began, Chandru visited Ramasamy and asked him to quit because he was too junior. “He asked me on what grounds I was asking him to step down,” said Chandru. “I did not know the provisions of the law then.”

Because he was a thorn in the government’s flesh, lodge owners in Chidambaram were apparently told to not give him a room. Chandru shuttled by bus between Pondicherry (where he had found a room) and Chidambaram—around 60km—to depose before the commission. This was when Chandru asked his friend, future Union minister P. Chidambaram, to help him with his argument. The commission finally concluded that the body was that of Udhayakumar, but ruled out police excesses. Impressed by Chandru’s work, Ramasamy encouraged him to pursue law.

LAWYER AND JUDGE

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