The Nagercoil Munsiff: In a Hurry to Become ‘Your Honour’
My participation in the dramatics at the VJT Hall in connection with the Sri Chithira Tirunal Library’s anniversary celebrations brought me the special goodwill and affection of the Queen Mother. Before six months passed, I was summoned to the palace and she asked if I would accept a Munsiff’s post if offered. Without thinking of the pros and cons, I said that I would be happy to accept it.
But when I came home and told my husband about it, his whole expression changed. It was foolish to agree, he pointed out, because if you become a Munsiff now at best you can become a judge and then retire. Even that was doubtful. The principle, usually, was – ‘once a munsiff, always a munsiff.’ If you became a second judge, you’d have retired as a High Court judge. But what to do now? The next day I met the Dewan C P Ramaswamy Aiyer and told him about these matters. “According to the rules, only a lawyer with at least ten years of practice can be appointed judge…” he said, quoting from the existent rules. That is why I, who had just seven and a half years of experience, was appointed Munsiff. He promised to appoint me as First-Grade Munsiff and said that I could receive a promotion to judgeship after the remaining two and a half years were complete – and that it could happen even earlier in view of merit.
But these assurances did not satisfy my husband. Once a post was accepted, promotions could happen only according to rules, he said, and so the wise thing would be to go slow and wait for two and a half years to be appointed judge. That was his well-thought-out opinion.
But will any of that make sense to a woman who was too eager to be addressed as ‘Your Honour’? Moreover, C P Ramaswamy Aiyer was keen to gather for Travancore the esteem of appointing , in his own words, “the first woman judge in the Anglo-Saxon world.” Also, considering the misunderstandings that could arise with the Queen Mother if I refused the post offered by her, I found it hard to retreat from my earlier decision. “Then let it be so. A woman’s intelligence comes after the fact. Get in as a Munsiff and get out as one,” he said, putting end to the dispute between us.
Thus I was appointed Munsiff of Nagercoil. In the beginning, since I had always been a criminal lawyer, I found it a bit difficult to hear exclusively civil cases. Property disputes, cases involving the Hindu Law, and such cases were heard there most frequently. A complicated property dispute I had to hear back then still lingers in my memory. It was among the members of a large Hindu Nadar family in Nagercoil, over inheritance. The leading lawyers in the High Court Sri E Subrahmaniaiyer and Sri Law Subbaier represented the two opposing sides respectively. I felt rather small in their midst, being a new Munsiff. But I studied carefully, the huge mass of case records and law books too heavy to lift. The hearing was over. I wrote the judgment which ran to some hundred pages, in my own hand. This judgment was hailed as one that was both true and just by the legal fraternity and the common people. That was the reward for my hard work and trouble. My verdict was affirmed by the High Court too.
Once I had heard and passed judgments in some such complicated cases, my initial difficulties eased. But I was keener to hear and produce verdicts on criminal cases which involved issues of life-and-death and not bland property disputes.
Though I did not have to stay a Munsiff all my life like Mr Chandy predicted, my hope of becoming a judge in two and a half years was fruitless. I became a judge only after seven and a half years.
At the time I came to the post, there were only five people on the civil list as first-grade Munsiffs. But after I was appointed, five more people were raised to first grade and so when the civil list was printed, my name came eleventh. Whatever reasons may have existed for this, I still had hoped that the promises made to me when I was appointed will be kept; also taking into account the civil list that has existed then.
Anyway, one year before I was to retire as the District Judge, I was promoted to the High Court and I had to good fortune to be a High Court Judge for nearly eight years. Since I now continue to work on a High Court Judge’s salary, I do not feel much regret when I look back, but I must say that I did suffer for not heeding my husband’s words.
When I was the Munsiff at Alappuzha, the Chief Justice at the Federal Court, Sir Maurice Gywer, came to inspect the Travancore High Court. He inquired to the Chief Justice of Travancore about the first woman Munsiff of the Anglo-Saxon world. “Would you like to meet her?” the Chief Justice asked. “Certainly, I would like to see that wonderful phenomenon,” replied the white man.
When the Chief Justice said that he would ask me to come at once, he stopped him saying, “Hey, no, I am prepared to go on a pilgrimage to meet that lady.” Anyway, we arranged to meet on his way back at Kochi. I went to Kochi to meet him. A huge man, more than six feet tall! He smiled and we shook hands. He asked me about my experiences as a lawyer and Munsiff very affectionately. He wished me the best for the future as we bid goodbye. His words sounded like fatherly blessings to me. His wishes came true in time too.
I was appointed Additional Judge for the first time in Kollam. The Sessions Judge there was Sri G Kumara Pillai who later became the High Court Judge. The major Sessions cases would be heard by him. Generally, the civil cases and the relatively less-serious cases came to the Additional Judge’s Bench. Having spent seven and a half years as Munsiff, I was confident about handling any civil case. But knowing my interest in the Sessions cases, Sri Kumara Pillai used to send murder cases to my Bench quite regularly.
Having spent some time in Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram as an Additional Judge, I was finally posted in Mavelikkara as a District Judge. After three years, I was transferred to Nagercoil. There, one day, I was hearing a very serious Sessions case, when the Shirastedar came in to tell me that the Supreme Court Chief Justice Mr Mahajan was waiting in the private room. When I got up to go there, he let us know that he was coming down to the Bench. An additional chair was placed on the Bench. He sat there and ordered us to continue the hearing. I gave him a summary of the case; he asked the lawyer to continue. He heard the case for about fifteen minutes. Then he expressed happiness on being able to meet India’s first woman judge, and wishing me the nest of luck, set off for Kanyakumari.
Later, I came to know that in his report of the inspection of the High Court, he expressed satisfaction in my conduct of court proceedings and his desire to see me become a High Court Judge in due time. From Nagercoil I was transferred to the Ernakulam Anjikaimal district court. That was where for the first time in my life, I sentenced to death an accused in a murder case.
I Award a Death Sentence for the First Time
When I was the District Judge in Ernakulam, I stayed mostly in the YWCA. My classmate from Law College who later practiced at the High Court, Miss Sara Pothen, also stayed there. When we went out for a walk every day, I would share each day’s experience in court with Pothachan (I used to call Miss Pothen ‘Pothachan’ and she in turn called me ‘Chandykkunjhu!) in detail. Pothachan would tell me about what the lawyers and clients there thought about my conduct of court proceedings and judgments.
I have already mentioned that it was at the Ernakulam Anjikaimal District Court that I passed a death sentence for the first time.
The case was that an eighteen-year-old lured away an eight-year-old boy, a student in a Kochi government school, and took him to the toilet near the school, strangled him to death, and stole the gold chain, bangle, and waist-chain he had been wearing, and then buried him.
The accused denied the crime. But the plaintiff’s side proved the case beyond all doubt. There was no other way: I had to sentence the accused who had planned the crime ahead and committed the crime to death. It was not possible, too, to cite the youthfulness of the convicted man and commute the death sentence to life imprisonment. The High Court Judgments in such cases all argued that the youthfulness of a murder-convict was not reason enough to commute the death sentence. And if I did manage to cobble together some rationale for saving him, then there would be talk about the woman judge’s tender heart. There would be complaints that this leniency would be the result if women were given positions that called for high responsibility and a firm will. Though I knew that I had to be very careful before foes who were only too keen to dig out my weaknesses, seeing that eighteen-year-old land stand in the witness box, his eyes welling, would drain all my firmness of will. My motherly heart would shudder when I imagined the noose fall on that tender neck.
In the end, my sense of justice triumphed. My voice faltered and hands shivered, but finally, I looked straight into the eye of the accused and pronounced the verdict of death by hanging according to IPC Section 302. I realized from my experience that there was some truth in what men often say – a woman is ultimately a woman.
I do not hide the fact that though I handed this sentence to the accused because of the stern nature of the law, if I were the High Court Judge at that time, I would have found some loophole to hand him life-imprisonment, secure in the knowledge that no one would destabilize my verdict.
My friend Pothachan was among those who had gathered to listen to the verdict. After delivering it, I went to the private room. She came in after me, to console me. Sensing my deep fatigue, she said, “Let’s go to the YWCA and have some tea. Then when we go to the church as usual and kneel before the Holy Mother and chant our rosaries, your mind will be calm.”
We went to the YWCA and had our tea. Then we went to the church soon. I who was a District Judge prayed in my mind to the Mother of all creation — let the prayers of the mother of the accused and myself be heard; may you do the needful so that my judgment would not be implemented. Though the High Court affirmed the death sentence, it reduced the sentence to life imprisonment taking into account the accused’s father’s mercy petition – when I got to know this, I saw that the Holy Mother had heard my prayer.
I feel ashamed to reveal the truth. The day the accused was to be hanged to death, I felt scared to sleep alone in my room. I had to go to the YWCA Matron’s room to catch some sleep that night.
Maybe men will remark that this is out of women’s weakness. But this is nothing particular to women judges. I have heard that some lion-like men too have suffered this. Here is the experience of the Punjab Chief Justice Mr Khosla:
He says in the book titled The Records of Mahatma Gandhi and Other Cases from a Judge’s Notebook.
“The first time I ordered a person to be hanged by the neck till dead, I felt certain nervousness, a slight fear that what I was doing might well be wrong and unjust, the man might not be guilty, for witnesses can often lie and can a Judge be completely certain that his verdict is correct? I consoled myself with the thought that my Judgment would be examined by the appellate court and if there was any error it would be set right.”
In none of the cases in which my verdict handed down a death sentence or life imprisonment with hard labour, I had any doubt that the accused might be innocent; nor was I consoled by the fact that any error on my part would be corrected by the appellate court. I would hand down such punishment only if I was completely convinced that the crime was proved beyond all doubt.
I have had to award death sentences in many cases after this one. I did so only in cases in which my conscience urged me strongly that the convicted should indeed be hanged to death. I have heard a friend who is a Judge say, “I freely hang…” with no reluctance at all. But I never could have such a mindset. I have never forgotten the principle that when a judge who can never hand back a life takes another man’s life in their hands and plays with it, they should indeed remember God who gave life to all living things in the Universe including themselves, and beg forgiveness. But I have also held the view that the death sentence should not be taken off the IPC and that it should be applied in murder cases when the judge feels that the accused deserves it fully. I have laid down this view in my answers to the Central Law Commission as a High Court Judge, and as a Member of the Law Commission.