Wig to wit — the court writes its story

Wed 14 Dec 2016

In a unique accomplishment, top judges and distinguished lawyers of the country teamed up to produce a first-of-its-kind book tracing the legal history, lawmakers, legal institutions and traditions of India, right from the ancient laws to the present.

Courts of India — Past to Present contains anecdotes, including one of a man put to death by the British because he cut his wife’s nose for committing adultery, narratives like the trial of the last Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, the installation of the charter trinity courts in the then Calcutta, Bombay and Madras, and historical judgments of the Supreme Court as in the Kesavananda Bharati case.

Architectural splendour

The work is a rare embroidery of murals and miniature paintings, portraits, parchments, photographs highlighting the architectural splendour of courts, sketches and documents gathered from multiple sources across the world.

News clippings are mostly sourced from The Hindu archives.

The authors are careful to point out that the book only offers a compilation of glimpses into the “rich and complex history of courts of India from its ancient origins through the colonial period to the present.”

“This is a book about the history of the laws and legal institutions of India. To tell the entire story, we would need the tirelessness of Ganesha and the inspiration of Vyasa, a task beyond our abilities,” the introduction said.

However, the book has managed to encapsulate within its 512 (including biography and index) richly tapestried pages the journey of our laws and courts through a past so vast and often violent, so layered with stories of inspirations and encounters, so complex and diverse, that, as India’s First Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru described it in his famous Objectives Resolutions speech, the Indian Constitution was only but a “moment” — albeit a moment of transforming one — in history.

The book is the work of Supreme Court’s editorial board comprising apex court judges, Justices S.A. Bobde, U.U. Lalit and Rohinton Nariman; Delhi High Court judge, Justice S. Ravindra Bhat, senior advocates Raju Ramachandran, Indu Malhotra, Sanjay R. Hegde and advocates K. Parameshwar and Gautam Bhatia.

The book, meant for general readership, is devoid of stiff officialese as it is neither an official Supreme Court account of its history nor endorsed by the Supreme Court as an institution. Hence, there is room for self-deprecatory cartoons like a lawyer telling a poor client: ‘Cheer up, you’ve got legal aid now’. The client replies: ‘What about justice?’

‘Chicken liver test’

It has a chapter dedicated on administration of justice in tribal areas. One of them is the ‘chicken liver test’ of the North Eastern tribes. Here, in case of a dispute, a priest chants a prayer and hands over a chicken liver to a chosen person in the crowd. This person examines and interprets the liver to declare the result.

In its first chapter, the book — which authors describe as a palimpsest — discusses the concept of legal pluralism which prevailed over waves of migrations, invasions and assimilations during the medieval period. This idea of layered sovereignty had led to the co-existence of many diverse systems of law alongside one another.

The second chapter on the colonial period focuses on how, notwithstanding the violence and appropriation culminating in imperialism, the colonial project in India gave root to a legal system whose functions grew more and more complex over the centuries.

The book details the less-recorded “institutional and legal shock” caused by the 1857 Rebellion, which not only saw the transfer of power from the East India Company to the British Crown but also ushered in the colonial high courts.

The book offers vignettes of information of how the Supreme Court had twice in its 66-year-old history sat outside Delhi. It also critically examines the Supreme Court’s past, which it terms “eventful, often tumultuous.”

In his foreword to the book, Chief Justice of India T.S. Thakur says the book signifies the great faith the people of this country have in its courts.


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