The story of a judge shaped my initial consciousness about our judicial system.
The Patna High Court had a judge belonging to Gangpalia in 1960s or early 1970’s. Gangpalia was a kilometre away from Daraili Mathia—my village in the Siwan district of north Bihar.
The judge used to spend his summer vacation at his village. He was a deeply religious person. Accompanied with his ‘purohit (family priest)’ and barber, he would walk to the river Saryu at Dararuli, a kilometre away from Gangpalia to take a dip in the holy waters and perform puja on the river bank.
He didn’t mingle much with the elderly villagers and didn’t keep security personnel around him as long as he stayed at his ancestral house. But he was fond of small children who gathered around him to listen to folk stories that he shared with them.
My family and that of the judge shared a common purohit, Gajadhar Mishra who used to tell us about the ‘Judge Sahib’.
The most interesting story that Gajadhar Mishra shared with us when I was ten year old or so goes as follows:
Once Judge Sahib—as the judge was referred to in the area—went to the river bank with the purohit and barber. He used to brush his teeth with a Neem twig but on that morning the barber had forgotten to carry the same for him. The judge Sahib asked the barber to get a twig from the Neem tree at the campus of the police station at Darauli, three hundred meters from the river bank.
But as the barber climbed on the tree to pluck the twig, the daroga or the police station in-charge, came out; a stout cane in hand. He hurled abuses on the barber, asking the latter to get down.
Panicked, the barber came down but pleaded with folded hands, “Judge Sahib has asked me to get the Neem twig. I climbed the tree with his permission”.
The haughty daroga caned the barber and said, “How did you dare to climb the tree? Ye judge-fuj kya hota hai (I damn care of a judge)”. The daroga used many unprintable words and beat up the barber mercilessly.
Bruised, the barber returned to the judge without the Neem twig and told him the saga of his woes. It was not known how the judge immediately reacted to his barber’s complaints. He cleaned his teeth with sand and water, performed his puja and came back to his house.
But the barber shared this story with the villagers. Within an hour hundreds of villagers surrounded the police station. It was not the era of mobile phone and internet. It’s hard to imagine how the people got themselves connected for a common cause and laid siege to the police station within no time. Not only from Gangpalia, but the people from all the neighbouring villages—Kumhati, Belaon, Bhitoli, Done and Darauli– surrounded the police station to deliver what might be dubbed as instant justice on the daroga.
The daroga got holed up in his room with some rifle wielding policemen sauntering around. But the mob was angry and getting volatile. In the meantime, the district magistrate and superintendent of police, Siwan descended on the police station to control the situation. The DM and SP requested the people to disperse with the promise that they would punish the daroga.
But the people were not ready to move.
Eventually, the DM and SP reached to the judge requesting him to accompany them to the police station and pacify the people. They got the judge in their vehicle and took him to the police station.
As the daroga saw the judge, he fell on his feet begging for mercy.
The judge politely said, “You are a young police officer. I am a judge. We have the DM and the SP around. But all of us are supposed to serve the cause of the people. You should never harm the innocent people. The police stations and courts are meant to protect the people and not to intimidate and harass them”.
Then the judge requested the people to disperse which they did by shouting the slogan, “judge saheb bhagwan hain (The judge is god)”.
The judge has gone into folklore. The people began calling Gangpalia as “Judge Saheb ka Gaon (village of judge sahib)”. Gangpalia was known as ‘Judge Sahib ka Gaon” for the generations growing up in the villages around in 1960’s and 70’s.
The point is the people revered judge Sahib not because he rode a Harle Devidson’ bike and demonstrated his power. He lived like a common man at his village and never overawed the people with his aura and demeanour. He lived a simple and secluded life. The people respected him for his simplicity, compassion and generosity. He was what the common Indians living in the hinterlands imagined him to be like.
A layman, I am not qualified enough to pass a judgement on the chief justice of India, S A Bobde riding a Harle Davidson bike without wearing a mask as a precaution against Covid-19 pandemic and activist lawyer, Prashant Bhushan twitting his picture with the comment on justice Bobde’s conduct that has invited contempt against him.
But going by my own consciousness about the Indian judiciary that I gathered as a small child, I can say that the Indian hinterland dwellers see “Bhagawan (God)” in a judge who live a simple life but has unfathomable commitment to the cause of the people—the ultimate source of democracy and its institutions, be it judiciary, legislature or executive.
In his defence against the contempt case on him, Prashant Bhushan quoted Mahatma Gandhi’s submission in a British court 98 years ago and said: “I do not ask for mercy. I do not appeal for magnanimity. I cheerfully submit to any punishment that court may impose.”
Prashant Bhushan may fall in the bracket of Mahatma Gandhi in the context of pursuing the cause as the people’s rights activist. He may have credential to do so because; he has been steadfast in raising his voice against corruption, violation of human rights and injustice in Jammu and Kashmir. Be it the 2G, 3G scam associated with the Congress rule or that of the Rafael deal associated with the BJP rule — Prashant Bhushan has raised his voice without fear or favour.
Many writers and thinkers have equated him with Gandhi and Nelson Mandela. He has thousands of academics, scholars, legal eagles, policy makers and philosophers from across the world expressing their solidarity with him.
But Gandhi had become ‘Mahatma’ by emerging as the voice of the voiceless and identifying himself with the poor masses living on the periphery of Indian society. Prashant Bhushan has just moved a step in the direction of becoming a Gandhi. He has to carry his journey forward to become a Gandhi whom the beleaguered Indian democracy needs today.