Who’s afraid of Judge Dread
It’s unlikely K Bhaktavatsala has Sylvester Stallone’s swagger. But if the new remake of the Hollywood action star’s forgettable 90’s fare Judge Dredd displays a hint of misogyny [a judge in a body suit, with the power not only to enforce the law, but also to convict, sentence offenders and execute them, takes on a prostitute who is the main villain], the Karnataka high court judge’s statements leave no doubt about his views on a woman’s place in society.
Recently, during the hearing of a case between an estranged couple, Bhaktavatsala told the woman, who was reportedly a victim of domestic violence: ‘Women suffer in all marriages. You are married with two children, and know what it means to suffer as a woman. Yesterday, there was a techie couple who reconciled for the sake of their child. Your husband is doing good business, he will take care of you. Why are you still talking about his beatings?’
Such a statement, coming as it did from a judge, would not have regaled anybody, except perhaps lovers of Fifty Shades of Grey. Leave alone the victim of domestic violence who had gone to seek justice. So to ‘ensure that there is no miscarriage of justice in cases relating to women because of such biased views’ the Karnataka High Court said Chief Justice Vikramjit Sen, exercising his powers of master of roaster, ‘has effected minor changes in the roaster of sitting judges, one immediate effect of which could be that Bhaktavatsala would not hear family disputes’. This came after there was a national outcry and various women’s groups demand an inquiry into Bhaktavatsala’s remarks.
But the judge has done his bit for women’s empowerment before and gotten away with it. A newspaper reported that on 9 August, this year, Bhaktavatsala had told a young female lawyer during the hearing of a matrimonial dispute that family matters should be argued only by married people, not spinsters. ‘You should only watch,’ Bhaktavatsala told the lawyer, ‘Bachelors and spinsters watching family court proceedings will start thinking if there is any need to marry at all. Marriage is not like a public transport system. You better get married and you will get very good experience to argue such cases.’
Bhaktavatsala is off family cases for now. But there are many instances of what is said inside courtrooms by those sitting in judgement that would make Lady Justice take her blindfold off. Take the case of Bhanwari Devi. On 22 September 1992, in front of her husband, this grassroots worker was gangraped by a Gujjar family for obstructing a child marriage. The trial judge acquitted the accused saying ‘rape is usually committed by teenagers, and since the accused are middle aged and therefore respectable, they could not have committed the crime.’ If that wasn’t enough, he went on to say: ‘An upper caste man could not have defiled himself by raping a lower-caste woman.’
In Broken People: Caste Violence against India’s Untouchables, Smita Narula argues Bhanwari’s case is not an isolated incident. ‘Cases at all levels have the potential to be influenced by the judge’s personal perceptions of caste and gender that are brought to bear in determining the credibility of evidence or the likelihood of guilt. These biases are pervasive all the way to the top of the legal system.’
Maybe for our chaotic democracy, judiciary is the only hope. Maybe too many cases are pending in our courts for our judges to keep their cool at all times. But telling married women to take cue from Sita is taking things too far back for anybody’s comfort. While hearing a divorce petition filed by a man on ground that his wife was unwilling to relocate to his new place of work, the Bombay high court observed: ‘A wife should be like goddess Sita who left everything and followed her husband Lord Ram to a forest and stayed there for 14 years.’
Saying it like it isn’t is not limited to the Indian judiciary alone. The Sun reported that Judge Peter Bowers in the UK said burglars were courageous while freeing burglar Richard Rochford. In a comment that won him one of The Sun’s Non-Sense Awards, he said at Teesside Crown Court: ‘It takes a huge amount of courage for somebody to burgle somebody’s house. I wouldn’t have the nerve.’ And he added: ‘I think prison rarely does anybody any good.’
Reacting to this, Tory MP Philip Davies said: ‘How can we make sure idiots like this are no longer in the judiciary?’
We cannot say such things in India. Reporting against the judiciary had gotten two senior colleagues of a tabloid I once edited into a lot of trouble. Maybe there’s hope in the news that our government is firm on introducing a specific provision in the Judicial Standards and Accountability Bill, 2012 which ‘will prohibit judges from making unwarranted comments against the conduct of any constitutional or statutory authority at the time of hearing matters’. Maybe the provision should include comments against the common man as well.
Till then, let’s hope the Bhaktavatsalas leave their prejudices outside the court room. And some one in Hollywood has the good sense to do a sequel to Judge Dredd, where the prostitute gives it back to the woman-hating judge.
Daipayan Halder is the executive editor of Millennium Post.