Rebecca M. John is the lawyer defending Kobad Gandhi, allegedly the top leader of CPI (Maoist) who was arrested on the 22nd of September. Shortly after the arrest a storm of violent incidents took place which occupied much media attention and were said to be indicative of the ‘Naxalite Crisis’ in our country. In the midst of all the discussion and debate surrounding these highly charged issues DU Beat brings you a conversation with the fascinating person who’s been given the responsibility of defending the man of the hour.
DUB: What made you decide to take up such a controversial case?
Rebecca: I am a criminal Defense lawyer, it is my job to take up cases that come to me and defend people, to the best of my ability. It is the constitutional right of every citizen to be defended in a Court of Law. I pass no moral judgment on anyone; to me this case is no different from the countless others I have taken up before, so there is no additional pressure. I was asked by Civil Liberties groups to appear for Kobard Ghandy . I took it up as I would have done any other case. My judgment has never been coloured by public opinion and indeed that should never be an issue for any lawyer who upholds the Constitution and believes in the Rule of Law.
DUB: How do you reconcile yourself to the various ideologies your clients represent? Is it a problem if it clashes with your own?
Rebecca: You don’t have to be friends with your client, just defend their right to a fair trial. Their ideology has nothing to do with the case as long as you uphold their rights. I perform my obligations and I work within the framework of the law and I sleep with a clear conscience at night. I have taken up many difficult cases and I deal with them professionally. If the prosecution can prove its case then the person will be punished, and if they can’t then he is set free and no one should be able to contest his innocence. We are not some banana republic, in our Constitution we have trials which proceed with the presumption that an accused is innocent until proven guilty. Which is why Ajmal Kasab is undergoing a trial and has not been shot dead or lashed at a public stadium before a blood thirsty mob , as some people were suggesting. If he is found guilty he will be dealt with appropriately as mandated by the Law.
An independent Judiciary and a Criminal Justice System which upholds the Rule of Law, is the fundamental basis for a free and fair society, so thank god for Defense lawyers.
DUB: Considering the fact that you work within the law and subscribe to its administration how do you defend someone whose basic ideology consists of overthrowing this administrative system?
Rebecca: There is no evidence to suggest that Kobad Gandhi is trying to overthrow the government or its administrative system. How can you say he doesn’t want to work within the system? Why is the middle class so threatened by someone like him? Why is public discourse on the subject influenced by propaganda and complete ignorance on the subject? In any case my client has never made any statement supporting violence of any form.
DUB: The Government has decided to launch a military offensive against the Naxals and deploy armed forces in the Naxal hotbeds. What are the legal intricacies involved in employing troops in civilian ground? What are your views on the matter? How can violence on the part of the State be justified?
Rebecca: This is an administrative decision and you need to ask officials from the Home Ministry about the logistics involved in troop deployment.
Personally I have reservations about Operation Green Hunt since it means that the Government is hunting down its own people. Who are we declaring war on? What are we declaring war on? Can Naxalism really be wiped out by brute force? Should the Indian State declare war on its most despairing citizens? As Himanshu Kumar, a Human Rights Activist in far away Dantewada says, why are all these poor people attracted to an ideology that will end in death?
These are the most deprived sections of our society and all that they are asking for are basic rights, food, water , clothes, health care and schools and their legitimate right over their land and how do we respond to this criminal neglect of over 60 years ? We ‘hunt’ them down. I am not justifying Maoist violence, I abhor all violence, but I do believe the State should consider looking at the cause of the problem before jumping to find hasty solutions. We could all do well to read the Fifth Schedule of the Indian Constitution, that sacred document that protects the rights of tribals over their forests and land!
Atleast now we talking about Adivasis, Dalits and tribals and their state of disempowerment and destitution , issues we never spoke of even five years ago.
On the other hand the violence perpetrated by the State is really no different from the violence they are supposedly fighting. Take the ridiculous Salva Judum scheme in Chhattisgarh for example, where ordinary citizens are armed and encouraged to engage in violence in order to fight the Naxals. In these cases the solutions become as much, if not more problematic than the problems they are supposed to resolve.
DUB: There are a lot of students actively demonstrating against the violent means the government plans to utilize over this issue. Any message for students who take these issues to heart?
Rebecca: I support peaceful protests of any kind. I have always felt that people in our country don’t protest enough. As a whole our society is reluctant to protest so if students are taking up issues and getting interested in events of national importance I am happy because in India there is a complete absence of debate on critical issues and that is inexcusable.
If there is anything we have learnt from our freedom movement, it is that peaceful protests are an effective tool of dissent and are indeed the best way of achieving long term goals!
-As told to Pragya Mukherjee