"Is your heart made of muscle or mud?" he asked, famously. He sent a junior court official to issue summons to Jayalalithaa in her Poes Garden home in the London Hotels case; there was a matter of his declaration of his religion. He was recruited to a post reserved for schedule caste Hindu by claiming to be a Hindu, although he was a Christian, married a Chrisitian woman, and is buried in Chennai. History is judging Ashok Kumar.
Justice Ashok Kumar passed away in 2009, but the controversy surrounding him is refusing to die down. Last week former Supreme Court Judge and press Council of India Chairman, Markandeya Katju unleashed a controversy with his sensational blog about a certain additional judge of the Madras High Court who, he said, was repeatedly given extensions and even made a permanent judge in 2007 despite disquiet over his integrity.
According to Katju, “That Judge had the solid support of a very important political leader of Tamil Nadu. I was told that this was because while a District Judge he granted bail to that political leader.” In short, Katju claimed that the political party that benefitted from that episode brought pressure on the UPA government to confirm the acting judge as a permanent one, thereby accusing the former central government of having interfered in judicial appointments.
People in judicial and media circles were quick to zero in on the identity of Justice S. Ashok Kumar as the man Katju was referring to, with the incident referred to being June 29 2001 midnight arrest of DMK chief Mr. M Karunanidhi in the mini fly over scam case by the police when J Jayalalithaa was the chief minister of the state . Scenes of the midnight arrest of a feeble looking Karunanidhi, and other visuals of him sitting in the central jail premises, were repeatedly telecast by Sun TV.
Midnight arrests were not new in Tamil Nadu’s politics, since Jayalalithaa had suffered a similar fate in 1996, when DMK was in power. However, there was one difference, and that was Ashok Kumar. As the Prinicpal Sessions Judge, it was in his court that Karunanidhi was produced. Ashok Kumar made a stinging observation, quoted widely in the media. "Mr. Karunanidhi was made to wait before the Central Prison like a beggar. Everyone saw it. The whole world saw it on television. He is a 78-year-old man suffering from various health ailments. Is your heart made of muscle or mud? What was the pressure on you?"
By July 2001, Ashok Kumar had granted bail to MK Stalin and others accused in the flyover scam case. In April 2003, Ashok Kumar was made the Additional Judge of Madras High Court. This was the period when DMK was part of NDA at the Centre. From 2005, Ashok Kumar enjoyed extensions, and when he was due for retirement, he was made a permanent judge with the UPA government at the Centre and the DMK was now an important ally. He was moved to the Andhra Pradesh High Court in March 2008, retired four months later and died in October the same year.
Ashok Kumar’s extension and confirmation were so controversial that the same were challenged in the Supreme Court on at least two occasions, but the apex court observed that ‘successive chief justices’ had recommended Ashok Kumar. There are also reports that adverse remarks against Ashok Kumar were also struck down from official records on the recommendation of an acting judge. Controversy dogged Ashok Kumar throughout his career.
Justice Ashok Kumar was born in 1947 to Christian Dalit parents in a small village in Tirunelveli District in Tamil Nadu. After basic education and masters degree from reputed institutions, Ashok Kumar graduated in law from the Dr Ambedkar Law College , Chennai. He was a direct recruit as a District Judge to a post reserved for Hindu Scheduled Caste, based on his declaration that he was a converted Hindu.
Senior advocates from Coimbatore, where he was a Trainee District Judge in 1987, remember him as “pleasant” but also point out that he already had a negative reputation. During the early days he gained reputation as a capable Judge – who can do Justice to his role, if not ‘compromised’ beforehand.
After being moved through several districts he was posted to Chennai, where he famously granted bail to M. Karunanidhi and MK Stalin in the flyover corruption case, possibly endearing himself to the family which was pushing for his posting as a permanent judge of the Madras High Court. A senior advocate also recalls that towards the end of his career he would come to court, ‘in a wheel chair.’
In some ways Indian judiciary is also handicapped, feel some in the field. The entire controversy over Ashok Kumar is due to political overlay. Typically, a judicial posting should be above reproach, and follow norms, without fear or favour. The Collegiums (chief justice and senior judges ) should be allowed to prepare a list for judges’ posts without external influence. A senior advocate says “In the olden days the judiciary was very independent. For example, during the days when K Kamaraj was the chief minister, if chief justice Rajamannar drew up a list, the government wouldn’t touch the list but just approve it. That is how 'Kamaraj rule' came to be a phrase representative of justice in public life. Today, there is only political interference,” he feels.
Other columns by the author:
Chennai renews its romance with 'Ponniyin Selvan'
Why blame us for defeat, ask journalists attacked by DMK men
Rajiv Gandhi case: Noose tightens on death penalty?
Will the DMK split between Stalin and Alagiri?
Tamil Nadu needs a policy on statuses
Not guilty: Can Kanchi seers revive the Mutt now?
Chennai is a huge canvas, I tried to fill it: Nirmala Lakshman
Love marriage in Tamil Nadu? Go to Court
Bhama Devi Ravi is a Chennai based journalist