The Justice Karnan case has been in the news for months now and the latest is that he is to be jailed for five months, though he can apply for anticipatory bail. The legality of arresting a High Court judge based on a series of complaints he has made being read as contempt of court is not clear.
Karnan seemed to think it was not possible; but then he thought the contempt of court order against him was also not possible and, in many ways, all he stands for and all he is bringing up is also not possible to be discussed rationally and so he must be deemed mad by a bunch of “sane” Judges, Judges he has accused of corruption and much else.
We must read Karnan’s outburst as a form of caste-based, masculine hysteria which tells us so much about what the Symbolic (in this case literally the Law) in its Brahminism and heteronormativity reduces the feminised Dalit (or the woman, the homosexual, the transgender person) to, even if he is a big, burly Judge. But where does this hysteria come from?
There is so much hidden in this arrest order which reveals the hidden obscene foundations of the law. I think none of us should dismiss it. Karnan’s repeated complaints about being humiliated because of his caste, about the whole appointment procedure being an old boys' club are perfectly understandable. He’s even accused a judge of sexually harassing an intern. Sounds like a familiar story? He has also accused them of corruption in appointments, money laundering, hawala deals foreign accounts – none of which sounds particularly far-fetched. Sounds like work as usual in India, actually.
Now all these could be "lies" or "figments” of his “insanity" but these are all the issues that the judiciary does not ever want anyone to ask. The silence around the class, caste and gender composition of the judiciary is nauseating. We know that judiciary is a club of upper caste, upper class, primarily Hindu men (Gadbois' book on the Supreme Court records this). Of course, we don't have women, leave alone any feminists on the bench. We know about corruption among judges and in the legal profession in general. So why are we so outraged by Karnan and have to call him mad, subject him to a mental examination, force him to say he is “stable” even as he says he completely expected this response.
So, we must be interested in reading this insanity closely. Is he actually more "sane" than all of us in his insanity? Is the only problem that he called the bluff on the higher judiciary and did not play the game everyone there is playing and is expected to play? He took 32 years to do and has spoken of how he had to do it before he retired this year for his complaints to be taken seriously. His claim on the Symbolic lasts only as long as he is in office. It is the classic voice of the hysteric grasping for the Symbolic when it seems within reach, always aware that it will be out of reach soon.
To be sure, Karnan’s account of himself as a progressive Judge is not without some deluded self-fashioning. But even his conservative decisions give a glimpse into, and are a product of, the "social.” They reveal the unconscious of law which is obscene, dirty, discriminatory. He spent 32 years in it. But what is remarkable about him is that he has come out about its obscenity, its dirtiness and its discrimination.
That he is a single Dalit man pitted against a posse of Brahmin and upper caste men makes him really easy to dismiss; it does actually make (at least some of) us worry about his mental health.
But the more important question is whether we are willing to examine our own mental health in not seriously investigating his charges and paying attention to what they tell us about our judiciary and about ourselves.
More columns by Ashley Tellis:
Shah Bano to Shayara Bano: Religious laws fail women
Chennai and the politics of shit
Ashley Tellis is a freelance academic and writer