he evening light faded into oblivion as I walked into the neatly furnished flat. Comfortably seated on the sofa, I drift off into a reverie as Sumathi walks in briskly, bringing me crash-landing back to reality. Look at her and you instantly know that she is a woman of steel armed with a will of iron. A criminal lawyer by profession, Sumathi notices, “If you look at it, most crimes are associated with matrimony”.
A STORY OF STRUGGLES
While pursuing a Bachelor’s program in Economics at Ethiraj College for Women, Sumathi’s fascination for law was a result of constant interaction with law students during inter-collegiate events. “I felt that students from law colleges had a different perception of issues, which impressed me. I enrolled into the five year integrated course in Law at the Madras Law College. During that time, there was so much ambition because I would see great judges like T.S Arunachalam, M. Srinivasan and Govind Swaminathan in action. They were a great source of inspiration to students. I was very serious because I’ve always wanted to be a criminal lawyer”, she states, proudly.
Graduating at a time where women criminal lawyers were unheard of, Sumathi had decided to move on to move to the capital to pursue her career. But her determination convinced a senior advocate who gave her opportunity to perform. “In 1989, there were not many advocates who were willing to take women lawyers as the job involved interacting with the Police and the accused. Back then, the murder trials used to be very hardcore and intensely drastic. But looking at my determination, the senior advocate decided to give me a chance”, relates Sumathi, on a grateful note.
BRAVING ANTI SOCIAL ELEMENTS
Sumathi’s first case was the trial of auto Shankar, a serial killer who was found guilty of six murders and was later given the death sentence. Needles to say, danger is a part of such a vocation. But, talk about interacting with criminals and the risk it brings, she replies nonchalantly, “Criminals are people who have been branded as dangerous. Nobody really knows the other side of the story. Though country has the best legal system, the volume of cases here is large. There are too many litigations and it’s difficult for most people to go through the rigmarole. There should be some sort of an alternative disposal system”.
To prove her point, Sumathi relates a case where 8 villagers were arrested after a mob trashed and burnt down another villager suspected of kidnapping children. “Recently, I did an appeal for these eight people and got them acquitted. This case was coming up after 13 years and during this period, the family of the accused goes through a lot of trauma. There must be a speedy remedy, especially in case of those charged with life sentences and matters of serious sort. It takes almost 14-15 long years just to know the outcome”, she says matter-of-factly.
TAKING INDIA TO THE WORLD
Sumathi was among the two women to have represented India in International Visitors Leadership Programme of the U.S. Department of Justice. Sponsored by the US Consul, Chennai, this 3-week program on Women and Justice was represented by 15 countries including Germany, Turkey, Oman, Nigeria, Liberia, China, Ghana and many others. “We travelled to six US states – Washington DC, Williamsburg (Virginia), Nevada, Cincinnati, Syracuse and New York. There were lots of discussions with NGOs in the US. It was an amazing experience addressing the students from the Law Universities of Cincinnati Law School and Cornell Law School on special issues about India. We discussed about issues facing the country and the balance between legislation and social issues”, she reminisces.
Drawing a parallel, Sumathi throws light on how petty offenders can be given a chance to be reintegrated into the society. “In Midtown Country Court, New York, there are NGOs which work with a court. Here, the court gives options to petty offenders to go through counseling with NGOs and take up social service for 6 months – like cleaning up the area or painting walls. If they complete the service successfully, the charges are dropped. This way, the offender is given an alternative to be a part of the society”.
In a similar vein, she speaks about Cincinnati Union Bethel, an NGO which works towards helping out prostitutes. “The NGO hands out the cards of its officers to prostitutes. Most of them are substance dependent. The officers’ work with them to identify their individual talents and get them placed in various organizations. Cincinnati Union Bethel also shelters them for 2 years and brings out the positive sides of the person”, she adds, impressed.
CALL FOR JUSTICE
Talk about the pressure of litigation on the common man, Sumathi instantly warms up to the topic. As a criminal lawyer, she feels that the accused has an upper hand in most of the cases. “The victim is usually represented by a public prosecutor who is assigned when the case comes to court, which is usually years after it has been filed. In the meanwhile, the accused hires a lawyer and they have the advantage of time to prepare their statement. The battle is unequal and the victims face an enormous economic crunch and emotional pressure. An amendment should be made where the state can appoint special prosecutors. The victim can engage a public prosecutor but a special prosecutor can be appointed to oversee the entire case. I have been working towards bringing this amendment into fore as it gives women a better opportunity to fight their cases. The law should ensure that an innocent citizen who is dependent on the state to vent his grievance shouldn’t go without justice being rendered”, she states firmly.
A public speaker on Tamil literature, a columnist in vernacular publications and an author, Sumathi has also written a book titled Kalmandapam, based on the life of pall bearers. She won the best book award in 2001 at Elakiyasundan (please clarify). “There is a general fear among women of the long term result of litigation which keeps many away from seeking justice. We have to encourage an accessible legal system. As women, we should stand together in any circumstance. We have so many issues but we are not together. So, let’s stand united – our voice should be one”, she signs off on a hopeful note.