Poetic Justice: When judges referred to literary works and famous quotes in their verdicts

The jury may be out on whether the use of such literary references in court rulings should be dispensed with, but they often impart a sense of relatability for the readers of the judgment.
Swami Vivekananda, Muhammad Iqbal and Amrita Pritam
Swami Vivekananda, Muhammad Iqbal and Amrita Pritam

While penning down their judgments, judges often express their minds through verses of poetry or quotes of famous people.

The jury may be out on whether the use of such literary references in court rulings should be dispensed with, but they often impart a sense of relatability for the readers of the judgment, many of whom may be laypersons.

Here are a few recent instances of judgments containing literary references.

‘Thoughts live; they travel far’

Most recently, in the order dismissing the bail application of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student Sharjeel Imam, Additional Sessions Judge Anuj Aggarwal began his verdict with a quote from Swami Vivekananda. The judge quoted Vivekananda as saying,

We are what our thoughts have made us; so take care about what you think. Words are secondary. Thoughts live; they travel far.”

An opinion on the fundamental right of “freedom of speech and expression” also prompted the judge to quote British poet John Milton, who had said,

Give me the liberty to know, to argue freely, and to utter according to conscience, above all liberties.”

Ultimately, Imam’s bail was rejected after the judge noted that his purported speech was on “communal and divisive lines,” though a prima facie view indicated that he hadn’t instigated a mob to resort to riots.

‘Mazhab Nahi Sikhata Apas Mein Bair Rakhna’

On June 6, 2021, another Delhi judge Ajay Goel was adjudicating a matter where a statement of Chief of Indian Medical Association (IMA) Johnrose Austin Jayalal was brought to Court’s notice by way of a suit.

It was alleged that Jayalal had hurt Hindu religious sentiments though his statement.

The order highlighted the famous lines of poet Muhammad Iqbal, who had said,

Mazhab Nahi Sikhata Apas Mein Bair Rakhna…Hindi Hai Hum Watan Hai Hindustan Humara… Saare Jahan se Acha Hindustan Humara.” (Religion does not teach us to bear animosity among ourselves. We are of Hind, our homeland is Hindustan... Better than the entire world, is our Hindustan)

Goel illustrated through the couplet how it gave us “strength to our belief and secularism” that would remain for ages in our country.

The word Hindi in this couplet, written by a Muslim poet, does not refer to Hindus but is referred to all Hindustanis irrespective of caste, colour and religion, which is the beauty of secularism,” the order underscored.

Jayalal was eventually cautioned by the Court following an assurance given by him.

‘Take your freedom from the cage you are in’

Something unusual happened on November 7, 2020, when Additional Sessions Judge Amitabh Rawat penned a poem in a bail case related to Delhi Riots. The poem reads thus:

"Babu pleading for his bail;

State opposing tooth and nail.

Summers bygone, winters have arrived;

But crime you did, and Rahul cried.

I am not the one, I am not the one;

Too grave the charge, don't pretend.

Whom did I attack, where is he;

Oh! That we know, in the trial we will see.

You say I have said & I deny from the first blush;

Rahul may be gone yet Satish said.

Didn't we say; don't rush;

Let me go, let me go, even Imran is on bail.

Even then, even then;

It wouldn't be a smooth sail.

Stop! Stop! Stop! Stop;

I have heard, heard a lot.

Mind is clear, with claims tall;

It's my time to take a call.

Babu has a sordid past; proof is scant, which may not last.

His omnipotence can't be assumed;

Peril to vanished Rahul, is legally fumed.

Take your freedom from the cage you are in;

Till the trial is over, the state is reigned in.

The State proclaims; to have the cake and eat it too;

The Court comes calling ; before the cake is eaten, bake it too."

This perhaps was for the first time that the facts and the reasoning of a case were put in a verse, and that too in a rather serious case.

The accused Babu was granted bail - reflected from the judge's poem - on the ground that the complainant was untraceable.

Oprah Winfrey, Meryl Steep and Catherine Zeta Jones

The quotes of the three celebrities found a mention in an order of Additional Sessions Judge Mohd Farrukh in 2019. The judge’s verdict came in a case of an aggrieved woman, who had been fired from her job for extending her maternity leave.

Legendary actor Meryl Streep was quoted as saying:

Motherhood has a very humanising effect. Everything gets reduced to essential.”

The order quoted talk show host and philanthropist Oprah Winfrey and said,

The choice to become a mother is the choice to become one of the greatest spiritual teachers there is.”

The judge also quoted Hollywood star Catherine Zeta-Jones, who had said,

Whether your pregnancy was meticulously planned, medically coaxed, or happened by surprise, one thing is certain,­ your life will never be same.”

The judge perhaps attempted to contextualise the right of maternity benefit to indicate how it was “not a matter of charity.”

Ode to Warish Shah - Amrita Pritam

The introduction by former Delhi High Court judge, Justice S Muralidhar to the 207-page verdict in an anti-Sikh riots case encompassed the tragic scenes of Partition in the summer of 1947. It began with a reference to celebrated poet Amrita Pritam’s journey at that time.

Justice S Muralidhar
Justice S Muralidhar

The following translated excerpt from Pritam’s 'Ode to Waris Shah' found mention in the judgment. She had written,

“Sprouted poisonous weeds far and near and where seeds of hatred have grown high, bloodshed is everywhere/poisoned breeze in forest turned bamboo flutes into snakes/their venom has turned the bright and rosy Punjab all blue.

The judge seemingly encapsulated the memories of Pritam, a poet who had to flee Lahore at the time of Partition with her children, witnessing a spate of tragedies during her journey.

The judgment drew a parallel between Pritam’s encounter with the devastation and what followed 37 years later when Sikhs were massacred in 1984. Senior Congress leader Sajjan Kumar, an accused in the case, was accordingly convicted and sentenced to life behind bars.

'Nothing in the law that bars you from invoking a couplet'

 Bharat Chugh
Bharat Chugh

Former judge and Advocate Bharat Chugh was referred to in Justice Muralidhar’s address at a public gathering in 2018, when the judge lauded Chugh for penning down a poem at the Delhi Judicial Academy after serving as a Railway Magistrate.

Speaking to Bar & Bench, Chugh explained that law only gave a framework to write judgments, and that judges were not prevented from making literary references in their judgments.

How you write it is your discretion. Nothing in the law that bars you from invoking a couplet or invoking a historical context or invoking philosophy or invoking literature. You can do all of that as long as you are making those points,” he said.

Chugh, who presided over a Railway Court in 2016, wrote a personal anecdote, a poem titled Tea Seller and Judge. The poem was inspired by a teenaged boy against whom a case was lodged for selling tea in trains without a licence.

The poem read:

"After thinking endlessly, for days and nights;

A young boy was produced before me,

His abject poverty was for all to see.

In a rich India of poor people,

Being poor was his crime,

the ‘Welfare State’ decided that he should serve his jail time.

He was accused of selling ‘tea’, without license in a train,

He was a migrant from a drought ridden village-

One could see his sheer pain;

His father had hung himself on a tree,

from the mounting debts on seeds, he wanted to break free.

With that torn shirt, as if modesty was just for the rich,

Law or justice, I couldn’t, at first, pick which;

Why do you seek justice?

This is a court of law you see-

Couldn’t say that to him and still be me;

An ‘end in itself’ law had become, why ?

couldn’t we re-calibrate the scales of justice, should we try;

The law required me to punish him,

It’s dry, blindfold diktat and arbitrary whim;

I chose to exonerate him, but didn’t say anything;

How could I ask him not to earn his bread-

when the state couldn’t bring;

Could I think of a more honourable way,

this boy could have earned a living -

selling honest tea - with fair billing.

If I went by the strict letter of the law and did fine,

I wouldn’t be able to sleep with the already vexed conscience of min;.

For legal authority was there; but moral authority I had none,

my nation’s law had somewhat failed, and poverty had won.

Back then, Chugh exonerated many such youngsters who tried to make ends meet by selling tea in trains.

Although Chugh didn't usually pen his judgments in verse, poetry, for him, did become an expression of angst and a way of making sense of the situation. He said,

"So the poem that I wrote back in the day was more of a catharsis on me trying to negotiate with my feelings over a tough case in which I was torn, and on the horns of a dilemma on what to do when law says ‘x’ and justice says ‘y’. How do you bridge the gap and how do you try and use your understanding of the law to sort of find out a way?”

He personally feels conflicted over the usage of poetry in judgments.

“It’s not supposed to be a work of fiction. As a judge you can’t take liberty with facts right?”

Chugh argued that the whole point of poetry was to be sometimes be abstract and to hide things rather than reveal them.

That won’t work out well in a judgment where you have to be clear.”

However, in the process of understanding a case, he revealed that he didn’t mind using a metaphor or symbolism in order to make a point and in order to make the judgment “come out alive”.

That is acceptable. But it is a fine line some which people cross. If you write the whole judgment in verse for instance, that’s not something I find acceptable. Although judges elsewhere in the world have tried it and with great style.”

He recalled that Justice Markandey Katju, who had penned the landmark 2011 judgment on euthanasia, started it with couplet from renowned poet Mirza Ghalib, who said,

Marte hain aarzoo mein marne ki, maut aati hai par nahin aati” (One dies longing for death but death, despite looming over, is elusive).

That was beautiful and apt and it does a good service as it makes judgments more interesting to read. More and more people will pick it up, and ultimately it is written for the masses - they are the consumers of justice."

As long as such interest is piqued without going overboard or compromising clarity of the law being laid down in verdicts, Chugh is all for the usage of such references.

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