In Conversation with Senior Advocate MK Damodaran

In Conversation with Senior Advocate MK Damodaran

Murali Krishnan

Senior Advocate MK Damodaran is a very popular figure in Kerala, well known for defending the Naxalites during the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. He served as the Advocate General of Kerala during a period when infamous scandals like the ‘Ice cream parlour case’ and the ‘Suryanelli case’ rocked the State. In this interview with Bar & Bench, he talks about his initial days as a trial court lawyer at Tellichery, his experience as the Advocate General and his views on various legal issues.

Bar & Bench: Could you tell us about your initial days and how you entered the profession?

M.K. Damodaran: It was quite accidental. I was very active in politics and students’ movement when I was doing my studies. I never intended to take up law as my profession. I am not from a family of lawyers but from an agricultural family.

But, since I was very active in the political movements in North Malabar, some of my friends suggested that I should do law. So I joined Government Law College, Ernakulam. I graduated in 1963 and enrolled as an advocate in 1964.

B&B: How were the initial years of practice?

MKD: I started my practice in Tellichery. I had good work during my initial days. I was the junior of a great lawyer in north Kerala, AVK Nair. He was a leading criminal lawyer in north Malabar. Subsequently, I thought that I should not confine myself to criminal law. Then my senior suggested [joining] his classmate KM Namboothiripad. He was one of the best civil lawyers in north Malabar. So I began attending his chamber also. After my enrolment, I was attending both the offices. I was getting lot of work on the civil side and the criminal side.

I became independent in two years and started my own practice; but I used to attend my seniors’ offices also. I used to deal with cases from Kasargod to Kozhikode. Within one year I had conducted a murder case and within 2 to 3 years, I was getting good Sessions [Court] work. The period from 1964 to 1977 in Tellichery was very good and fruitful.

Then, during 1976 – 1978, I was jailed for 8 months during the emergency. That was the motivation for shifting my practice from Tellichery to Ernakulam. But for my detention in jail during Emergency, I would not have shifted.

When I was arrested, I was one of the top lawyers in north Malabar. During the height of Naxalite movement, I was engaged by most of the accused in the ‘Thalassery Pulpally’ case. Out of the 123 accused, I defended about 67. It was a very well known case in Kerala. In most of the cases involving offences committed by Naxalites in north Malabar, I was defending the accused which bolstered my popularity as a lawyer.

A large number of murder cases of very serious dimensions, that attracted wide public attention,  sprung from political fend and hostility and I could successfully defend the accused.  Case relating to the suicide of an S.I. of Police while on duty in the Police Station, popularly known as ‘Soman Case’ which was charged as a murder case; the case of setting fire to a Bus with passengers on board during the occasion of a political agitation resulting in the death of a few, the case of the murder of a political worker in which two sitting MLAs were the accused, two criminal cases in which the legendary Gangadhara Marar attacked a Cabinet Minister and the Governor of the State etc. are some  such cases.   

B&B: So, did your role as the defence counsel for Naxalites lead to your detention during the Emergency?

MKD: No, it had nothing to do with the Naxalite movement. It was connected with the anti – Emergency movement. The only provocation to shift to Ernakulam was my jail life. After I was detained in prison, I thought that it was better to shift to Ernakulam. There are three reasons; one was that I did not want to be very active in politics; instead I wanted to concentrate on the profession. There is another important reason. My parents were alive at that time. They thought that if I continued at Tellichery, I will be active in politics and will end up contesting the elections. Due to those reasons my parents also advised me to shift to Ernakulam.

B&B: You have served as the Advocate General of Kerala. Could you tell us about that experience?

MKD: I was the Advocate General (AG) of Kerala from 1996 to 2001. My experience as the AG was splendid. There were several instances during my tenure as AG which were very competitive and challenging; there were several crises during my period. I feel that I was successful as an AG. During that period, the Chief Minister of Kerala was Comrade EK Nayanar. My relationship with the Chief Minister was splendid. He was one of the best Chief Ministers Kerala has seen.

B&B: The Coalgate controversy led to the resignation of the Additional Solicitor General Harin Raval and the Attorney General’s role is still under scanner. What are your views on the same? How do you think a law officer should conduct himself?

MKD:  It was very unfortunate. According to me the Attorney General or the Additional Solicitor General can’t go to the Press and explain their stand in public. It will create controversy. It is better to remain silent and clarify things in the court.

He should not be associated with the investigation. Our system clearly commands that the investigating officer is independent; he should form his opinion about the case after investigation is over and submit his report to the concerned legal officer for his consent before he files the charge sheet. That is for the purpose of correcting the legal aspects alone and nothing more.  (The law officer can’t guide the investigation). The role of the Advocate General or the Attorney General is only in the Court. He cannot dictate the investigation team which is [supposed to be] independent.

B&B: Have you faced political pressures during your tenure as AG?

MKD: I never faced such pressures. I was not controlled by anybody. I worked independently and formed my opinion. My advice to government was never rejected.

B&B: A few weeks ago, when a judge of the Kerala High Court had given an interview to a TV Channel, an advocate had filed a complaint in protest. Your views.

MKD: As far as the Bar Council Rules are concerned, neither advocates nor judges can go to the Press. We follow the British system. Propaganda and publicity is associated with the American system. In US, advocates are allowed to advertise, but not in UK. We follow the system prevalent in UK. So, my view is that publicity should be avoided. People should come to the lawyer after coming to know about his experience, knowledge and accomplishments in the profession. If publicity and propaganda is permitted there is a good chance that even inefficient lawyers will get good work. The clients may not be informed about efficiency, experience or knowledge in law of such a lawyer.

However, in this particular case the concerned judge was only clarifying his role in the issue and I don’t think he is wrong in doing that. He did not go to the Press for publicity but was only clarifying his alleged role in a raging issue and I think he is completely justified in doing that. Certain times a judge is entitled to clarify when there is an adverse propaganda against him. Nothing prohibits him from doing that.

B&B: What do you think about the relationship between the Bench and the Bar as it stands today?

MKD: It is smooth. There is no confrontation between the Bench and the Bar. In Kerala, I find the relationship between the Bench and the Bar very smooth.

B&B: Our criminal laws have undergone amendments after a spate of crimes against women? What do you think is the reason for such increase in the crime rate against women?

MKD: I think one of the reasons is the inefficiency of the investigative system and the police. Another reason is that our educational system does not guide students during their formative years about morality. Subjects relating to moral life are not being taught at schools. So degradation of morals is one of the reasons. Another reason is poverty as it leads to prostitution etc. Men are not trained by our system on how to lead a humane life.

Formerly, in north Malabar when a girl aged 16 or more entered a house, even the eldest male member of the family used to stand up. It evidenced the respect towards women. That culture has disappeared. There were isolated incidents even then but now it has increased a lot. Even today I read about the gang rape of a medical student in Manipal.

B&B: Your view on the judgment delivered by the Kerala High Court in the ‘Suryanelli case’?

MKD: There are different views about it. I have not really formed an opinion on that.

B&B: What is your opinion about the juniors at the Bar?

MKD: Juniors at the Bar are not serious these days. They do not spend time studying. In my early days, I used to attend the office of my senior from 7 am to 10.30 pm. During the court hours I would be with him. During my initial 3 to 4 years of practice, I used to sit in the court hall from 11 am to 5 pm except during the intervals. Irrespective of whether I had case or not, I used to observe senior lawyers conducting cases in the court.

During my days nobody was serious about the income. However, the junior lawyers these days are very concerned about their income. There might be several reasons for this. I don’t find fault with them. Poverty, lack of funds etc. might be the reasons. Another change is that earlier (during 50s to 90s) every lawyer used to attend a senior’s office for at least 5 years. But nowadays lawyers start independent practice straight out of college. In my view, that is not advisable.

B&B: Do you think the National Law Schools have been successful in their object?

MKD: No doubt! It has improved the standard of our students. In our days, legal education was not taken seriously by the government. Students hardly used to attend classes. Also, in those days lawyers’ profession was restricted to students who had their parents or relatives in the profession. Usually those who did not make it to engineering colleges or medical colleges used to opt for law. But this trend has changed. Brilliant students now prefer law.

B&B: Any advice for young lawyers and students?

MKD: They should be serious about their studies and should acquire knowledge in law. They should be committed to profession. Wide reading in law and other subjects connected to law is very important.

B&B: What are your hobbies?

MKD: I don’t have any hobbies. I am in my office round the clock and committed to my profession even now. I leave my office shortly before my case is called. Since I live close to the court I can afford that luxury. Formerly, I used to attend public meetings and seminars and I used to speak across Kerala.

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