By Nandhini Jaishankar
India is considered to be a progressive and democratic country, where rights of every citizen are to be respected and ensured. Still, the Judiciary has made little effort to sensitize the larger population about the abilities of the visually impaired people and hasn’t actively participated in providing them opportunities within its own jurisdiction. Due to age-old biases and pre-conceived notions, blind people are considered to be unfit for the position of a Judge or a Magistrate. However, in recent times such ceilings are being broken, and we can see that several visually impaired are entering the judicial system and carving a niche of their own.
Blind and a judge?
Visually impaired advocates and lawyers in India are not considered for the post of judges because of the systematic indifference created by the appointing authorities who believe that blind people are not capable of performing the functions of a Judge. Despite being instrumental in helping the cause of the disabled in the country, the Indian judiciary has been unable to remove discrimination from within its legal profession. However, the landmark judgement of Brahmananda Sharma paved way for several other aspirants into the judiciary system with a vision of becoming a judge one day.
“Disability is in the mind and not anywhere else. Dreams matter the most and if you are passionate about your dreams, no disability can stop you”
Beating all the odds, Sharma became the first visually impaired judge of India from Rajasthan. He is currently placed as a Civil Judge and Judicial Magistrate of Sarwar in the city of Ajmer District. He lost his vision due to glaucoma at the age of 22. However, this didn’t deter him from pursuing his dream. He always aspired to become a judge and did not even think once of giving up his dream and losing hope because of his obtuse eyesight. The Rajasthan High Court recommended a year’s training for him, after which he joined the service in 2016.
In 2013, he appeared for Rajasthan Judicial Services Examination and cleared it in the first attempt, securing 83rd rank. He faced difficulties in preparing for the examination as the coaching center he approached refused to help him. His wife, who is a teacher at a government school, used to read out the books to him and he used to maintain a recording of the readings for further reference. His family and his wife played a major role in his success. Brahmananda believes that it was his family which helped him throughout and they never let him experience any kind of downfall or difficulties.
Many a times this question has surrounded him and even advocates and their clients are skeptical of whether a visually challenged man can ensure justice. However, he believes that even the eyes of the woman of justice are blindfolded. Sharma listens to the recorded arguments made by advocates and statements made by witnesses and clients several times over to weigh the facts and merits of a case to ensure fairness. He has never taken his vision disability as a curse and has always used it as a source of motivation to inspire the coming generation. He is happy that he has not only maintained his self-esteem but also proved everyone that nothing can stop a person from fulfilling their dreams.
Sight of infinite hope
A visually impaired judge creating examples and benchmarks for every person out there is history making its mark. Jabalpur lawyer Rashmi Thakur is 75% blind since birth. She scored 85% in her prelims despite being barred from using a writer. Thakur got her law degree in 2013 and started practicing in court since then. However, she wanted to be a judge. In 2016, when she read about Brahmananda Sharma of Rajasthan, a visually-impaired person like her making it to judicial services in his state, she saw a ray of hope to accomplish her dreams.
She began her journey by managing to give her online prelims. However, her first hurdle was a rule that only those suffering from orthopedic disability would get the benefit of reservation. She wasn’t even allowed a scribe to write her exam. Undaunted, she moved to High Court with a plea to include visually-impaired on the list of disabled persons but was not successful. In 2017, when 94 vacancies of civil judges were advertised by the high court, she applied as a general candidate and this bold decision eventually paid off. She fell short of 5 marks from the cut-off and filed a writ petition in HC, with the help of senior advocate Surendra Verma.
A division bench of Chief Justice Hemant Gupta and Justice V K Shukla was impressed by her fortitude and accepted her argument. The bench not only allowed her to appear in the main exam but also ordered inclusion of visually-impaired persons on the list of disabled and provided them reservation. The bench observed that the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 has made a departure from the provisions of the earlier Act as the reservation for the physically disabled candidates is not dependent on any condition. The court also observed that since the post of judicial magistrate has been identified as the one which can be filled by the blind and the low vision candidates, the decision of the high court not to permit a facility of scribe and to reserve the posts for visually handicapped candidates violates the provisions of the Act.
The bench said that “the problem is in the mindset that a visually challenged candidate will not be able to read, write and thus, would not be able to discharge the duties as a Judicial Officer. The persons with disability do not require any sympathy but are required to be treated equal and are entitled to equal treatment warranted by Constitution”.
Therefore, Rashmi Thakur did not only fight for her dreams but also helped all the visually impaired individuals to dream as big as her and not let challenges decide their fate.
Tamil Nadu’s judicial conquest
The visually impaired people trying to break into the judicial system is not rare in Tamil Nadu. T Chakkaravarthy was born at Thimiri village near Arcot in Vellore district. This 41-year-old lost his eye sight at four, when he was down with small pox, but never did he lose sight of his aspiration. In March 2009, the Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission (TNPSC) included him in the list of 180-odd candidates for the subordinate judiciary. It was then when Chakkaravarthy's 17-year dream to enter the judicial service was realized. He created history by probably becoming the first visually impaired judicial officer in Tamil Nadu to hold Court.
He had to struggle a lot to reach this position. With the help of the bench headed by Jayasimha Babu, Chakkaravarthy got the opportunity to write the examinations. When the bench, questioned as to how the disabled person would look into the eyes of the accused and assess the demeanor, the jurist argued that it was an old technique as "looks are deceptive nowadays." His hard work and dedication towards the profession has given hope to several others who are struggling to break stereotypes surrounding disability in their day to day lives. He is currently the proud occupant of III Additional District Munsif's chair in Coimbatore.
While Chakkaravarthy’s struggle for entering judiciary was successful, Surendra Mohan is still fighting the odds to become a magistrate in Tamil Nadu. Surendra Mohan is 70% blind and is working as an Assistant Public Prosecutor of the CBI. After being denied the entry into the Judicial Service by Tamil Nadu Public Service Commission and Madras High Court, he filed a petition in the High Court. However, the HC denied him the appointment and issued a statement that “Taking into account the nature of duties to be performed by a civil judge, government in consultation with the High Court, had proposed to restrict the applicability of the benefit of reservation only to those whose disability ranges from 40 per cent to 50 per cent”.
Challenging the judgement, Surendra Mohan approached the Supreme Court stating that the high court had wrongly deprived him of his right to be appointed as a civil judge on the basis of his partial blindness as provided under the Persons with Disabilities Act, 1995. A Supreme Court bench comprising Justice S.A. Bobde and Justice V. Gopala Gowda has directed Tamil Nadu Government to keep one post of Civil Judge vacant but the struggle for Surendra is still going on as it’s hard to accomplish his dreams and aspirations with so many barriers.
Judge with a purpose
Arepalli Naga Babu is a visually challenged student from Machlipatnam. He hails from a family of five with an income of 36,000 rupees per annum. He did his schooling till the tenth standard in his village. Despite being totally blind, Naga Babu secured 80% in the State board exams. He wanted to pursue law and hence took admission in NLU Odisha. He was also a scholar of the Increasing Diversity by Increasing Access (IDIA) and has been practicing in the Andhra Pradesh High Court since July 2016, in the office of an Advocate.
Babu was denied participation in the selection process under the open category merely on account of his blindness. He was represented by advocate Vivek Reddy before the Hyderabad High Court where he claimed that after he applied to take the Andhra Pradesh and Telangana judicial services exam, he was not entitled to write the examinations and for reservations. Babu and Reddy had argued that being barred from the exam was contrary to his constitutional right to equality, and also challenged Rule 7 of the Andhra Pradesh State Judicial Service Rules 2007 against the High Court and the states Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, which states that reservations.
The acting Chief Justice Ramesh Ranganathan and Justice A Shankar Narayana held on 14 November 2016 that in accordance with central government regulations from 2013, Babu would be given no less than 20 minutes of additional “compensatory time” per hour of examination and provided with the facilities of a scribe and a separate room. They held that there did not appear to be any prohibition on “visually challenged candidates from participating in the selection process for appointment to posts in the AP State Judicial Service” and that Babu cannot be denied participation in the examinations.
Naga Babu believes that IDIA had provided him with very good opportunities and training facilities. He is grateful to all IDIA team members for providing him with constant support and motivation. Naga Babu’s long term goal is to become an IAS officer and lead his community to a brighter future. He believes that law school will provide him with the right environment and optimum opportunities to achieve that goal.
Around the world
There are several eminent judges across the world who have been discharging judicial functions even though they are visually challenged. Such as Justice Zak Mohammed Yacoob who served as a Judge on the South African Constitutional Court for 15 years and Judge David S Tatel of the United States Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit, often referred to as the second most important court in the United States of America. The said judges had been discharging their duties with the help of assistive technology and Braille computers. The advancement in technology has helped in uplifting the blind and in meeting the current needs.
Recently, a young 25-year-old visually impaired man named Yousaf Saleem became a judge in our neighboring country Pakistan. Saleem is a gold medalist of the Punjab University in LLB (Honors) and had topped the written judiciary exam among 6,500 candidates in 2014. But his impressive academic record only took him to the interview stage for the position of civil judge. He was among 21 successful candidates. It’s promising to see that people are now being selected on the basis of their abilities and not their disabilities. With this changing scenario, let’s hope to achieve representation and equality for all individuals in judicial system!