On Monday (August 17), Dalits in Tamil Nadu woke up to the 58th birthday of Thol. Thirumavalavan, the founder of Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi. While they wished the leader, the Dalits had forgotten that the day was also the birth centenary of A Varadarajan, the first Dalit judge of the Supreme Court.
Appaji Varadarajan was born on August 17, 1920, in a Dalit family in Jolarpettai in Vellore district. In those days, the district had witnessed several Dalit movements inspired by Iyothee Thass, a pioneer in Dalit activism. The political awakening kindled in the youth an interest in studies. Varadarajan was one among them.
He studied in Tirupattur municipal school, and did intermediate in Voorhees College, Vellore, and bachelors in Loyola College, Chennai. Thus, he became the first graduate in his family. He went on to study law and registered as an advocate in 1944, before starting to practise at the Madras High Court. In 1949, Varadarajan became a civil judge.
Through his hard work, he climbed up the ladders as district munsif, sub-court judge, district and sessions judge. He also served as a judge in labour-welfare courts and tribunals. In 1970, he was appointed as the head of a committee to investigate police firing in Tenkasi and in 1973, he was appointed as an additional judge in Madras High Court.
Having practised as an advocate for five years and 24 years as a judge, his name had topped the list of judges to be appointed as a High Court judge, based on the seniority. So, the chief justice of the High Court had recommended his name to the state government, which, in turn, had to recommend his name to president of India.
At that time, the DMK, headed by M Karunanidhi — who had been the chief minister since 1969 — was in power. There has been a claim that the state government had delayed the recommendation by six months as Karunanidhi wanted to appoint a judge from the Backward Class.
Another claim is that Sathyavani Muthu, a Dalit leader who then served as the Dalit welfare minister in the DMK cabinet, was the reason behind the expedition in the appointment of Varadarajan. However, advocate and Dalit researcher Gowthama Sanna said the claims could not be proved now.
“Both Karunanidhi and Varadarajan are not alive today. The delay in sending the recommendation could have happened due to technical reasons,” he said. Varadarajan was a judge in the first place. His Dalit identity comes next. The public has always seen judges as persons in the upper echelons, he said.
“Generally, people remember judges when they actively participate in socio-political activities. Justice VR Krishna Iyer was one such person. Though Varadarajan was a legal luminary, much of his contribution to Ambedkarite movements was not known to the public. This could be the major reason why people had forgotten him,” said Sanna.
After serving as a judge in the Madras High Court for six years, he was elevated as a Supreme Court judge in 1980. Thus, he became the first Dalit judge in the apex court.
During his career, Varadarajan delivered many landmark judgements such as the striking down of Section 303 of IPC, which provided death sentence to a convict who committed a murder while serving a life sentence, and ordered that persons demanding valuables during marriage proposals could be charged with taking dowry.
After his retirement in 1985, Varadarajan joined with Prakash Ambedkar and participated in many struggles for implementing reservations and seeking actions against violence on Dalits. He died on October 15, 2009.
“The judgements he had delivered are still referred by many law practitioners. His judicial and social contributions were not recorded properly. We still don’t have his photograph in the High Court,” said advocate Ashok, founder, Tremenheere Foundation.
“He should have been celebrated by the institutions, including the bar council, where he had studied and worked. At least the DMK, which boasts that it was the reason behind the elevation of Dalit judges, should have celebrated Varadarajan’s birth centenary,” added Ashok.
Speaking to The Federal, RS Bharathi, a Rajya Sabha member and the organising secretary of the DMK, said Varadarajan as a judge should be seen beyond the politics. “Even the Communist Party in Kerala did not celebrate the birth centenary of Krishna Iyer. Political parties should not carry out such events. Then it will be perceived as giving a political colour to them” he said.
The Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi is still undecided about organising any celebrations in this regard.