Habeas Corpus: How citizens’ rights suffered a body blow

Jai Bhim

Perhaps not intended to be so but Tamil filmmaker TJ Gnanavel’s heart-rending cinematic interpretation in Jai Bhim of a tribal woman’s real-life legal battle to trace her husband – illegally detained and later killed under custodial torture by the police -- is a sad reminder of how far our judiciary has drifted from being the ultimate guardian of citizens’ personal liberty.

Gnanavel’s powerful courtroom drama avoids getting trapped and lost in complicated legal jargon but not before giving viewers a fleeting introduction to the habeas corpus petition that the protagonist Suriya, as advocate Chandru, moves in the Madras High Court to seek directions to the police for disclosing the whereabouts of the illegally detained Rajakannu.

Simply put, a writ of habeas corpus (literally means to have the body; commonly explained as ‘produce the body’) is a legal instrument that allows any individual to seek judicial intervention against apparent wrongful detention of a person. But this remedy, available in the Indian law for over two centuries -- even predating India’s independence or most other British-era laws that continue to be in force today – is much more than the mere literal translation of these two words from medieval Latin.

The venerable AG Noorani, India’s foremost commentator on law, says habeas corpus was first introduced in India by the British colonisers way back in 1773 when three separate supreme courts were established for the presidencies of Bengal, Bombay and Madras. Its first application in India came just two years later, in 1775, by Sir Elijah Impey, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court at Calcutta against no less than the then Governor General of Bengal, Warren Hastings.

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