20, Jul 2020 | Gayatri Singh
Justice Suresh touched the hearts and souls of a large number of varied people, covering the remotest corners of the country. He was the voice of the voiceless, giving courage and strength to all those fighting the might of the state.
Even in the most difficult and exacting times in the midst of increasing communal violence, brutal suppression of dissent, outright and brazen brutality by the state against Dalits and tribals, suppression of the struggles of marginalised communities fighting for their rights, illegal detention of Human Rights Defenders, students and dissenters, Justice Suresh, stood tall and, at great risk to his life, publicly took a stand in their support, not caring what people thought of him.
He knew which side he was on. For him, there was no middle ground, no dithering or wavering. He was not swayed by the opinions of others. He wanted to himself witness the miseries and sufferings of people and make sure that the voices were heard by whatever means possible. He did not care whether in the process, he was ridiculed. Most of all the criticism was that retired judges ought not to mingle with the ‘masses’, they must remain aloof and above them all.
There were times when he was threatened, verbally and almost physically attacked. I remember him telling me of these instances not out of fear but in a jocular manner. I was fearful for him which I guess was reflected in my expression. He would then quickly change the topic.
Just watching him at his work and listening to him was uplifting in itself. The fear, the uncertainty, impossibility of fighting against the powerful state machinery got wiped away and everything seemed possible. How much more hope he gave to those who were the sufferers and victims can be witnessed by the testimonies of people he touched.
I vividly remember a meeting he had with young lawyers in February 2020. All of them spoke about the despair they felt at not being able to get any protective orders from the Courts, because even in cases where it could be shown that the State had violated the most basic fundamental rights of the affected persons, whether they were Slum Dwellers, Tribals and other marginalised communities. His response was enlightening. He neither lectured nor undermined the confidence of the lawyers. He listened attentively and suggested different ways of looking at the problem and evolving out-of-the-box legal strategies. His contribution was always positive and encouraging enabling people to approach legal problems from a different and more innovative angle.
The most memorable time I spent with him was when we visited the tea gardens in Jalpaiguri on a fact-finding team along with other trade unionists. It was a difficult and arduous journey. He did not want any special care and facilities to be provided to him. He stayed with us and we travelled together. Throughout the journey he was cheerful though he was suffering from food poisoning and would get quite irritated if too much attention was paid to him!
The tea gardens are spread over sprawling acres and the workers live within these estates which are like mini villages having facilities like medical clinic, schools et cetera which are required to be provided by the employer. However, most of the major tea gardens had closed and the wages and legal dues had not been paid to workers for several years. The medical clinics and schools had also closed down since its employees had not been paid wages. Children and adults were suffering from malnourishment and many had died due to starvation. There were no jobs available and in order to survive a large number of workers had taken to the most arduous and backbreaking job of stone breaking nearby.
Justice Suresh wanted to personally visit the workers. When we could not find some of the workers at home, he insisted that we visit them at the place where they were breaking stones. We had to walk quite a distance in the hot sun and I remember trying to keep pace with him! I was exhausted but he showed no signs of exhaustion, he wanted to see for himself how the workers and their families were surviving. Each one’s story was important. To the workers he became part of the family, they opened up and confided in him. Justice Suresh on his part did not give them false assurances but told them that he would do everything in his capacity to bring to public focus the murderous behaviour of the tea estate owners and the virtual unconcern to the plight of the workers by the State Government. And this is exactly what he did. He immediately called a press conference issued a very informative and moving note on the conditions of the tea workers and made sure that it was given the necessary publicity.
With Justice Suresh, every fact-finding was important, whether it involved State brutality against an individual or against hundreds of persons. The fact-finding was an important medium through which issues faced by people in remote areas could be brought before the nation. In most of the cases, Justice Suresh played an important and crucial role in getting justice. In the case of the tea garden workers, the State Government of West Bengal had to set up Committees making the employer responsible for ensuring that the workers were paid.
The archive will help in keeping his contribution life and help others in continuing his work with hopefully as much vigour and sensitivity as he did.