Justice Anand Venkatesh, ally of queer community who is taking up suo motu revision orders against ‘corrupt’ politicians

Justice Anand Venkatesh is currently pursuing two suo motu revision orders against the AIADMK's Valarmathi and the DMK's Periyasamy.

ByVinodh Arulappan

Published Sep 20, 2023 | 2:30 PM Updated Sep 22, 2023 | 8:19 PM

Justice Anand Venkatesh became a Madras High Court judge in 2020. (Sourced) 

It was 27 March, 2019. Nearly nine months after being elevated from the bar to the bench, an additional judge in his court hall at the Madras High Court began dictating his order on an anticipatory bail plea filed by a Coimbatore-based man who was about to be arrested on the charges of abetment of suicide of his friend under the influence of alcohol.

The judge observed that excessive drinking had the ability to lower inhibitions, impair a person’s judgement, and increase the risk of aggressive behaviour. He then boldly stated that because of this, alcohol-related violence and crime rates were on the rise in this state.

The next lines of his judgement had the government advocates in front of him — and even the defendant’s lawyer — sitting bolt upright.

The judgement ran thus,

“This court wants to make the government also responsible for each and every one of the offences that is committed under the influence of alcohol. If the concerned department of the government is also made an accused for having instigated or stimulated a person to commit a crime, ultimately at the time of imposing punishment, the court can order for sufficient compensation to the victim in exercise of its powers under Section 357 of the CrPC. This is the only way in which the government can be made to pay for its questionable policy, which has resulted in the increasing crimes in the state.”

The whole court sat frozen and the deafening silence caused his words to echo even louder.

Also read: Qualification matters in appointment of ‘archakas’: Madras HC

A name never to be forgotten

Justice Anand Venkatesh — the name of the judge — was soon being whispered in the corridors of the 157-year-old Indo-Saracenic-inspired building of the Madras High Court.

The state government had to rush to the Supreme Court, praying to exclude these paragraphs from Justice Venkatesh’s order. Though the Supreme Court ordered to efface those rulings from the record, it lauded Justice Venkatesh’s intention.

Eleven months after the incident, on 12 February, 2020, the then-President of India signed an order approving Anand Venkatesh as a permanent judge of the Madras High Court.

From then, his orders have covered a wide range of issues — batting for LGBTQIA+ rights, giving direction to form a criminal justice reform committee, ruling against the culture of corporal punishments in schools, suggesting to exclude consensual relationships between minors under the POCSO Act, ordering the conversion of a temple back into a Buddha Vihar, and now, his suo motu revision against politicians.

Related: HC seeks list of cases against minors in consensual relationships

His battle with academics

Justice Venkatesh was born and brought up in erstwhile North Madras in a humble middle-class Brahmin family. He grew up as a typical North Madras boy.

He was below average in academics at the St Mary’s School in Perambur.

“If the marks I got in all the subjects had been counted together, the total would not even cross double digits,” said Venkatesh at a seminar organised by the Bar of Madurai Bench for young advocates. “I was made to pass in every class as the teachers did not want to suffer the ordeal of managing me one more year.”

The young boy had another problem to cope with — his obesity. “Everyone would tease me about where I bought rice from. In order to lose weight, I decided to get into sports. I started playing cricket,” he recounted.

The gentleman’s game made Venkatesh more gentle and got him to exhibit his talents on the ground. He started playing for clubs and was soon recognised as a seasoned player.

Venkatesh eventually earned a BCom degree at the AM Jain College in Meenambakkam. “My academic interest hadn’t grown a bit, even though I was in college. But I somehow managed to complete my course and joined BL (Bachelor of Law) at Ambedkar Law College,” he told students at the same law college after he became a judge.

Also read: Prosecution, accused were on same team: Madras HC on Periyasamy

A lawful turn for the better

Law college is where Venkatesh’s life took a much-needed turn. “I became confident that I could successfully pursue law. My life had totally changed. I started to believe in myself,” he said.

While he was pursuing his first year of BL, Venkatesh joined as an intern with senior advocate B Ramamoorthy and remained in his service even five years after enrolling as an advocate — learning the nuances of various laws — until 1997.

“That is where I met my wife. We both received a stipend of ₹750. We got married and managed to expand our family with that stipend. My wife, a talented advocate, sacrificed her profession for my sake. If she had practised [law], I could never become a judge,” Venkatesh said at the seminar.

He enrolled himself as a lawyer in 1993, as a first-generation advocate, and started an independent practice after 1997. “I had no office. I took all kinds of cases… civil, writ, criminal, tax, insurance… whatever came my way. I gave my 100 percent and was dedicated in all cases. I never thought about running after money,” Venkatesh recalled his early days.

“Advocate Shankaranarayanan and retired high court judges Rajamanickam and PN Prakash were pivotal in shaping Venkatesh as a seasoned advocate while he was practising at the Madras High Court,” advocate S Srinivasa Raghavan told South First.

“I knew him while he was an advocate. His career was at its peak in the early 2000s, until he became a judge. Retired Madras High Court Justice S Nagamuthu played a key role in elevating him as a judge. He is a true jack of all trades. In several cases, he was made an amicus curiae to assist the court. He even used to read other state high courts’ judgements,” Raghavan said.

A retired high court judge told South First on condition of anonymity that Venkatesh was the most popular amicus curiae in the Madras High Court. “The more you are appointed as amicus curiae, the more you are noted by the court as a man of engagements. I have read his amicus curiae reports, and each had solicited legal findings. He had several reported cases to his name. A fit person to be on the Bench. He is well versed in writ, tax, and criminal law.”

Also read: Madras High Court dismisses DMK’s plea against EPS

First to quote Section 8 in Atrocities Act

“Though there are several judgements rendered by Justice Venkatesh that stand out, in recent times, I have seen two very important judgements delivered by him,” advocate Lajapathi Roy told South First.

Roy continued, “In the SC/ST Prevention of Atrocities Act, Section 8 deals with ‘presumption as to offences’. It means that if it is proved that the accused had personal knowledge about the victim or his family, then the court must presume that the accused was aware of the caste or tribal identity of the victim.”

He noted: “No judge has used this provision. For the first time in India, Justice Anand Venkatesh used this section in the infamous Gokulraj murder case. In fact, he visited the scene of the crime before delivering his judgement.”

While dismissing the appeals proffered by the accused, Justice Venkatesh held, “In the instant case, the evidentiary burden that was put against the accused persons was not discharged by them. The prosecution has proved the foundational facts through various circumstances put against the accused persons to bring this case within the net of Section 8(b) of the SC & ST (Atrocities) Act. In view of the same, this court has to necessarily take into consideration the legal presumption and hold that the accused persons had common intention/common object to commit the offence under the Act and this burden was not even remotely discharged by the accused persons.”

Advocate Roy said, “If there is evidence in the case, there is no need for presumption. In NDPS (Narcotic Drugs and Psychotropic Substances) cases, Prevention of Corruption cases, dowry deaths, and offences against women cases, there will be a presumption and the provision is used by the courts at various instances. Whereas, in SC/ST Atrocities cases, it was never used before. It was a legal breakthrough!”

Also read: Madras HC upholds life sentence of Gokulraj murder convicts

First to restore a Buddha statue

The second judgement of Justice Venkatesh that stood out for advocate Roy pertained to a Buddhist temple that was converted into a Hindu temple.

The case of the petitioner was about the Thalaivetti Muniyappan Temple, located at Kottai Road in the Periyeri village of the Salem district of Tamil Nadu, which is under the control of the state’s Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (HR & CE) Department.

According to the petitioner, the statue installed therein was of Lord Buddha and had been worshipped by Buddhists for many years. However, over a period of time, the statue had been converted into that of one of the Hindu deities, and was worshipped by Hindus.

Justice Venkatesh ordered an archaeological examination and, based on the report, the court concluded that it was indeed a Buddha statue. Rejecting the plea of the government that the temple be allowed to continue as per the faith of the people, Justice Venkatesh held that it would not be appropriate to permit the HR & CE Department to continue to treat the sculpture as that of a Hindu God and that the mistaken identity could not be allowed to continue after coming to the conclusion that the sculpture was that of Buddha.

“In view of the same, the original statue must be restored and permitting the HR & CE Department to continue to treat the sculpture as Thalaivetti Muniyappan will not be appropriate and it will go against the very tenets of Buddhism,” Justice Venkatesh held in his judgement. He directed the government to restore it as a Buddha statue and no poojas or other ceremonies are allowed to be performed for the sculpture of Buddha.

Speaking on this, advocate Roy said that the Babri Masjid case and this Buddha temple case were more or less the same in nature.

“If you read the Babri Masjid judgement, you know that only artefacts related to the Buddhist tradition and worship were found. There were no artefacts found related to Hindu culture or the Ram temple. Ultimately, the judges had no other option than to resort to the faith of the people. The Supreme Court held that there was the existence of a Ram temple. But here, Justice Venkatesh relied upon scientific evidence,” Roy noted.

Also read: Shocked over Ponmudy acquittal, HC starts suo motu proceedings

The enlightenment of LGBTQIA+

Justice Venkatesh shot to popularity among progressive public while dealing with a plea by two young girls, a same-sex couple seeking protection. He took up a counselling session with psychologist Vidya Dinakaran to break his own “preconceived notions” before dealing with the case. After his counselling, the judge organised an interaction session with the LGBTQIA+ community.

“This session ultimately convinced me that I must change all my preconceived notions and start looking at persons belonging to the LGBTQIA+ community as they are. I must frankly confess that the petitioners, Ms Vidya Dinakaran and Dr Trinetra became my gurus who helped me in this process of evolution and pulled me out of darkness (ignorance),” Justice Venkatesh said in his judgement.

He said that he has no hesitation in accepting that he too belonged to the majority of commoners who are yet to comprehend homosexuality completely.

“Unlike regular litigations, the present case has given this court not only an opportunity but also a vested responsibility to weigh the cause for inclusivity and justice against discrimination by heretofore social understanding of morality and notions of tradition. That being said, I also felt that I remove the ‘Lordship’s’ hat and instead wear the hat of the average commoner in the society, who have not given thought to understand or accept, who are attempting to understand, who totally refuse to understand or accept the LGBTQIA+ community. I have no hesitation in accepting that I too belong to the majority of commoners who are yet to comprehend homosexuality completely. Ignorance is no justification for normalising any form of discrimination,” Justice Venkatesh said in his judgement.

Also Read: Madras HC takes up acquittal of TN ministers in corruption case

Opening a can of worms

The recent suo motu revision orders by Justice Venkatesh in cases pertaining to former ministers have caught the attention of the people of Tamil Nadu, and also has politicians trembling.

The suo moto revision order in the case pf DMK Minister K Ponmudy was issued on 10 August, and against two more DMK ministers, Thangam Thennarasu and KKSSR Ramachandran, on 22 August.

Not surprisingly, the DMK jumped into the “boxing ring”, alleging that the judge was being partisan and targeting only the ruling party.

But days after the party levelled this allegation, came a surprise.

Justice Venkatesh, on 30 August, reopened a graft case against AIADMK rebel leader and former chief minister O Panneerselvam. This was followed by two more suo moto revisions on 8 September, against DMK Minister I Periyasamy, and former AIADMK minister B Valarmathi.

I have opened a can of worms but someone has to do this — These words show that Justice Venkatesh is well aware of the consequences of reopening the graft cases against the politicians, noted a retired high court judge. “The suo motu revision has not only made politicians uncomfortable but also a few retired and present judges of the high court,” the retired judge said.

Answering the critics

Facing the heat from politicians on public forums, Justice Venkatesh opted to reply to them through his order.

“At this juncture, this court observes that the suo motu revisions initiated over the past few weeks have been looked upon in some quarters as a sort of witch hunt spearheaded by one judge of the high court. It is, therefore, necessary to remind all concerned that these suo motu revisions have been exercised not by one judge but by the high court, as an institution, to ensure that the streams of criminal justice are not subverted and remain pure and unsullied,” the judge noted.

Weighing in, the retired judge South First spoke to said, “The suo moto orders clearly shows that it’s the need of the hour for the judicial officers, both in the lower court and high court, to introspect themselves. Someone like Anand is needed to swirl the whip.”

In a piece for The Indian Express recently, retired Madras High Court judge, Justice V Parthiban, wrote, “Justice Venkatesh literally played a whistleblower from inside. Exposing himself, in the bargain, as being part of the warts-and-all, now creaking criminal justice system. Can there be any dissent to it? It requires rare courage, boldness, and imagination to bare the system one sat over. I am proud to have been a colleague of such a brother in arms.”