That Mark Twain gem: “Age is an issue of mind over matter, if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter” would apply squarely to this full time public interest litigant at the Madras High Court. At 86, it’s hard to decide whether Traffic K.R.Ramaswamy should be commended for his stamina or his guts. For decades on end, this frail but intrepid ‘party in person’ for public causes has been a thorn in the flesh of successive political dispensations in Tamil Nadu. Those he rubs on the wrong side can “break my bones but not my spirit.”
Braving brutal attacks, one of them depriving him of his right eye, Ramaswamy, who earned the sobriquet ‘Traffic’ before his name from the early nineties when he used to control traffic on NSC Bose Road as part of the Home Guards, soldiers on with over 600 cases. And counting. Brushing aside the odd allegation that some of them were “publicity interest litigation” the elderly crusader lists out the issues he has fought for, ranging from a ban on hoardings and banners to car parking for multi storey buildings and shops for street vendors. The ban on fish carts led to that grievous eye injury, prompting the then Chief Justice of the Madras High Court Justice B.Subhashan Reddy to order police protection for him in 2002, making Ramaswamy arguably the only common man with a gun man. “For the last 9 years, I am being escorted round the clock.”
Ramaswamy, who does not engage an advocate but argues as party in person, appears not just in the Madras High Court but has also marked his presence in the Supreme Court where he claims to have “opposed an agitation by lawyers.” Most judges, he reveals, give him a “patient hearing” as he goes “fully prepared with all possible records.” The first case, he recalls, was “against the proposed One -Way System around the Madras High Court.” There were occasions when this octogenarian was seen tearing banners that were erected in violation of court orders, as a prelude to moving contempt of court applications against the authorities. “Now I don’t do that. I inform the officials and they usually remove them.” After the recent tragic hoarding related death of a young software employee Subashree, Ramaswamy was one of the most vocal voices condemning the hazardous practice and calling for stringent action even against top government officials.
On the court campus and along the corridors, you cannot miss this senior citizen. With case bundles protruding out of his oversized bush shirt pockets and clad in khakhi trousers, sporting large rimmed glasses, he struts around with a broad smile.
The son of a Congressman M.K. Rangaswamy, he claims to have worked as a “Personal Assistant” to Rajaji, between 1952 and 54 when the latter was the Chief Minister of Madras. After passing out of a Corporation School in Purasawakkam, Ramawamy completed an “intermediate course” at Pachaiyappas College and went on do a Textile Course. That probably opened the doors at Binny – B&C Mills, where he joined as an “office boy and voluntarily retired after 18 years as an officer”.
Public interest litigation is a pro bono exercise. So how does he make a living? “There are good samaritans who contribute to my meagre expenses of about six thousand rupees a month.” Ramaswamy recounts how “10 Muslim traders of Pudupet donated an old jeep” which he uses to commute. That he survives on “coffee in the morning, butter milk in the afternoon and milk at night with no regular solid food, barring the odd idi, vada or dosa” seems quite shocking. The court bird’s wife Shakuntala, who is 81 years old and his homemaker daughter Vijaya, live separately as “I do not want to expose them to the risks I take.”
Has he ever thought of studying law and getting enrolled as an Advocate? “Never. I don’t need to do that to appear in court.” With all the frailties of advanced age and the raw nerves he touches on a regular basis, Traffic Ramaswamy is quite an undeterred champion of public causes and has won awards too. Retirement is not on the horizon. Till his last breath, the Cause List in court will be dotted with Traffic Ramaswamy Vs State of Tamil Nadu.
(Sanjay Pinto is an Advocate practising at the Madras High Court, a Columnist, Author, TV Political Analyst, Public Speaking Mentor & Former Resident Editor of NDTV 24×7)