Limitations Of Judges' Tenure
Nagaswamy R
01-Jan-2000

Recently some of the Judges of the High court were transferred from one place to another. This attracted the attention of the public from different angles. The transfers were effected,according to the authorities, to maintain the highest standards of the judiciary and improve its efficiency. Others questioned this stand and imputed motive. Even one of the judges expressed his disappointment over the transfers. In this connection an ancient lithic (epigraphic)record dated over one thousand years ago, regarding limitation of service tenure of the Judges, would come as a revelation to those interested in the history of Ancient Indian Judiciary.
The record is dated 930 CE, in the reign of the Chola King Parāntaka,and is found on a ceiling slab of the Bhaktavatsala temple of Thiruninravur near Madras, Tamilnadu. It is engraved in Tamil letters and relates to the constitution of Judiciary and the limitation of their service.
Before the inscription is studied, it is necessary to note that the Chola emperors, aimed at superlative efficiency in all walks of public administration and did achieve splendid standards, which even modern administrators would envy. The famous Uttaramerur inscription, relating to the qualifications, dis-qualifications, and process of election to the village assembly is an instant, well-known. Two important records from Tamilnad, give a vivid picture of the constitution of judiciary in ancient times. One is an 8th cent. record that comes from the Pāṇḍya country and the other 10th cent. record,from a place near Madras, mentioned above.
The judiciary was by and large in the hands of elected village elders,and only in exceptional cases went to the territorial assemblies or ultimately to the King's council. The village courts served as the main back bone of judicial system in ancient India. Called the Panchāyat system, in modern times, the village judiciary is mostly misunderstood, as the collective decision of the elders, without the application of any legal procedures known to present times. Most historians held that the legal-judicial system came to be introduced and learned only after the advent of European rule in India. The 8th cent. record from Pāṇḍyan country, disproves this assumption emphatically. This record comes from Manur, in Tirunelveli district,and is virtually a written constitution of the village, regarding the election of judges to the village court. The entire village assembly met and drafted the constitution for selecting Judges.
The first qualification prescribed was that a person to be elected as a judge should be a master of at least one legal treatise. The legal treatises are known as dharma sāstras and there were many schools of dharma sāstras like Manu, Yājñavalkya, Bṛhaspati, Parāsara and others. The one who was to be elected as a Judge, should be a master of at the least one dharma sāstra, which means that the village courts were presided over by legal experts and not by casual elders, as is commonly understood. There were strict legal procedures to be adopted,before the case is taken to the village courts.
The Manur record also specifies that the person to be elected to the court should be one, known for his sterling conduct (su vrittarāy iṟuppar). The village assembly should accept the person to be of good conduct to be elected. Since this village was a Brāhmin settlement, it further prescribed that a person to be elected should be a master of one Veda and one Brāhmaṇa text. It is not mere knowledge, that was wanted, but he should have appeared for an examination in one Veda and one Brāhmaṇa,and passed the test. There are other aspects mentioned in the record with which we are not concerned here. Thus the above record, stipulates, virtuous conduct, a pass in the stipulated examination and mastery of one law book as basic requirements for being elected to the court. This record does not, however, stipulate the duration for which he can serve or if he has served once the interval that was required for re-election.
This gap is filled up by the Thiruninravur record of 10th cent. mentioned earlier. It mainly addresses itself to the interval that was absolutely needed to serve in the same court. The Thiruninravur record is also a written constitution of the village judiciary drafted by the whole village assembly, which met for the purpose in 930 CE is clear. That the village judiciary and administrative committees were elected to serve for one term.
Once the elected judges have served for one term,they should not be elected for another five years to serve not only as judges but also in other administrative committees.The restriction of five year interval was reduced to two years in the case of relatives like fathers,brothers or sons of those who had served once.
It was thus made obligatory on the part of the judges not to serve two terms consequently in the same court within an interval of five years, once he has served in the court. His close relatives could not also aspire to become Judges within two years of his service.
It is pertinent to recall the qualification stipulated for a Judge of the village court; a pass in the prescribed examination, mastery of a legal text and above all noble conduct. The dharma sāstras insist on the sanctity of judicial pronouncement, failing which, the judge was liable for punishment and would also incur a sin and his emancipation was in danger. Inspite of such strict standards, like upright judgements, good conduct, and high qualifications, his tenure was limited, and that he could not serve in the same court for five years subsequently.
This indicates the height to which the standards of judicial administration was taken in the Chola period in the l0th and 11th cent. C.E.
Whether this system could be applied in modern times is not the concern of this article. The Standards are different now. But it does focus attention on the history of ancient Indian Judiciary, often labelled Pancāyat system which is brushed aside as a collective conventional decision, rather than based on written constitution and legal system. The ancient Indian Judiciary functioned only with solid legal procedures and written constitution (called Lekhya Pramāṇam). In view of the importance of Thiruninravur constitution, an English rendering of the record is given below.
This is the resolution adopted for the prosperity of our village, with effect from the month of Kumbha in the 23rd year, by us the members of the great assembly, which include (1) the judicial assembly, (2) the tank maintenance committee ( eri variya perumakkaḷ ). (3) the garden maintenance committee ( Totta Variya Perumakkaḷ ), (4) the exponents of Sāstras (Bhattas) and (5) the great men ( Visiṣhṭa Perumakkaḷ ) and who assembled in full, inclusive of the young and the old, in the great hall of our village on this day :
When the judicial assembly and the (various) committees are to be constituted from this year onwards, the great assembly (mahāsabha) should meet in full in the Brahmasthāna of our village, and select only those who are acceptable to the Mahāsabha: Those who are so selected should not have served in judicial capacity or in the (administrative) committees within five years, prior (to the date of selection),
The brothers, fathers and sons of those who served (within) two years prior (to the date of selection), should be excluded.
One who is so selected, should not be demanded to do (other)obligatory services, while serving in the Mahāsabha.
Those who demand other obligatory services from such selected persons, contrary to this resolution, are proclaimed offenders of the village.
They (the selected) will receive one "Kunri" of gold per duration?
Those who complete their service, in the judicial assembly, and the (other) committees, should, settle and hand over accounts to the assembly.
We the members of the great assembly resolved thus.
Those who act contrary to this resolution, should pay twenty five "Kalañcu" of gold as fine at the court ("dharmasana") at the request of the shareholders of "Sravanai" of our village.
This resolution (may be) inscribed on stone.
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