Justice M.M. Ismail was the Chief Justice of the Madras High Court from November 6, 1971 to January 19, 1981.

Thanks to Madras High Court Chief Justice V.K.Tahilramani’s protest resignation over  transfer  from a 75-judges Madras High Court to a3-judges Meghalaya High Court, newspapers such as  Daily Thanthi and  The Hindu remind us of a similar protest resignation by Justice M.M.Ismail, then Chief Justice of the Madras High Court,in 1981. Justice M.M.Ismail was heading the Madras High Court from November 6,1971 to January 19, 1981. He resigned over his transfer as the Chief Justice of Kerala High Court.

The role of Justice M.M.Ismail as Chief Justice of theMadras High Court may not be part of the public memory. However, his role as the biggest defender of Lord Rama in Tamil Nadu is still in public memory. One of his important works is Moondru Vinaakkal (Three Questions) in Tamil published in August 1985. This book is about the killing of Vali, the monkey king of Kishkindha, by Rama. A 415-page work, this book dealt with the three questions: 1.Why should Vali be killed by Lord Ram? 2.Is the method adopted by Lord Ram to kill Vali justified? 3.Has the method adopted by Lord Ram to kill Vali dented the image of Lord Ram?

Justice M.M.Ismail is subtle and nuanced in his arguments, quoting both the Valmiki and the Kambar (who composed Ramayana in Tamil) versions of Ramayana. Rama understands that he requires the friendship of Sugreeva to rescue Sita who was abducted by Ravana. Sugreeva urges Rama to kill his elder brother Vali, the powerful monkey king of Kishkindha. Given the fact that the support of Sugreeva is essential to rescue Sita, Rama is obliged to heed his request to kill Vali. Sugreeva and Hanuman narrated the story of how Sugreeva’s wife was forcibly abducted by Vali.

Rama could empathize with Sugreeva as he found himself in a similar situation. Sita being forcibly taken away from him. Rama justifies the killing of Vali citing the fact that the latter usurped Sugreeva’s wife against the principles of Dharma. Ismail introduces the question: Who has given Rama the authority to punish Vali for his wrongdoing? Rama answers this question, in Kambar’s verses, saying that he has punished Vali to reward his dearest friend Sugreeva.

When Vali says that the dharma of human race may not be applied to the world of monkeys, Rama counters this saying that Vali has read the scriptures and hence should follow them. This is a contentious argument, says Ismail. However, Ismail continues, the epic of Ramayana goes on to proclaim that the principles of Dharma are universal – be it in the world of humans or that of animals.

Vali wanted to understand if Rama can act in a partisan manner. Rama does not answer this question. The fact that Ravana befriended Vali and both have been allies is an integral part of this story. The purpose of Vali’s birth is to assist Rama in the killing of Ravana, says Ismail quoting both Valmiki and Kambar. As Vali forgets the very aim of his life, he deserves to be punished in this life so that he attains the final redemption.

Vali’s act of excess in usurping Ruma, wife of his younger brother Sugreeva, makes it mandatory for Rama to kill him. Though Vali is physically much more stronger than his sibling Sugreeva, Rama cannot take his help as he has committed a grave mistake by abducting his younger brother’s wife. In the narrative of Ramayana, it becomes important to kill Vali before the killing of Ravana.

Rama hid himself behind trees and aimed an arrow at the chest of Vali while Sugreeva engaged Vali in a battle for the second day. Vali died after raising several ethical questions to Rama. Ismail relies on the arguments of V.S.Srinivasa Sastry (Lectures on The Ramayana) to justify the actions of Rama in this context. The war between Rama and Ravana lasted seven days. Taking into account the fact that Vali was more powerful than Ravana, a direct battle could have lasted at least eight days. This could have led to Sugreeva’s loss of faith. Rama’s strategy is to fulfill the promise made to his best friend Sugreeva that he would kill Vali the next day. And to restore the faith of Sugreeva who lost badly in the first day of the battle with his elder brother.

Kambar’s Ramayana verses say that punishing the usurper of someone else’s wife and sending a strong message to the world is far more important than the ethics of battle in this situation. Though Rama is an avatar of Lord Vishnu, he lives as a human throughout the epic of Ramayana. Some commentators like Pazha.Rathinam Chettiar go to the extent of saying that it is only after the killing of Ravana, Rama is reminded by Bramma that he is an avatar of Vishnu. Quoting eclectic resources, Ismail says that Rama has always been conscious that he is an avatar. 

At his deathbed, Vali asks Rama to give asylum to his son Angathan. Rama hands over his sword to Angathan, marking the acceptance of Vali’s last wish. In Kambar’s Ramayana, Rama seeks Angathan’s forgiveness while handing over the sword to him. Asking for forgiveness has raised Rama’s stature to a higher human according to Ismail. 

Rama regrets, in Kambar’s Ramayana verse 4137, that he has not followed ‘Dharma’ in the killing of Vali and vows to remedy the mistake by“meditation.” This particular verse reinforces Vali’s accusation in Kambar’s Ramayana verse 4014 where Rama is seen as flouting the best practices of war. Having regretted the mistake and understood the fallout it may have on the new regime, Rama sends Hanuman to Kishkindha to assist Sugreeva in running the country, interprets Ismail.

The defence of Rama by Ismail uses the rich language Kambar has used in his Ramayana. Ismail, a Gandhian, has done this in the 1970s, 1980s in Tamil Nadu at a time when there was a proliferation of literature having Ravana as the protagonist. Most of the Ravana-centric literature have their origins in Ravavana Kaviyam authored by Tamil poet Kuzhanthai in 1946. 

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