Lawyers who were familiar with his many legal battles used to call him ‘Pulival Johnson’. Pulival refers to someone who constantly gets himself into trouble. But if Johnson D’Cruz – the 75-year-old man who killed himself by jumping from the seventh floor of the Kerala High Court on March 30 – was often in the middle of legal troubles, it was never for himself.
Johnson, say those who knew him well, fought long and solitary battles for common people whose voices were otherwise never heard. Johnson, a native of Karikuzhi, Kollam first displayed an independent streak when he left home on his own at the age of 11 without his family’s knowledge in 1952. Though no one knows the details of where he went or why he left, it seems he travelled all over the country, learning many languages in the process. Eventually, Johnson ended up in Bokaro, then in Bihar and now a part of Jharkhand, getting back in touch with the family after many years.
But it was in the 1980 March that his family first discovered that he was a man with a social conscience, when he protested in front of Parliament demanding justice for a nurse killed in Nagpur. The protest he undertook then was a painful one, with Johnson binding himself with iron nails. This protest marked the beginning of many other campaigns the Karikuzhi native undertook, fighting for justice in a variety of cases. His main mode of agitation was to write letters to various authorities. Beginning in 1977, Johnson wrote scores of letters to authorities at various levels of bureaucracy and government, and continued to do so till the end of his days. “He didn’t know how to write. He was able to speak many languages including Bengali, Tamil and Hindi. But his writing skill was very poor. The method was that he would dictate and others would write. Till the time I got married I wrote the petitions that he dictated,” says his niece Laila Titus.
Johnson’s many letters to MLAs and Ministers over the years are a valuable record of public history, says Borish Paul, a Kollam-based lawyer who helped the activist draft his legal petitions. Laila remembers visiting leaders like the CPI (M)’s EK Nayanar with her uncle. Johnson’s collection of letters includes within it signatures of the likes of Nayanar, former Chief Minister of Kerala, CPI (M) stalwart and first Chief Minister of the state EMS Namboothiripad, senior Congress leader AK Antony and many other figures in Kerala’s political history. But Johnson was not merely a letter writer. In events such as the 1988 Peruman tragedy in Kerala, he actively contributed to the welfare of those affected, and hence became a familiar figure to the people of Kollam. The Peruman tragedy involved the death of 105 people when the Bangalore-Thiruvananathpuram Island Express derailed near Peruman in Kollam.
“He used to collect money from the local people in Bokaro and send money orders to the Peruman panchayat. He continued it for a while,” says Titus, Laila’s husband and president Cooperative Bank Punalur.
But it wasn’t just towards strangers that Johnson showed so much kindness. He also ensured that the families of his siblings received all the help he could give. In 1965 Johnson started a Chinese restaurant in Bokaro called Hong Kong Grill. A year later he brought all of his siblings and their children over to Bokaro. “We all lived like a joint family. He took care of all of us, educated us in the top missionary school there, fixed marriage alliances for us. He spent half of his earnings on us and the other half to pay for litigation costs,” Laila recalls.
Hong Kong Grill later transformed into a south Indian restaurant. “He also started a stationary shop. There were ups and downs in business and life. But he was there to lead us. He never gave up easily. When he fought for a cause, he made sure that he won,” says Laila’s brother, also Johnson D’Cruz. In the beginning of the 1980’s Johnson began a business of selling modified bikes. He would buy bikes from Bokaro, modify them and sell them in Kerala. In business too, he did not hesitate to turn to the courts when government agencies threw up problems.
When eight motorbikes were lost in transit from Bokaro to Kerala, for instance, he successfully fought a case against the Railways for compensation. “He carried the fight forward. Finally the Railways gave us compensation and we also got the bikes back,” says Sajan D’Cruz, the youngest of the children of Johnson’s brother, Anachalose D'Cruz. In the beginning of the 1990s, Johnson moved back to Kerala, to live with Anchalose’s family in Karikuzhi, carrying on the motorbike business with Sajan.
Here too, he continued his legal activism, launching campaigns for a number of cases such as when patients were denied their rights and not offered proper treatment at government hospitals. In 2006, when a patient at the Kollam District Hospital was beaten and killed by a security officer, Johnson filed a complaint with the Human Rights Commission, following through on the case even after the victim’s family had given up. This time too Johnson protested in front of the Secretariat bound in iron rods. “Even when the patient’s family members didn’t appear, he didn’t give up. Finally the family of the patient got Rs 5 lakh as compensation,” says Borish.
Sasi Josh a government employee and a local resident of Karikuzhi said that Johnson was a model for them. “He was a miracle. Nothing could temper his spirit. He never revealed to anyone that he was an activist. He fought his battles silently. He never wanted to take the credit for anything.” Johnson’s extreme step too came in relation to a legal battle he was fighting against local government authorities. The battle began in 2006 over a project to widen by-lanes being carried out by the Perayam Panchayat.
Johnson’s family had given up land for the road-widening project, carried out with panchayat funds. The project, however, put the D’Cruz family’s home at risk, since the house stood higher than the road, and soil erosion during rains threatened its stability. “Therefore he approached the panchayat to build retaining wall and it was mandatory for the panchayat to do that,” says Borish. When the Chittumala Block Panchayat, under which the Perayam Panchayat falls, turned a blind eye to his demand, Johnson turned to the Munsif Court.
However, despite a favourable order from the Court, the Panchayat delayed executing it. Johnson took the case to the High Court in 2007, which returned it to the Munsif Court, but ordered the Panchayat to pay Rs 10,000 as compensation for Johnson’s legal expenses. In 2011, Johnson received a second favourable verdict from the lower court, but the case was still entangled in procedural delays. “The execution proceedings of the order have been going on. In civil cases, it’s normal. But for man like Johnson the delay might have become unbearable. If he killed himself, it would have been for a cause. He used to tell me many times that he was ready to give his life for a public cause. He had once also warned a District Collector likewise, while approaching him with a petition. But I never thought he would do it,” Borish explains.
While it isn’t clear why Johnson was in the High Court or what exactly made him take the final step, Borish believes that like everything else in his final days, Johnson’s final trip was to approach the administrative wing to complain about the delay of the Panchayat in executing the Munsif Court’s orders. Laila and her siblings say that they will now carry forward their uncle’s fight. Referring to a photograph many Malayalam dailies carried of Johnson’s last moments in the Kerala High Court, Laila says, “You saw the photo when he jumped from the High Court building. He was smiling. He never gave up.”