In 1975, Dola Muthaiah, a man in his 30s from a Scheduled Caste community, was taken into police custody, allegedly for theft. Within months, he was killed in jail in the Vemsoor limits of Khammam district in the Telangana region. At the time, not many from marginalised communities knew that they could fight their cases in court. This is the family history that Subbarao grew up hearing. The story of Dola Muthaiah, his grandfather, pushed the 27-year-old to start a free legal service in Telangana four years ago, as soon as he graduated with a law degree from Osmania University.
Relating the story of his grandfatherâs case, Subbarao says, âMany of them thought that police beatings were normal for them. There was no one to throw light on the issue and say that it is against the law and action should be taken on the police.â
âI did my law degree with the very aim to provide free legal service to people who cannot afford them, and to revive faith in the justice system,â he says. Subbarao now runs a free legal service with the help of two other lawyers, N Yadeeshwar and Govardhan, who joined Subbarao in his work last year.
Similar to the story of Jai Bhim, which was released on Amazon Prime Video recently, Subbaraoâs family has experienced several instances of police brutality and made to accept out-of-court settlements. These incidents only fueled his need to fight for justice, he says. âIn my childhood, a person from a [dominant] caste had a fight with my father. I also injured my hand in that fight. The scar still remains on my skin. We approached the police station to file a complaint, but later on the police were bribed by the accused. He was even given a seat and made us leave the station,â alleges Subbarao.
Subbarao now goes from district to district in Telangana and holds camps for SC and ST communities to increase awareness about atrocities that can occur in cases and how they can fight for justice. If there are cases still pending, the team makes independent inquiries and files protest petitions to revive those cases in court.
So far, Subbarao and his team have looked at about 150 court cases, 30 of which were won by them. Several other cases are still ongoing. Currently, free legal aid is being provided to people from Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, OBCs and other minorities whose income is less than Rs 3 lakh per annum.
âWe don't take any fees from them. Those who can afford it sometimes give us travel and food expenses. But in most cases, the victims themselves are not in a position to travel to fight their case. We try to stay afloat financially through other cases where clients can afford to pay the fees,â explains Subbarao.
Being a former student of Osmania University also helped in building his network. âThe All India Samata Sainik Dal, Madiga Students Federation and other associations continue to bring cases to our notice. In fighting these cases, we also motivate and take help from junior lawyers in that region to increase their awareness,â he adds.
In one recent case, a Dalit woman was allegedly trapped and sexually assaulted by a dominant caste man in 2013. He allegedly tried to kill her after impregnating her when the woman sought a marriage proposal. Seeking justice, she approached Subbaraoâs free legal aid service through an organisation. He took up the case in April 2021 in the Nalgonda district court, and after months of hearings the court recently passed a judgement that the victim should be paid Rs 8000 per month as financial assistance by the accusedâs family. Now, the free legal aid team is continuing the case to fight for a share in the accusedâs property for the womanâs son.
But dealing with such cases is not easy for the team. They get threats from opposing parties, police, lawyers, and more. âThere are threats, but what can they do? When some lawyers threaten, I tell them that I'll complain to the Bar Council.â
Subbarao, however, is not financially stable himself though he offers his legal services for free. His mother is a daily wage labourer and his father has a physical disability. âI recently bought a second hand Scooty to go to the court. Before that, I used to walk and use public transport.â
He also received help in completing his education. âAfter my graduation, I was not in a position to afford my law degree. My professors, Surya Dhanunjay and Acharya Vardhini from OU, helped me. Till date, they help me with travel expenses whenever needed. I'm very thankful to them.â
Despite his financial condition, Subbarao says that his fatherâs words help him continue his services without regret. âThough we are from a poor family, my father has Left-leaning ideologies. He always says, âWe are going to live only for a while on this earth, we are not going to take any property when we die. The help that we give a couple of people like us is what people are going to remember.â This is the foundation that I grew up with.â
Subbarao is not only a lawyer but also a professional Kuchipudi dancer, who teaches dance for free to the children in a juvenile home in Chanchalguda jail in Hyderabad. âMy father questioned the notion that people from Scheduled Castes canât learn Kuchipudi and taught me the same,â says Subbarao.
Though people have come forward to offer funds for Subbaraoâs services, he is not accepting monetary support right now. âIf anyone wants to help us, they can help us with travel tickets or food expenses. We don't want to take any money from anyone for any other purposes.â
âFor people struggling for justice, we should change the idea that courts canât help. When a crime happens, it should not be settled in a police station on the whims and fancies of the oppressor. The court should offer them a solution. No one should be left behind,â says Subbarao.
Subbarao and his team can be contacted through 8499842988 for legal support.