Centenary of a famous criminal lawyer, doughty defender of party colleagues

Associates recall veteran advocate NT Vanamamalai’s traits on his centenary; NTV was a dedicated Communist and had a sound knowledge of criminal law, says Justice K. Chandru

Associates recall veteran advocate NT Vanamamalai’s traits on his centenary; NTV was a dedicated Communist and had a sound knowledge of criminal law, says Justice K. Chandru

Just before the sessions court in Tirunelveli was to pronounce the verdict in the famous ‘Nellai Conspiracy’ case against Communist leaders in 1952, there was speculation that at least two of the accused persons would get the death penalty and the others would get life imprisonment.

But the judge, while acquitting 51 accused persons, awarded life sentence and rigorous imprisonment to the Communist leaders, including R. Nallakannu, P. Manickam and Mayandi Bharathi. The defense lawyer was Nanguneri Thiruvenkatachari Vanamamalai, well-known as NTV, whose birth centenary fell on Thursday.

“The judge said he had not awarded the death sentence to anyone because of the way in which NTV conducted the case and the accused conducted themselves during the trial,” recalled V. Gopinath, senior advocate and brother-in-law of NTV. They worked together under Communist-turned-Congress Minister and barrister Mohan Kumaramangalam.

The Life and Time of NT Vanamamalai, authored by advocate S. Arunachalam, recalls the speech of Mayandi Bharathi at a condolence meeting for NTV, crediting him with helping them avoid the death sentence. Vanamamalai, who excelled as a criminal lawyer, was also a member of the Communist Party of India (CPI). He did not charge any fee while appearing for his partymen.

“Fee has never been a criterion. He would appear free for party cases and encourage us to appear for them too. When a teachers’ union came forward to pay him for arguing a case, he refused to accept it,” recalled Justice KN Basha, a retired judge of the Madras High Court and a junior of NTV in his days as a lawyer.

Mr. Basha said NTV declined to hold any office, including that of the Advocate-General of Tamil Nadu and the post of a judge. “NTV was a brand. If four of his juniors became judges and five of them were designated as senior advocates, it was because we were his juniors. He earned fame and name as an advocate. He respected the dignity of the court and was a master of advocacy,” he added.

Justice K. Chandru said NTV was a dedicated Communist and a professional lawyer, and had a sound knowledge of criminal law. “He was a partyman. But, in handling criminal cases, he did not apply party principles. He appeared free only when partymen were involved,” he added.

Born in Kolkata, where his father Nanguneri Thiruvenkatachari, an industrialist, ran a leather factory, NTV was brought up in orthodox circumstances. His transformation from a pious student to a Communist lawyer was amazing. He studied chemistry at the Presidency College before qualifying as an advocate.

“Since there was no hostel, he stayed in the Vanamamalai Mutt at Triplicane. Even while studying at law college, he sported a ‘kudumi’ (tuft) and was well-versed in The Naalayaira Divya Prabandham and Sanskrit slokas,” said Mr. Gopinath. He was practicing in Tirunelveli and came to Chennai in 1964.

NTV became popular after he defended actor MR Radha, who was arrested for shooting matinee idol and political leader MG Ramachandran, who went on to become the Chief Minister.

“He conducted the case so well. He never offended MGR [when he was cross-examined] and never asked any question about his character, although many people were instructing him to ask all kinds of questions with a view to launching character assassination,” Mr. Gopinath recalled.

In fact, MGR had great respect for him. After the cross-examination, he would have a chat with NTV. He even engaged him for a couple of cases when the AIADMK was elected to power. He also examined DMK leader M. Karunanidhi during the inquiry conducted by the Justice RS Sarkaria Commission as counsel for the CBI.

As a CPI member, he was actively involved in the activities of the Indo-Soviet Cultural Society (ISCUS), until his death in 2006, and was its secretary-general. “Once he took me to meet MGR to get some donations. When MGR offered ₹1 lakh, NTV said ₹5,000 was enough. His argument was that the party could collect money from members of the public, but should not get a large amount from individuals. He was a great humanist,” recalled P. Thangappan, secretary of the Indian Society for Cultural Co-operation and Friendship, the present avatar of ISCUS.

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