Police vs lawyers

Published : Mar 27, 2009 00:00 IST

Justice B.N. Srikrishna (left) inspecting the damage to buildings on the Madras High Court premises in Chennai on February 28.-R. RAGU Justice B.N. Srikrishna (left) inspecting the damage to buildings on the Madras High Court premises in Chennai on February 28.

Justice B.N. Srikrishna (left) inspecting the damage to buildings on the Madras High Court premises in Chennai on February 28.-R. RAGU Justice B.N. Srikrishna (left) inspecting the damage to buildings on the Madras High Court premises in Chennai on February 28.

THE recent violence involving lawyers and policemen on the premises of the Madras High Court was as shameful as it was regrettable. It is widely recognised in Chennai that the clash served only to erode further the already low image of both lawyers and the police. It also raised questions on how far the common man can rely on them to uphold the law of the land in a crisis.

The prompt arrival of Justice B.N. Srikrishna in Chennai at the instance of the Supreme Court and the businesslike manner in which he completed his preliminary inquiry offer hope of an objective reporting of the basic facts to the court. (My own information is that the lawyers did a good job presenting their case, while policemen were extremely defensive and shy of meeting the judge and articulating their point of view. I am, therefore, apprehensive that their case could go by default.)

Justice Srikrishnas inquiry is an essential step forward because, at present, some fundamental facts are garbled and disputed. The rival groups could not have asked for a better assessor of the situation. The judge has an excellent reputation, and the clinical approach he brought to bear upon his investigation into the Mumbai riots several years ago was praised widely. It is an entirely different matter that a biased State government was averse to accepting his findings. A judge who is acclaimed as fearless and non-partisan is the best bet to ferret out basic facts in a situation that is surcharged with emotions and acrimony where truth could be a casualty.

Justice Srikrishna visited the scene and has formed his own impressions. I am sure that he, being a fair-minded person, will go the extra length to find out how both groups behaved. The dominant view is that both sides indulged in riotous and disorderly conduct. Images shown on television channels depicted high-handedness by both sides. Scenes of policemen beating up hapless advocates and also those caught in the crossfire were disgusting. No less revolting were the images of advocates in robes throwing stones at the police. The arson at the police station on the campus is squarely attributed to the lawyers by the police although the lawyers can easily get away by putting the blame on outsiders.

The findings of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which has been permitted to register a case in this regard, is much anticipated. The dilly-dallying that went on before the Union government issued the notification tells yet another tale that smacks of bureaucratic indecision and something more, on which one can at best speculate.

The police are expected to uphold and enforce the law. They do not have the licence to break it, whatever the provocation. The law of the land allows the use of reasonable force to prevent disorder and to intervene in a situation that threatens to disturb the peace. Nothing more, nothing less.

By all accounts, the police were unleashed on the Madras High Court campus on that wholly forgettable afternoon. Any person they came across judge, lawyer or litigant became a target. I do not believe either the Director General of Police (DGP) or the Commissioner of Police can honestly disagree with the conclusion that the police went berserk.

I personally know how difficult it is to control a police contingent that is asked to tackle a mob. This is where good leadership counts. Possibly, the Chennai Police failed to measure up to the required standards at the High Court. They may, therefore, have to pay the penalty.

This is unfortunate because I have heard that the Commissioner of Police is a professional with a good track record. If he is removed, he would be the second Commissioner to be shifted within a space of three months. What more evidence is required to tell the rest of the world that in India policing is a hazardous calling and that it requires extreme political sagacity to survive in sensitive public order assignments. The countrys political masters could not care less when those decisions that impinge on police morale are taken.

The media often bay for police blood when events of the kind that happened in the High Court take place. This time, one was surprised that their responses were refreshingly different and bold. To quote from what The Hindu wrote in its editorial on February 28:

The police action in the court no doubt merited serious concern and urgent response. But to consider only the police excesses, ignoring the circumstances and the situation prevailing on the court premises on that day, and to pin the entire blame for the happenings on the police personnel will be wholly unfair. With a police station already established and strengthened by a judicial order within the court complex, the police did not need permission from the court for their presence on the premises.

Policing the police remains a serious concern in Indian democracy, and the same is true of bringing lawyers within the purview of law. The lawyers are yet to withdraw the strike despite repeated appeals by the Supreme Court. In the context of the Madras High Court, sections of lawyers have, taking advantage of their proximity to the judiciary, defied the law with little fear of the consequences. It would be unfortunate if an impression were to be created that the judiciary can be persuaded to protect the sectional interests of lawyers rather than uphold the rule of law in its entirety.

V. Sudarshan writing in The New Indian Express (February 27) said:

[T]here are an unenviable number of cases against advocates for unruly behaviour that the police have failed to follow up conclusively. This laissez faire attitude emboldens the errant into thinking they can get away with acts considered unacceptable in civilised circles. That such incidents can occur in the presence of judges is something that should make not only us but also the judiciary wonder what the nature of the ailment is. If lawyers take law into their own hands in the presence of judges, can we not assume that they feel entitled to do so? Day after day lawyers prevented court proceedings with impunity. Whenever a cognisable offence is patently being committed, should permission be required to take action against the perpetrators?

One should be thankful to the two newspapers for placing the basic facts with such clarity and candour. Just as there has been an influx of undesirable and even anti-social elements into the police all over the country, the legal fraternity has also drawn questionable individuals into its ranks. The frequent events in the Madras Law College are an example of how the source of recruitment to the Bar has been polluted. The popular impression is that such elements have been treated with kid gloves not only by professional bodies such as the Bar Council of India and the Advocates Association but by the judiciary itself.

It is this laxity that has encouraged lawlessness by small groups of advocates across the nation. The attack by some lawyers on Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy right in the court hall in the presence of a judge bears testimony to this. Apart from criminal action, is not action to suspend their right to practice law warranted? This, especially when the identity of at least some, if not all, of the miscreants has been established beyond doubt. If this group goes scot-free, it will be seen as encouragement for such misbehaviour in the future.

Slogan-shouting for political causes within court premises is a Madras High Court specialty, and nothing has been done to put down this undesirable practice. The division of the Bar into rival factions owing allegiance to the two major political formations in the State is the cause for the present ills of the Madras Bar. There seems to be no hope for depoliticising the atmosphere on the High Court premises because all political parties in the State are enlisting advocates for their cause.

In the final analysis, ones concern is not about who gets indicted and who does not but about the immense damage done to the system. The public have lost faith in both the police and the legal profession. What the common man wants is not the quality of their services but their basic capacity to come to the communitys succour.

The average litigant has suffered badly by the prolonged closure of courts. His voice is hardly heard, and he has no recourse to speedy justice. This is appalling. It is time to rise as one man and counsel the policeman and the lawyer. If neither listens, the only recourse will be to approach the Supreme Court seeking a ban on strikes by lawyers. Fanciful as this may seem, one cannot think of any other means by which respectability to Indian courts can be restored.

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