A determined fight

Published : May 20, 2005 00:00 IST

Biman Bose, chairman of West Bengal's ruling Left Front, takes to the Supreme Court, with popular support, his case against a High Court order sentencing him to three days in prison for contempt of court.

IN an important development concerning the judiciary and the political executive, the Supreme Court on April 26 stayed the Kolkata High Court order that sentenced Biman Bose, Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and chairman of West Bengal's ruling Left Front, to three days' imprisonment and a fine of Rs.10,000 for criminal contempt of court.

On March 31, Bose was found guilty of criminal contempt by a Division Bench of the High Court comprising Justice A.K. Ganguly and Justice S.P. Talukdar on a petition moved by a lawyer, Kallol Guha Thakurta, for allegedly making derogatory observations on a High Court Judge, Amitava Lala, after the latter passed an order in September 2003 banning public rallies in the city between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. on weekdays.

As per newspaper reports on the Supreme Court order, the advocates of Bose, Fali S. Nariman and Bikash Bhattacharya, while moving the petition argued that the criminal contempt petition had been filed without the mandatory consent of the Advocate-General. The High Court Bench had, of course, observed in its judgment that it had initiated the contempt proceedings suo motu (which obviated the need for the Advocate-General's consent). But Nariman argued that since "the judgment begins with the contempt petition filed by an advocate and ends with its disposal without order as to costs in favour of the petitioner", it was clear that the Judges had not acted suo motu. "Had they done so, how could they have issued notice on the petition? Besides, they had no jurisdiction to initiate criminal contempt proceedings suo motu," Nariman argued before the Supreme Court Bench of Justices Y.K. Sabharwal and Tarun Chatterjee.

It all started when on September 24, 2003, Justice Amitava Lala was held up for one and a half hours in a traffic jam caused by a rally by tribal communities. The Judge passed an order on a suo motu contempt notice against the Kolkata Police, and banned all rallies in the city on weekdays between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. Even on weekends and holidays, rallies and processions were restricted to three venues - the Brigade Parade Ground, Rani Rasmoni Road and Sahid Minar. The order also stated that processions should not block traffic in any way, and if they did, people thus inconvenienced would be due for compensation paid out of security deposits placed with the traffic police by the rally organisers. Most political parties in West Bengal set aside their political differences to stand united in their objection to this order. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was the only party to welcome it.

On October 8, the Left Front organised a convention to protest against the order. Almost all senior leaders were present, including former Chief Minister Jyoti Basu, who said at that time: "How can someone take away our right to protest and at the same time expect people to continue to have respect for the judiciary?"

Rallies protesting against the order were organised by various political parties, including the Socialist Unity Centre of India and the Communist Party of India-Marxist Leninist (Liberation). The largest, with 25,000 students and youth activists, was organised by the Democratic Youth Federation of India on October 13.

The Division Bench, which summoned reporters from three newspapers to the court for deposition, also collected video clippings of the news conference where the Left Front chairman supposedly made derogatory comments on Justice Lala. The Judge, meanwhile, was transferred out of Bengal.

The High Court verdict stunned not just Left Front supporters, but also the public in general. As chairman of the ruling Left Front, Bose has been a key person in the running of the State for close to 30 years. After the verdict came, he said: "I have been in politics for many years now and even today am in touch with the common man for at least 18 hours a day. So, I am in a position to understand the people's pulse on issues such as this one." Bose's rapport with the people became all the more evident in the manner in which they stood by him.

On April 15 - the Bengali New Year Day or Poila Baisakh - Bose, along with a host of Left activists, took to the streets with plastic buckets seeking contributions from the public to meet the expenses of fighting his case in the Supreme Court. "We would like to fight our case with the support of the people," Bose said. CPI(M) State secretary and fellow Polit Bureau member Anil Biswas said: "The idea is not merely collecting funds. It is a campaign to generate consciousness among the people, protect the democratic rights of the people, and at the same time maintain the prestige of the judiciary."

Contributors flocked in their hundreds to the CPI(M) headquarters at Alimuddin Street to drop a rupee each into the buckets (nothing more than that was accepted from each person). Some contributed slightly larger sums - Rs.50 or Rs.20 - on behalf of the members of their families and occasionally on behalf of their clubs and organisations. One such organisation, comprising women from Bhangar, contributed Rs.35,000. The massive turnout and the enthusiasm of the people of Kolkata as they rallied round the chairman of the Left Front was evidence of what they thought about the High Court verdict.

Jyoti Basu contributed a two-rupee coin, which he gave to Kali Ghosh, State secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), at a rally of Left trade unions on April 17. ``Biman Bose is facing problems from the judiciary for a comment he made to uphold the rights of the people. The people of Bengal have come forward with their contribution of one rupee each. Today Jyoti Babu is coming forward with his own contribution,'' announced Shyamal Chakrabarthy, State CITU president, as Basu gave his coin.

The BJP, which decided to contest Bose's appeal in the Supreme Court, tried its hand at a fund-raising campaign. But that proved to be more of a source of embarrassment for the party, considering the measly amount that collected at the bottom of its collection box. Never one at a loss for words, Bose called the BJP a "copy cat", and said in his inimitable way: "I know that students copy during their exams, but this is the first time that I have seen anyone copying political strategies."

Even in New Delhi, where Bose went on a fund collection drive, people's support was overwhelming. Among those who were present to stand beside Bose was CPI(M) general secretary Prakash Karat, Polit Bureau member Brinda Karat, Forward Bloc leader G. Devarajan and Communist Party of India leader D. Raja. "The issue is not only about Biman Bose but the manner in which courts have been passing orders infringing on the democratic rights of the people," Karat is reported to have said at the event. A street play was organised by the Jan Natya Manch, criticising the attitude of the judiciary.

The contempt case against Bose has assumed importance not just because the accused happens to be a political heavyweight, nor because the sentence is harsher than the usual apologies demanded in such cases, but because it brings into focus a principle long cherished by left-wing activists. Strikes may no longer be the order of the day in the West, and the world may have changed a great deal since George Sorel and his Syndicalist followers dreamt of a general strike to bring the capitalist system to its knees; but strikes continue to be an important weapon for the working class in a fast globalising world.

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